A few years ago Michael Kalish would hop in his car and take off from his Atlanta home on cross-country trips to find himself. What the 29-year-old artist found instead were license plates. He hit on the idea of welding used plates into sculptures of American icons from Marilyn Monroe to Mount Rushmore. "I love Americana," says Kalish. "What's more American than the thumbprints of automobiles?"
These days Kalish's works—which sell for $2,500 to $150,000 and have expanded to include music and movie stars—are finding permanent parking spots in a number of Hollywood homes. Sharon Stone has a dragonfly, Jay Leno a vintage car and Courteney Cox Arquette
and David Arquette the Beatles. "I love when people make art out of everyday items," Cox says. In February trustees of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library surprised Nancy Reagan with a Kalish, a likeness of the couple in their Hollywood heyday, as a 50th-anniversary gift. "His pieces are compelling," says actor Bob Balaban, a fan. "Warhol would have liked this guy, because he's taking pop culture and twisting it around."
There's just one speed bump for Kalish, who recently moved to Los Angeles He's colorblind, so he relies on friends and his furniture-designer mom, Claire, 54 (dad Stanley, 56, is a foot surgeon), for help with hues. But there's no underestimating his drive. "He wants people to look at license plates," says his girlfriend, attorney Dara Zweig, 27, "and say, 'That's a Kalish.'"