Don’t tell them not to smile

Folk artist Lincoln Bilancia builds hundreds of sculptures from hoarded smiley face stress toys

Most promotional merchandise ends up in the garbage, unless Lincoln Bilancia gets his hands on it. In 2008, a client shipped its branded swag to the marketing company where Bilancia worked, and perhaps fatefully, the smiley face stress toys had been earmarked for the trash. Bilancia took the toys and began transforming them into sculptures that tell stories from the Old Testament, recount Greek myths and fairy tales, and pay tribute to legendary artists and musicians. He needed an outlet during the dissolving marriage that brought him to Atlanta from New York City. “I would have gone crazy otherwise,” he says.

Over the course of eight years, he has incorporated at least 300 of the dolls into 190 total sculptures that cover his Grant Park home. On the mantle, Rapunzel peers from her tower at the bloody prince who fell from her artificial braid. (The following pennant is tacked to the top: “Miss Rapunzel’s Weaves, Wigs, & Extensions.”) David Bowie soars on a flying carpet near the pots and pans, and Jackson Pollock flicks a paintbrush toward Bilancia’s books. In lieu of antique family plates, the china cabinet teems with dozens of grinning figurines. And yet the neighbors have no idea the house with a smiley face flag whipping in the wind doubles as a museum.

Bilancia grew up drawing and painting under the influence of his grandmother, who at one time owned an art supply store in Queens, and he still uses the inherited leftover stock from when the shop closed. He studied traditional painting at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts but didn’t dabble in sculpture until the smileys arrived at the office. “They were crying out for something to be done to them,” he says.

The first piece Bilancia completed — a smiley ripping off its head — involved few props, but over time the figures became more complex with random household items. Groucho Marx’s hair consists of crinkly black packing paper; Marvin the Martian’s pistol is a screw; in the Psycho stabbing, the shower curtain is represented by a white, corrugated FedEx envelope and Norman Bates’ robe, a fragment from a plaid dress Bilancia’s niece had outgrown. “It ain’t Michelangelo’s materials,” he says.

When Bilancia’s co-workers found out about his obsession, they began bringing him possible accessories, like a ceramic sheep that inspired the Little Bo Peep sculpture and a plastic couch brandished with an antidepressant manufacturer’s logo that, once covered with purple velvet fabric, became Sigmund Freud’s sofa. Recently, Bilancia’s girlfriend discarded a pair of leather boots that he repurposed into Joey Ramone’s motorcycle jacket.

Certain people in Bilancia’s life have driven the genesis of smileys as well, such as the “Squeal Like a Pig” vignette from Deliverance. More visually transfixing than the violated polyethylene foam ball with flailing arms and legs is a smiley in a tiny rocking chair strumming “Dueling Banjos” — a shout-out to Eric Weissberg, Bilancia’s former neighbor who played the solo in the movie’s famous theme. “The Jewish kid from New York was a phenomenal bluegrass musician,” he says.

The smileys not only entertain but also provide lessons in history and pop culture: anything from Genghis Khan to Travis Bickle, from Gandhi to Walter White. Sporting miniscule versions of the Heisenberg hat, sunglasses, and brown mustache and beard, the “Breaking Bad” smiley clutches a sandwich bag of meth. “It was actually from my ex-wife’s blue cosmetic case,” Bilancia says, laughing. “I took great pleasure smashing it into tiny ‘crystals.’”


JOEFF DAVIS “Jackson Pollock”

JOEFF DAVIS “‘Psycho’ Shower Scene”

JOEFF DAVIS “Lascaux cave”
Bilancia exhaustively records his brainstorming and creation process. “Because I’m a pack rat and in case someone ever challenges my ideas,” he says. A thick notebook contains a pencil sketch of the Bride of Frankenstein to gauge the feasibility of his design, a copy of the story of Perseus and Medusa to provide a reference, and photos to document the transformation of a miniature plastic Escalade to a convertible for the Kennedy assassination scene. He currently is reproducing Lascaux, a network of caves in France covered in 17,300-year-old paintings. After he constructed the cave out of a steel banding frame, mesh, fiber glass, and spackle, Bilancia’s cat Remy mistook it for a bed. (He added a picture of Remy sleeping in her new hut along with printouts of actual cave art to his notebook.) However, instead of Paleolithic animals, the art in Bilancia’s cave consists of smiley silhouettes suspending arrows and spears above their heads. A battery-powered fire pit lights the sculpture from inside as a smiley caveman donning a crude fur vest grips a paint can, pausing to survey his work. Bilancia can whip together a simple sculpture in two hours, but the Lascaux piece will end up consuming several weeks.

Less than 60 stress toys remain in Bilancia’s supply, and additional smileys that match his original stockpile have been difficult to find. In an effort to restock in advance, he has ordered samples from a couple of merchandising companies, but the eyes are too small or the lips are too thin. In fact, he used one misshapen sample in the Deliverance piece. “It looks like a weird-lookin’ simpleton, so that became the banjo-playing kid,” Bilancia says.

One might wonder what message Bilancia intends to convey by placing smileys in traumatizing situations while their faces remain plastered with shit-eating grins. Jesus beams during the Crucifixion; John F. Kennedy takes a bullet with pleasure; Kurt Cobain simpers in a pool of blood that has splattered the wee Melvins, Sonic Youth, and Bikini Kill posters on equally crimsoned walls. Bilancia means no disrespect but instead aims to encapsulate the indomitable human spirit. “No matter what you do to them, they’re still smiling away,” Bilancia says. “They’re resilient little bastards. We all should be more like smileys.”

Bilancia probably is right. Think about it: If someone squeezed the hell out of a smiley stress toy, its joyful expression wouldn’t just remain. It would expand.

To contact Bilancia regarding his work, email