July 22, 2013 Updated: July 22, 2013 at 4:35 pm
Michelangelo gazed upon a slab of marble and saw majestic David.
Gutzon Borglum envisioned the fathers of liberty on a South Dakota mountainside.
Dave Alvarez plucks a handful of used, tall matches from a shelf on his patio and fans them out.
"Look at that. Look how beautiful they are! They're going to be flowers," he says, and for a moment, Alvarez is gone, phased out, screening the possibilities on the back wall of his mind.
Wait a beat.
And he's back, literally shaking off the reverie. In a box over there, an assortment of metal decking straps ("Be careful, they're sharp."), and in that one, scrap wood blocks ("One dollar for the whole box. Can you believe it?"), and in that tote bin over there, inspiring knickknacks gathered over the years.
Alvarez believes in finding the beauty in the things people throw away. Made mostly from salvaged and recycled building materials, found items and - what can we say? - other people's rubbish, his abstract, stylized sculptures are deeply influenced by Native American designs. There's the porcupine made of wood blocks and dowels, the Indian chief whose feather
headdress is wire-brushed closet-door slats, and the silver fox kachina doll with the shelving bracket spine. All are constructed using glue and dry fastenings, like rivets and screws.
"I call it the zen of recycling," says Alvarez, 61, who has Native American blood on both sides of his family. "People don't often know what they have. That's fine. They get rid of it; I'll take it."
Before he could begin creating his sculptures, Alvarez first had to become a collector - a pathological one by some standards. There's an energy of controlled mayhem to the artist's Old Colorado City home - every free foot is claimed by a piece of art, a nifty artifact or vintage find. His back porch workshop and converted garage/studio are stocked Tetris-style with neatly organized boxes and bins full of art waiting to be unleashed. There's the broken guitar, cardboard packaging ("Free!"), the plastic clamshell case from someone's erstwhile Walkman purchase, some mean-looking gutter grate, a 4-in-1 spud wrench that looks like an arm, a bag of mismatched buttons.
"What are you going to do with a bag of buttons? Who knows? But when I need a bag of buttons, I've got a bag of buttons," he says.
Outside, propped against the east side of his house, in a spot where another homeowner might set the garbage cans, Alvarez keeps the larger, weather-safe sculptural elements: beams and posts, long runs of metal that clearly did some architectural heavy-lifting in a former life.
"It's never a pile of trash," says Alvarez. "It's a pile of art."
A Colorado Springs native and father of four, Alvarez studied art and education at the University of Colorado and taught high school art for six years before fiscal necessities drove him to advertising sales, a lucrative career that lasted more than 25 years.
"In 2008, I said 'To heck with it.' I wanted to get back into art, my first love," says Alvarez, who retired a month before the stock market crash and began teaching private lessons in compositional collage to students in Colorado Springs.
One day, Alvarez found himself supply shopping at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. He came across a bucket full of white pine blocks. It was just scraps, of various sizes, the detritus from some carpenter's shop, but to Alvarez it was the beginning of a renewed passion.
"I couldn't believe people were throwing away such beautiful material. To an artist like me, that was like a box of puzzle pieces with no final picture," says Alvarez. "I brought them home, dumped out the box and started playing with them to see how they fit together. Once you recognize the form that's hidden inside, you put it together and then you come back and give it its beauty."
To find the animal soul in his box of blocks, Alvarez played and rearranged, took photos, swapped and stacked, took photos, then sat back and thought deeply. He thought about it while watching TV and listening to music and eating dinner. For two months he did this, before the porcupine showed itself - more or less on schedule.
"To me, making art is an emotional and organic process. It's a form of meditation. There's a peace in it," says Alvarez, who rarely pauses once the inspiration to do or talk about art strikes.
Alvarez has a knack for seeing the beauty where few would choose to look, says Tara Thomas, director of education at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's Bemis School of Art, where Alvarez teaches art history and cartoon drawing for children. He brings his energy and a creative, multipronged approach to lesson plans.
"In his classes, he incorporates music, film, his own photographs, and he tries to make it multidimensional, rather than just presenting information through lectures," Thomas says. "That enthusiasm definitely comes through. I think all of those things make it a richer experience for students."
Though she's talked with him about his creations, Thomas has never seen one of Alvarez' sculptures - which is no accident. Alvarez isn't in it for fame or fortune. He doesn't make his pieces to show or to sell. He rarely even signs them.
"The joy for me is not the outcome. The joy is the journey," says Alvarez, who displays his creations at home or gives them away to friends. "When a piece is done, it's done. I don't sit around admiring it. I move on."
For Alvarez, who likes to have multiple projects going at once, there's always something to move on to.
Decking straps are a favorite sculpture ingredient because they come in such a wide array of sizes of shapes, many of which already have an animal or human form hidden inside - if you know how to look at them right.
"I was just fitting all these together and playing and ... look at that!" says Alvarez, who, while demonstrating his process, has suddenly "found the bird" in the serendipitous overlapping of two metal pieces. It could be the inspiration for an entirely new piece. "That's just so cool."
Alvarez does most of his shopping at the Colorado Springs ReStore, but he's an equal opportunity finder, always on the lookout for new supplies. Usually, he's looking down for them.
"I spend my whole life wandering in flea markets, garage sales, walking down sidewalks with my eyes on the ground," Alvarez says. "I'm just a kid playing with junk and getting great satisfaction from it."
But has he ever run across a piece of art/junk so strange or seemingly useless even he feels compelled to keep on walking?
The short answer: Yes.
The slightly longer answer: "If it has no purpose and I don't know what I'm going to do with it - for me, that's the reason that I have to buy it," Alvarez says.
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364