Cardboard Man, 1981

By Adam Savage

Adam's first completely self-realized project was a Cardboard Man he built over 30 years ago. Here's why that was so important.

I built the Cardboard Man in 1981 for no reason at all. I think I was 12 or 13 (could’ve been even earlier) and there was a lot of cardboard lying around in the form of some discarded refrigerator boxes. These corrugated behemoths provided awesomely wide swaths of virgin cardboard and I dragged many of them home over my childhood. Once, I was actually willing to fight a local kid for a box when he decided to see if he could intimidate me into giving up large one I was pushing home. He told me it was his box. He was a thug. He failed. I was three blocks from home and I'd already pushed it four blocks, and it was bigger than me. He wasn't, and I wasn't about to waste the effort. I pushed him right back in the chest and he went away. It was one of three fights I've ever had. And it was over one of the best gateway materials ever known: Brown Corrugated Cardboard.

Previous to this I’d made a cockpit for a spaceship out of the stuff for a short 8mm film that the Caro twins were making. This spaceship was eventually repurposed and adapted to my mom’s bedroom closet--which was actually quite roomy--and I spent several weeks taking trips in my spaceship set. It had a starfield out the window (lit) and an underlit dashboard.

Then came the sitting man. I wanted to make a man sitting down. I had a driving need to see this idea made manifest and I set out to do it. The idea, the shape, the execution, all of it was quite clear in my mind at the onset. It was assembled solely from corrugated cardboard and masking tape and painted with blue housepaint for the suit. The other colors were borrowed from my dad's studio. This is a notable build for two reasons.

It's possibly the earliest complex build I have any pictures of in my history of making things, and it's also probably the most self-realized, no-assignment project I undertook at that age, all by myself. Nothing motivated his creation but desire.

At one point during this build, I was overtaken by a powerfully intense feeling of joy. I felt no needs, no deficit. I felt incredibly at peace. I went and found my mom in the kitchen, and told her: “mom, at this very moment, 5:14 on November the 4th, 1981(ish), I am truly happy.” That was the best I could do to communicate to her that a) this was in fact the case, but also b) that I was clear that this was a temporary state. I don't know how I knew that. I can still remember that feeling today, over 30 years later.

I've come across the feeling a few times since then. I suspect that it was the earliest occurrence in me of the pleasure of being on the home stretch of a project in which the subject of the build is completely in my head. Past all of its technical hurdles, I'm completely inside the thing and it's inside of me. And it's (likely) going to turn out somewhat different but better than I thought it would.

Cardboard Man sat on our front porch for several years until the elements finally took their toll and he had to be retired. One of my neighbors wondered who the hell was sitting so long and still over at our house. For years I thought that no picture existed, but my mom unearthed this in 2010 and sent it to me. I love his big monkey face. His jug ears and beard are my subconscious vision of a sort of “universal adult male” to me. He's wearing a suit because in some weird way, that was my idea of what adults did back then. It’s strange because my dad never wore a suit unless it was his tux on New Year's Day. My dad was precisely the antithesis of a suit-wearing adult, and I worshipped him. He was a painter who devoted hours each day to painting and he structured his life very carefully to allow himself to be able to do that.

Cardboard Man gave me a peek into what he was working for.

[Read about Adam's other past projects, such as the first sculpture he ever sold, here]