George Tobolowsky (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

George Tobolowsky (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

How one very big hobby turned this Preston Hollow native into an art sensation

It started the way most love stories start, with a teenage boy chasing a date or two.

George Tobolowsky was a student at SMU studying accounting in the late 1960s when he enrolled in his first sculpture class at the Meadows School of the Arts. Although the Preston Hollow native’s mother was a painter and illustrator, and he had a knack for building things, Tobolowsky enrolled with the intention of pursuing a hot date, not art.

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

While the social scene turned out to be lackluster, Tobolowsky discovered his love of sculpture, eventually becoming one of North Texas’ most prolific found-object artists. The Hillcrest alumni’s work has been featured in exhibitions across the world from New Delhi, India to Lugano, Switzerland, and he received the Dallas Historical Society’s Award for Excellence in Creative Arts in 2012.

At SMU, Tobolowsky met his teacher-turned-mentor James Surls, a contemporary sculptor whose works have been displayed in the famed Guggenheim and Museum of Modern Art.

Surls inspired Tobolowsky to continue taking classes along with his business education. He kept creating his signature designs through law school. Many of the original metal pieces are at Tobolowsky’s Preston Hollow home, and a few were recently included in an exhibit in McAllen.

“They’re not as complicated as some of the pieces I make now,” he says. “They’re welded. They’re well done.”

Although he began carving a niche for himself, Tobolowsky’s creative endeavors slowly ceased without a studio, and he focused on his career and family instead.While he stayed active in the Preston Hollow community on various art-related boards and committees, he only found time to produce six pieces in those three decades.

In 1995, he began building a studio north of Dallas in Mountain Springs that a

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

handful of artist friends used to create their own work until 2004, when Tobolowsky picked up his tools that sat largely unused for almost 30 years. It was his turn, he decided.

“They were making some nice pieces, and I kicked them out,” he says.

Much like the sculptures it houses, Tobolowsky’s studio was constructed with reclaimed materials. Bridge trestles found in Fort Worth, stone discovered on the property and steel from junkyards support the warehouse-style structure hidden at the end of a winding gravel road.

Inside the studio, shelves are covered with thousands of steel and stainless steel gadgets that Tobolowsky scours scrapyards to find.

“After picking up 10,000 to 20,000 objects, I know what my bread and butter is — what I use all the time,” he says.

Tobolowsky began sculpting full-time about eight years ago, working with welder Joe Miller, who “unfortunately lived nearby” and has the mechanical skills Tobolowsky lacks.

“He’s the brains behind it, and I’m just the mechanic that builds it,”  Miller says.

The duo forms a hodgepodge of objects into whimsical plants and geometric designs that weigh as little as 20 pounds to much as 10,000 pounds.

The day before Thanksgiving, Miller, Tobolowsky and their assistant Levi Mayes fit pieces together to place steel flowers resembling sunflowers on metallic vines to create a 9-foot showpiece. The process is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, and Tobolowsky is meticulous about the placement of every element.

“They key to the whole thing is matching one found object to the next in size and color and material,” Tobolowsky says. “That’s what I like doing.”

Tobolowsky pays painstaking attention to every detail, and smoothing out the sculpture so there are no imperfections or harmful sharp edges requires patience. But the two have developed a rapport over the years, and it’s one that includes a frequent banter.

“We don’t want our wives to know we’re having this much fun,” Tobolowsky says. “Then they won’t let us come back.”

Much of his work travels across the globe, but some remains in Preston Hollow as a tribute to his longtime neighborhood. His work is featured at  the Museum of Biblical Art, and he’s left his mark on each school he’s graduated from — Pershing, Hillcrest and SMU are each home to one of his sculptures.

Both Tobolowsky and his wife, Julie, are Hillcrest High School alumni, and his children attended local private schools, including Hockaday.

The Preston Hollow where the Tobolowskys grew up isn’t the same place that they currently live. Then, the North Dallas Tollway was just train tracks, and Preston Center, Preston-Forest and Preston-Royal were small shopping centers, he says.

But that change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, he says, and he’s enjoyed watching it grow as he has.

“It’s not one of these massive cities where people live on top of each other,” he says. “Preston Hollow has stayed a very nice community.”

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Preston Hollow.