LAFAYETTE -- Having searched philosophy from Confucius to Kierkegaard for answers to life's fundamental, existential questions, sculptor Colin Selig has found his truth in a most unlikely place -- the rusted, discarded hulls of propane tanks.
The Lafayette artist has attracted national attention and industry awards with the soaring, spectacularly sustainable benches he creates from Big Oil's refuse.
At the April 2012 Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., Selig won the "Exhibitors' Choice Gold Award" and five months later, he captured the "Most Interesting Product" prize at the American Society of Landscape Architects Expo.
In Walnut Creek, his Think:Tank fabrications have been found in downtown's City Hall lobby, the Bedford Gallery and in the new Neiman Marcus store.
On the grounds of the 22-acre community residence where he lives, brilliantly-colored benches and chairs dot the landscape like fanciful aircraft arriving from outer space.
"Try it," Selig urges, wiping away recently-fallen raindrops.
The gently arcing back and seat, set in specific ratio of height and angle for lumbar support, but not altered from the tank's original curvature, is immensely comfortable.
Selig tested his first models on tiny (4'11") and tall (6'5") people and uses only basic tools -- a plasma cutter, a welding rod and a 3D template model, used to determine the most ergonomic positioning.
Before benches, it was a metalworking apprenticeship and race car fabrication, and before that, it was an absent-minded professor father and a mother who encouraged her son's uncanny ability to fix broken appliances.
"When I was a kid, I'd take things out of the neighbor's garbage and try to make them work. I remember one; a spring had come off a hook. I just hooked it back up and bingo, I had a perfectly functioning bathroom scale," he says, grinning at the memory.
Years later, an ultimatum from life partner Janet Riabaldi -- that he "do something with this tank or get rid of it" -- set him on the meteoric trajectory he is riding.
"Winning the award at the Smithsonian, when I entered on a whim, was surreal. I'm still flying high. It gave me energy to keep going."
As the son of an environmental lawyer father, Selig says he has always been aware of the planet's fragile ecosystem. Conservation and reuse were everyday practices in his childhood home and one reason he has filed for a patent.
"My vision is to be the Eames of public seating," he says, a reference to designers Charles and Ray Eames. "These tanks are all over the world. As soon as you have a certain amount of corrosion or structural damage, they're classified as junk. Ultimately, I'll license my designs and have these seats made by local welders with locally sourced tanks."
Selig buys his tanks from a local propane company for a few hundred dollars apiece. After designing and cutting the bench ends, he welds the back and seat to the ends; resulting in a 99.9% post-consumer-recycled product. A local company sandblasts, primes and applies an industrial urethane color coating to complete the process.
The largest benches weigh close to 500 pounds and retail for $8,500 to $9,800. Chairs and love seats are priced from $4,000 to $7,800.
The numbers fail to describe the sweep of his work. Whether referencing Salvador Dali's "Mae West" sofa with bold, ruby-red "lip" benches, or boggling the mind of the best engineers with stunning, continuous-piece asymmetrical chairs, Selig has full command of his craft. Despite his work's obvious solidity, the benches appear poised to launch, like whimsical, flying (steel) carpets.
Suspended between the fine art and functional design worlds, Selig says his work "flies in the face of certain people's idea of art," but insists he sees "no reason to give up aesthetics for form, or vice versa." Unlike his Tufts University days as a philosophy major, Selig says he no longer wrestles with existential questions on a daily basis. Instead, he's just a guy attracted to curved shapes.
"Sometimes I see big cement trucks driving by and I think, 'Wow, I could make that into seating!' " he laughs.