The story of the Philadelphia Wireman is a sad one. It would have been completely forgotten, lost to a Philadelphia garbage dump, if not for a man named Robert Leitch. At some point during the late 1970s or early 1980s (details are vague, because Leitch’s name was never released in connection with the Wireman until after his death), Leitch found a massive cache of objects sitting on the curb, waiting for the garbageman. They were piled on a street in a pretty shady part of town; Leitch saw something special in them, though, and piled them into his car. Once he started going through what he’d found, Leitch realized he had 1,200 individual pieces. Each piece was a wire-wrapped pocket of objects, from pens and coins to nails, food containers, toys, watches, and tools. The wire was incredibly thick and heavy, wrapped around all the objects.
At first, Leitch gave some of the objects away—until a friend convinced him to take the remaining pieces to an art gallery. That art gallery, the Fleisher Ollman Gallery, is still the custodian of a number of Philadelphia Wireman’s pieces, with some of the pieces priced at $9,000. Some of the pieces are on loan to galleries around the world, boasting a raw, heartfelt look at the below-the-poverty-line neighborhood that Wireman’s creations were found in. There’ve been a couple of assumptions made, including the idea that the artist was male (based on the thickness of the wire and the strength that would have been needed to bend it). But beyond that, no one knows anything more about him. How the cache of pieces ended up on the street and what happened to the artist himself is anyone’s guess, and the mystery behind the works has made them all that much more powerful.