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Thinking About Tanks at the Smithsonian Craft Show

Meet sculptor Colin Selig, who uses an interesting material for his benches: obsolete propane tanks.

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Selig's "Propane Tank Lips Bench" references Dali’s "May West Lips Sofa." Image Courtesy of Colin Selig.

Among the 121 artists on display this weekend at the 30th annual Smithsonian Craft Show, Colin Selig’s metal benches struck us as something to write home about. Not because of their functionality, but because of the material with which they’re made: Recycled Propane tanks.

An award-winning metal sculpture artist from Walnut Creek, California, Selig re-purposes discarded propane tanks and converts them into seating suitable for a wide range of indoor and outdoor spaces, in both public and private venues. Their vibrant colors and unique shape make them works of art, yet “people love sitting on them,” Selig says.

Each year at the show, a new jury of three experts brings a fresh perspective to selecting exhibitors for that year’s event. Though Selig’s work has been showcased widely in the San Francisco Bay Area, this is his first showing at the Smithsonian Craft Show. We spoke with Selig over the phone about how his idea to use these propane tanks has exploded in the crafting world.

There are a few other artists featured at the show that specialize in using recycled materials like glassyour sculptures use discarded propane tanks. What inspired you to use this material in the first place and where do you get it?

I’ve been a metal worker my whole life, and I had a large junk propane tank sitting on our property for a couple of decades. My wife finally said to me, ‘Hey, can you do something useful with that instead of just sending it to the recyclers as scrap?’ The curved forms of the tank stimulated my imagination and I began to consider possible ways to dissect and reassemble it into a bench. I’ve always been interested in combining aesthetics with functionality and with recycling and re-purposing.

"Propane Tank #1" has the original warning decal on it to remind viewers of its recycled materials. Image courtesy of Colin Selig.

Can you describe your technique in the design of these benches and chairs? What are you trying to communicate?

First of all, I want to make it clear to the viewer and the user, that these are, in fact, re-purposed materials. That’s why I have not deconstructed the tank beyond recognition. I haven’t cut it up into tiny little pieces and made something new out of it because then you wouldn’t realize what it was originally. For example, with the ones that I’ve painted parchment white, I put the propane warning decal back on.  It’s just to reference the original source material. Part of the message of what I’m doing is that I am transforming a no-longer-wanted junk item and giving it new life. Reuse, recycle—that whole cliché—but it’s true.

How much of the propane tank do you actually use in the creation of these sculptures, and how many chairs can you make out of one propane tank?

The initial tank that I cut up, I made into four different pieces of seating and by the time I was done, I had used 99 percent of the material. I just kept using smaller and smaller pieces. One of the great things is that these tanks have a limited service life—you’re not allowed to repair them, because they are meant to hold gas under pressure. They have a built-in obsolescence when they start to corrode or they’re damaged, so there’s a limitless supply of these tanks—in fact, they’re ubiquitous around the world. The potential exists to produce these seats in volume almost anywhere in the world. They can be made locally with my design and they’d be very green that way.

Do you consider your work to be consistently abstract or do you have some variation?

I consider myself, open minded and I try to draw on a variety of influences. Some of the pieces are purely abstract and play off of the forms within the original tank. Some of the pieces are designed to be purely whimsical and others reference classic furniture. The lips bench references Dali’s May West Sofa, for example.

If they were to be produced in this way, even with your design, where’s the line between that balance of artwork and practicality?

My whole goal is to blur that line completely and say that you don’t have to choose one or the other. My vision would be to have benches like this in mass transit stations and in public parks and commercial settings. I’d like to find somebody to take prototype designs and produce them on a larger scale. I’m a craftsperson so I don’t have any really fancy equipment. I have a way of cutting them up and a way of welding them together. They would be relatively easy to manufacture.

"Propane Armless Chair." Image courtesy of Colin Selig.

Can you tell me a little about your background? You have a degree in Philosophy at Tufts, but at the same time you were studying metal sculpting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

In one sense, my life has been a quest to find a balance between using my head and my hands. If I spend too much time using one and not the other, it’s not as gratifying for me. So, I think I found a perfect medium here for myself.

What is a response people have when you tell them that the benches are made of tanks?

Well, people are surprised, of course, and then they say ‘Oh yeah, I see that!’ Pretty much everyone has seen a propane tank before. It’s not like it’s made of something exotic. I want people to recognize that these are re-purposed materials. A lot depends on how spatially-oriented some people are, but also if someone can’t recognize that this is a propane tank, that’s a good thing too, because it means I’ve done an interesting job with an abstract form.

The Smithsonian Craft Show will be held from April 19-22 at the National Building Museum. Additional information can be found at SmithsonianCraftShow.org

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About K. Annabelle Smith
K. Annabelle Smith

K. Annabelle Smith is a writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico who covers a wide variety of topics for Smithsonian.com. Her work also appears in OutsideOnline.com and Esquire.com.

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