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Epilogue: Paul Eppling, beloved St. Petersburg sculptor known for bizarre metal creatures, dies

ST. PETERSBURG — Through his eyes, Paul Eppling saw the world differently than others.

Where most people looked upon scraps of metal and tattered car parts as trash, Mr. Eppling envisioned art.

"He could look at something that all of us would think is a piece of junk like an engine part, and he would see something in it," said Sandy Eppling, Mr. Eppling's wife. "And then he'd start building around that."

From that junk, Mr. Eppling created metal sculptures, often of various creatures. There were cranes and ospreys, dragons and lizards, each glistening with a metallic shine. For decades, Mr. Eppling's artwork has been on display throughout the city, but there will be no more new additions.

Mr. Eppling died last week from progressive supranuclear palsy, a neurodegenerative disease. He was 67.

Times (1996)

Sculptor Paul Eppling working in the studio at his home welds scales to the lizards feet of a new sculpture for a building under construction.

Times (1996)

Sculptor Paul Eppling working in the studio at his home welds scales to the lizards feet of a new sculpture for a building under construction.

Mr. Eppling was born in New Orleans and lived most of his childhood in Knoxville, Tenn. In 1967, he moved to St. Petersburg to attend Florida Presbyterian College — now Eckerd College — to pursue an art degree.

He married Sandy in 1973, and the couple moved into a house Mr. Eppling bought out of college in St. Petersburg's Lakewood Estates neighborhood, where they lived ever since.

Crafting new sculptures was always at the forefront of Mr. Eppling's mind.

"He would go in the studio in the morning, and he would go to work and that was the one thing he wanted to do," said Sandy, 65. "He was so precise about it and he cared so much about the final product. He just put everything he had into it."

Over time, Mr. Eppling's sculptures became a fixture in St. Petersburg. In 1995, he created a piece called "Security Lizard" from old car parts and street lights. The sculpture sits on top of the city's Fleet Maintenance Building on 7th Avenue N, and can be seen from Interstate 275.

Times

Paul Eppling installed his Security Lizard sculpture at the fleet maintenance building at Fifth Avenue N and 20th Street, near Interstate 275, in St. Petersburg. The work, which was contracted by the city's Public Arts Commission, weighs over 4,000 pounds and was made of found objects most of which come from the site

Times

Paul Eppling installed his Security Lizard sculpture at the fleet maintenance building at Fifth Avenue N and 20th Street, near Interstate 275, in St. Petersburg. The work, which was contracted by the city's Public Arts Commission, weighs over 4,000 pounds and was made of found objects most of which come from the site

In addition to having his art on display and sold through galleries, Mr. Eppling's sculptures can be seen at schools in Pinellas County. He made a sculpture of a falcon that stands in the courtyard at Bay Point Middle School in honor of the school's mascot.

At Boyd Hill nature preserve, five of Mr. Eppling's sculptures are found along trails and in trees of the park. Ken Payette, a nature preserve ranger, likes to pause at the artwork when he's giving tours of the park. He said visitors will often stop to take pictures of the sculptures.

"It adds a little piece of interest to their visit," Payette said.

Times

Sculptor Paul Eppling creates a massive metal armadillo outside his garage using recycled scraps.

Times

The finished armadillo was placed at Boyd Hill Nature Trail in St. Petersburg.

Times

Sculptor Paul Eppling creates a massive metal armadillo outside his garage using recycled scraps.

Times

The finished armadillo was placed at Boyd Hill Nature Trail in St. Petersburg.

Art was Mr. Eppling's daily way of life. But that began to change when, seven years ago, he started experiencing the first signs of progressive supranuclear palsy.

The disease is rare — just six in 100,000 people get it.

In the early stages, his balance was affected. Then his eyesight worsened, Sandy said. Over time, his speech was affected before he ultimately couldn't swallow.

"What it robs you of is your communication skills," said Jean Eppling Campbell, his younger sister.

Times (1999)

Paul Eppling along with PTEC students Holly Hill and Adam Davis put together a sculpture of Paul Revere on a horse in welding shop. The sculpture was a gift to Pinellas Park High School.

Times (1999)

Paul Eppling along with PTEC students Holly Hill and Adam Davis put together a sculpture of Paul Revere on a horse in welding shop. The sculpture was a gift to Pinellas Park High School.

After symptoms set in, Mr. Eppling's work became a challenge. It was no longer safe to weld metal together, so for a while, a neighbor assisted him in bringing his pieces to life.

It was a hard scene for his family to watch.

"It was extremely frustrating for him, I think, to lose his life dream." Campbell said. "He lived to sculpt."

Times

Eppling works on an osprey, the mascot for Ozona Elementary School. He said it was made of scrap auto bumpers, silverware, and other assorted found objects around the house.

Times

Eppling puts finishing touches on metal sculptures at PolyPack Inc. for their grand opening. The sculptures were made from car parts like bumpers, pistons and other things.

Times

Eppling works on an osprey, the mascot for Ozona Elementary School. He said it was made of scrap auto bumpers, silverware, and other assorted found objects around the house.

Times

Eppling puts finishing touches on metal sculptures at PolyPack Inc. for their grand opening. The sculptures were made from car parts like bumpers, pistons and other things.

Through his suffering, Sandy said her husband never seemed to be upset. While most people with the disease are bedridden for years, she said Mr. Eppling was still walking assisted up to two weeks before he died.

She said there won't be a funeral for Mr. Eppling, but instead a celebration of his life next year. The family wants the community to remember him for his love for life, his humor and talent.

For Sandy, she has found solace in knowing that throughout the city her husband's legacy lives on through his artwork.

"I know that I can go see him," she said. "See his spirit and see his creativity and his sense of humor. I can go visit his sculptures and see him in them."

Times (2008)

Mixed metal sculptures by artist Paul Eppling are displayed in the outdoor sculpture garden at the 35th Annual Art Festival Beth-El, a three-day show, at Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg.

Times (2008)

Mixed metal sculptures by artist Paul Eppling are displayed in the outdoor sculpture garden at the 35th Annual Art Festival Beth-El, a three-day show, at Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg.

Contact Times staff writer LaVendrick Smith at lsmith@tampabay.com. Follow @LaVendrickS

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