The Picasso of the Pipes

By Heather Hintze

SPRINGFIELD, Ore. — Anyone who has passed through Springfield City Hall has probably seen it — a symbol of the city that may rival the infamous white horse that sits at the city’s gates.

A seal, made up of 5,200 random items, each one, with a story of its own.

“It’s a unique piece for our whole history. It’s a time chunk from the first hundred years. Having a piece of art like this, one of the first in the country, it’s unique to have that sort of piece,” said Springfield Community Development Manager John Tamulonis.

Calling it unique may be a bit of an understatement, especially when you take into account where the ingredients to this sculpture came from.

“He’s constructed a mosaic of the Springfield city seal out of thousands of objects he’s collected from sewers,” said Johnny Carson, host of The Tonight Show. “Would you please welcome the Picasso of the Pipes, Russell Ziolkowski.

December 22, 1972 — a day Russell’s daughter Linda Howes will never forget.

“I guess I was almost awestruck at how comfortable he was up on stage,” Howes said. She also recalls how the seal first began to take shape.

“My mom said, if you’re going to collect it, think of something to do with it.”

“Gravel and marbles and broken glass, rings, money, whatever you flush down the john, it comes out,” Russell told Johnny Carson.

As everything came out of the pipes, Ziolkowski began putting it all together.

Russell worked for the Springfield Public Works Department in the late ’60s .

“My first day of work I worked with Russell and he was just a bundle of energy, he was someone who had a lot of passion for life, his community and a lot of passion for his job,” said Maintenance Manager Brian Conlon, who still works for the department.

His job was cleaning sewer lines as he so eloquently told Carson.

“So as the water and pressure go through the lines, they scour them… well, you could eat soup out of them.”

To which Johnny replied, “You could eat soup out of them, not me!” as the audience laughed.

Crews would place a basket down in the man-hole to collect the items the hoses knocked off. Some of it had been stuck there for decades.

It’s a trick crews still use today.

Russell though was likely the first person who thought to put these commode cast-offs to use. Taking all of his junk from the john and turning it into sewer art. His talent not only landed him on The Tonight Show but drew the attention of others as well.

“I don’t think it really hit me until I made a trip home to find Charles Kuralt sitting in my parent’s living room. That was big,” said Linda.

Russell was working on a replica of the old Springfield City seal when Charles Duralt stopped by for CBS’s “On the Road” program.

And the seal was just the beginning.

Then there was the medallion of the NBC peacock which contained items like a chauffeur’s license from 1943, a hypodermic needle, fishing tackle, dentures and an old perfume bottle.

Springfield isn’t the only place you’ll come across Russell’s work either.

Something a group of students found out as they toured the State Capitol Building in Salem.

Call it a sewer scavenger hunt to find toilet treasures – though most of the kids are unaware of where all of it came from.

Russell’s work is symbolic of a day gone by. But more importantly it serves as a reminder there is value in just about anything if you just take the time to look.

The hidden gems of the world sometimes found in places that you’d never think to look in.

“Russell was always busy and always inspiring,” said Dan Howes, Russell’s son-in-law.

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