Zander Blosser sat at the plastic picnic table outside his parents' house and began to build a dragon out of duct tape and printer paper.
He had a black knit cap on his head and chipped black polish on his nails. The air smelled like kitty litter and lawn mower gas, depending on the wind, and he worked under the raspy din of a window-unit air conditioner.
He took the pieces of paper, rolled tight like straws, and bent them where they needed to be bent, and taped them where they needed to be taped, and that's how he started to create the rough skeletal structure of the jaw, the neck, the shoulders, the back.
Maybe it would be 3 feet. Or maybe 5. Maybe it would have horns.
"It becomes what it becomes," he said.
Alexander Blosser is 18 years old, he goes by the second half of his first name, and this is what he does: He makes elaborate, striking figurines out of nothing but paper, tape and the occasional plug of hot glue.
"I'm basically sculpting something that hasn't been given life yet," he explained.
"Like, if it wants to be a certain way, it'll get a certain way."
The name of his young art business is Zander's Twist, and here's the twist: He's giving life to his figurines, and his figurines are doing the same thing for him.
• • •
Growing up, in the same house his whole life here near Gulfport, bouncing from Lynch Elementary to Blanton Elementary to Bay Point Middle to East Lake High, he kept getting in trouble and couldn't keep up with the work. He wasn't slow, that wasn't it at all, but he learned in ways more visual than verbal. Sometimes the pace was too fast, and sometimes the pace was too slow. He fell behind.
He had a girlfriend, his first, and then he didn't, and the kid who had always been more of a watcher, quiet and shy, felt even more alone and depressed.
And at some point, two years ago or so, he ended up in the principal's office at East Lake.
"Where do you see yourself in five years?"
Which can be interpreted in a number of ways, but people were worried about him, and so he started seeing a therapist.
Also, though, he started messing with paper and tape.
This part of him always had been there in a way. His grandmother likes to sew, his mother takes pictures for a hobby, and his father is an electrician, and so how his mind and his hands work in this way makes some sense. When he was a boy, he took apart his toys, to see how they fit together, and then made them whole again. He did a kind of origami with Juicy Fruit wrappers. He loved Legos but threw away the instructions when he got them. He didn't want Power Rangers. He wanted Erector Sets.
With printer paper and duct tape, the first figurine he did was a man, so bulbous and crude it looked like a starfish.
"Blobbish," he said the other afternoon at the picnic table.
Since then, though, he has built spiders and snakes, flowers and bats, motorcycles and music boxes, ninjas and knives, aliens and gremlins from the movies, Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors, a Sentinel from The Matrix, lots of bats and a giant squid rendered right down to the intricate suckers on its arms.
He buys his supplies at Walmart: five bucks for a roll of tape, three bucks for a ream of 500 pages of paper, a buck or two or three for a can of spray paint, depending on the grade.
Sometimes he uses pliers to flatten, twist or tug, and sometimes he uses the glue gun to make something stick in a tiny space. Mostly, though, he just uses his hands.
He watches science shows and searches for images on Google or Bing to study how bodies curve and how joints fit.
When he's building his figurines, he doesn't see tape, paper and paint. He sees tendons, muscles and skin.
• • •
Last year he stopped going to his therapist. No need anymore.
This year he started at a new school, Life Skills in St. Petersburg, where he can focus on one class at a time and work at his own pace on the way to his high school degree.
And he takes his figurines to art shows around the area. At first, at the shows in Gulfport, St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park, his mother was the one who did the talking to the people who were interested in buying. Now it's Zander. He makes eye contact. He talks about his work. He has sold something like 150 figurines. One time, he said, a lady paid $100 for everything he had at his booth.
Self-confidence isn't the only thing he found at the art shows. He met a new girl, too, an artist like him.
His mother says: "This is his thing that makes him special." His best friend says: "He now has something that's his own." His assistant principal says: "You can always tell when a kid is happy."
Eventually, he said, he might like to work with metal, or go to art school for college, or build props for movie sets or theme parks.
On this afternoon, though, at the plastic picnic table outside his parents' house, he crumpled up a piece of paper, balled it up, wrapped it tight in duct tape, put it in the side of the emerging face of the dragon to make the shape of the eye socket.
He took more paper, more tape, split into strips with his thumbnail, and he started to make the broad chest and the rib cage and the backs of the shoulders.
He pulled two rolled-up pieces of printer paper taut from the back of the head to start in on the horns.
"I didn't know where I was going, but I'm a lot better now," he said.
He held up what he'd built to that point. He dangled it in the air in front of his face. He thought about what came next.
He leaned back in his chair. He cracked his knuckles.
Zander Blosser started building wings.
News researcher Will Short Gorham contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8751.