In the mid-1980s, during drives with Burden through the Mojave desert, Rubins spotted mountains of scrapped airplanes, many of which had been laid to rest after World War II. “They were just beautiful,” she remembered, “but nobody would sell them.” After digging for the right contact, she met Bill Huffman, who was known in the area as a go-to scrap metal source and master smelter. He proudly showed Rubins a National Geographic article documenting his days melting down fleets of planes after World War II. Rubins began buying airplane parts from him for 10 cents a pound. They became her newest material.
In 1986, Rubins made her first sculpture from Huffman’s cache. Called 4,000 Pounds of Smashed and Filleted Airplane Parts, she showed the piece in a one-night-only group exhibition at Los Angeles’s Alexandria Hotel. She also began working on Topanga Tree and Mr. Huffman’s Airplane Parts, a hulking, riotous accretion that grew from the negative space of a crooked oak not far from her studio. When completed, it contained around 16,000 pounds of airplane wings, fuselage, engine bits, and more. “You can walk under it, which provokes strange sensations: fear, amazement, exhilaration,” wrote Dodie Kazanjian in a 1995 Vogue profile of Rubins, after experiencing the piece in person. “The tree and the metal seem to have bonded, and both are thriving,” she continued.
“The tree was really part of the sculpture,” Rubins told me, as we looked at what’s left of Topanga Tree. The work collapsed several years ago, after the oak it was built around uprooted and cracked during a bad California drought. “Now they’re here,” she said, matter-of-factly, about the parts that once made the whole. “I mean, it wasn’t going to be there forever.”