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His dentist would be so proud

February 13, 2005|Christine N. Ziemba

The lowly toothpick is the Rodney Dangerfield of the wood world. Just a step above the splinter, it's generally an afterthought to dessert and not much more. No respect. But San Francisco artist Steven J. Backman is giving the homely sliver an extreme makeover.

Using regular toothpicks and "blanks" (toothpicks sans the pointed tips), he creates models and abstract sculptures with glue, patience and not much else. Backman eschews typical model-making materials such as flat wood and screws, and employs only needle-nose pliers to bend the toothpicks for the curves in his artwork.

Describing himself as an "artist working in toothpicks," Backman says he began dabbling in the medium at age 5 when he constructed a toothpick-and-beans model of DNA molecules for a science project. While working toward a degree in industrial arts from San Francisco State University in the mid-'80s, Backman designed a cable car replica for a class project, and the once-childhood hobby became his passion.

Backman's online gallery, www.toothpickart.com, includes his "pride and joy" -- a 4 1/2 -foot working yacht of 10,000 toothpicks -- as well as a 13-foot replica of the Golden Gate Bridge, which took 2 1/2 years and 30,000 toothpicks. The piece is now on display at the Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum on Hollywood Boulevard.

Do Bay Area restaurant owners lock down their toothpick holders when the artist approaches? No, says Backman, who scored four cases from an acquaintance-supplier 15 years ago -- each yielding about 100,000 blanks. He still uses them, but is known for raiding Safeway shelves to replenish his stash of pointed toothpicks.

While the Ripley's Odditorium may be a little low-brow, Backman's prepping models and abstracts for an upcoming show at the Agora Gallery in New York and for next spring, when several of his works will be on display in the Empire State Building lobby.

Other artists may work in metals or acrylics, but Backman's determined to make sure that the toothpick is recognized as a viable material at MoMA and the Met -- and not just at Marie Callender's.

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-- Christine N. Ziemba

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