When Scott Weaver's alcoholic father walked away from his family to live on the streets, the then-9-year-old boy found solace in working on an assignment for his fourth-grade class to a create a sculpture from toothpicks.
Forty-two years later, Weaver is still tinkering with the project assigned in 1969 by his teacher, Sue Rathbun. And the result — a 9-foot-tall, 8-foot-wide homage to Weaver's native city of San Francisco incorporating 104,588 of the short pointy sticks, is attracting gawkers at "All Things Round," the new long-term show opening this weekend at the American Visionary Art Museum. (As Weaver puts it: "I wanted to make a bigger sculpture than anyone else in class.")
It's not just that Weaver, a produce manager for a grocery store, is entirely self-taught — both as an artist and as an engineer. It's not just that the piece, called "Rolling Through the Bay," incorporates such beloved California landmarks as the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, Humphrey the Whale and what Weaver describes as "the original Haight-Ashbury patch of magic mushrooms."
Part of the attraction is that museum-goers are allowed to play with Weaver's labor of love. He encourages both adult visitors and children to drop pingpong balls into more than a half-dozen specially designated openings in the sculpture, and to identify the local landmarks as the balls ricochet their way down through a series of chutes.
He explains it this way:
"My wife and I have had three Great Danes, and for years, the sculpture was in our living room. One happy wag of a tail knocked out Ghirardelli Square. When something breaks now, I know how many hours it will take me to fix it. I'm not so worried about it anymore."
Though "Rolling Through the Bay" has an atrium at the museum all to itself for the next nine months, it shares space with more than 70 other equally exuberant exhibits based on the theme of the circularity of life, from galaxies to eyeballs to karma. (After all, it's said that what goes around, comes around.)
"I've always thought it was fascinating that the life force constantly manifests itself in curves, spirals and spheres," says Rebecca Hoffberger, the museum's founder and director.
"Whether we're a toad or a giraffe or a human being, we all begin life as a circle waiting for a fast swimmer to explode our information packet. In this exhibit, you'll see many, many cultures that have come to the same conclusion."
The show contains many works that are intriguing to look at and think about, from French artist Stephanie Lucas' trio of incredibly detailed paintings crammed from frame to frame with feral human-beasts to three-dimensional sacred yarn paintings made by the Huichol Indians.
There are photographs of crop circles, Emily Duffy's giant "bra ball" (a perennial favorite) and a presentation on the Mayan calendar, which famously ends on Dec. 21, 2012.
"All Things Round" was co-curated by Hoffberger and Mary Ellen "Dolly" Vehlow.
Weaver's "Rolling Through the Bay" might by more rectangular in shape than round, but it incorporates plenty of curving forms. Hoffberger was captivated by Weaver's ability to form cupolas, domes, the gently sweeping fronds of a palm tree and other rounded shapes from his materials.
"I've seen a lot of brilliant matchstick and toothpick work," she says. "But most people use them to make squares. There aren't very many artists like Scott who can make these incredible helixes and spirals."
But then, Weaver has had decades to learn how to field the curveballs that life has thrown at him.
"My dad was a good father until he became alcoholic," Weaver says.
"After he left, my mother worked all the time. My brothers and sisters were older and didn't want to be bothered with me. Building the sculpture was a therapeutic thing for me to do when I was feeling alone."
Solving three-dimensional problems in the privacy of his bedroom also was a welcome relief from troubles at school.
In retrospect, Weaver is pretty sure that he's dyslexic, though in the 1960s that wasn't a common diagnosis for schoolchildren. But at the time, all he knew was that he didn't grasp word-based tasks that came easily to his peers.
"I went to idiot classes," he says. "I got teased by the other kids."
Compounding matters, young Scott didn't give himself credit for the things he did well. Manipulating objects in space was so natural for him that he took his ability for granted. Wasn't it also second nature for everyone else?
"From the time I was very young," he says, "I could see something in three dimensions and then build it. But I didn't think I was doing anything special."
Weaver's poor grades discouraged him from going to college to seek a career building bridges or designing office buildings. But he found other outlets for his creative energy.
For instance, Weaver has a national reputation in competitive Frisbee circles for his elaborately choreographed freestyle routines. (He'll juggle and spin three of the plastic discs simultaneously.)
And every year during the holidays, he transforms his yard into a magic castle inhabited by more than 450 characters that he built by hand from plywood. Weaver's "Winter Wonderland" attracts thousands of viewers annually, many in tour buses, and has been recognized in national competitions.
After the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story in 2009 on "Rolling Through the Bay" both CBS and NBC broadcast segments about Weaver and his creation.
But he says he doesn't regret his lack of professional artistic and engineering credentials.
"If I'd done my art for a living, I'd never have made 'Rolling Through the Bay,'" he says. "I'd never, never have taken 3,000 hours and 42 years to build one piece."
If you go
"All Things Round" runs through Sept. 2, 2012, at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Tickets are $6-$16. Call 410-244-1900 or go to avam.org