Alex Queral, It's All Relative (Albert Einstein) Alex Queral’s “It’s All Relative” (Albert Einstein). Photograph: Projects Gallery

When Alex Queral saw a pile of unwanted phone books 14 years ago, he was hit with a flash of inspiration. Rather than just leaving them to rot he would recycle them, using them as the basis for works of art by carving portraits out of them.

Alex Queral, It's All Relative - side view (Albert Einstein) Alex Queral’s “It’s All Relative” — side view (Albert Einstein). Photograph: Projects Gallery

Ever since, the artist has made up to two carvings a month, with subjects including Barack Obama, Clint Eastwood, the Dalai Lama and the Beatles.

Alex Queral, The Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood) Alex Queral’s “The Man With No Name” (Clint Eastwood). Photograph: Projects Gallery

Explaining how he got started, Queral told The Telegraph: “I’m sure a lot of hard work goes into recycling [phone books] but there are thousands that go unused at all because most people just use the internet to find people these days.”

Alex Queral, The Man With No Name - side view (Clint Eastwood) Alex Queral’s “The Man With No Name” — side view (Clint Eastwood). Photograph: Projects Gallery

“I was out looking for wood to make a sculpture one day and I noticed a huge pile of them on the pavement. I suddenly thought they would probably make a pretty good material for carving, so I gave it a go.”

Alex Queral, Pee-wee (Pee-wee Herman) Alex Queral’s “Pee-wee” (Pee-wee Herman). Photograph: Projects Gallery

The medium emphasizes the reuse of abandoned materials as well as the extraordinary human individuality emerging from the vast numbers of names listed in the phone book.

Alex Queral, Pee-wee (Pee-wee Herman) Alex Queral’s “Pee-wee” — side view (Pee-wee Herman). Photograph: Projects Gallery

Queral, 51, who lives in Philadelphia, told the Projects Gallery: “In carving and painting a head from a phone directory, I’m celebrating the individual lost in the anonymous list of thousands of names that describe the size of the community. In addition, I like the idea of creating something that is normally discarded every year into an object of longevity.”

Alex Queral, False Modesty (John Candy) Alex Queral’s “False Modesty” (John Goodman). Photograph: Projects Gallery

He added, “I carve the faces out of phone books because I like the three-dimensional quality that results and because of the unexpected results that occur working in this medium. The three-dimensional quality enhances the feeling of the pieces as an object as opposed to a picture.”

Alex Queral, John 1963 (John Lennon) Alex Queral’s “John 1963” (John Lennon). Photograph: Projects Gallery

Queral, who studied fine art at the University of Pennsylvania, says that he particularly likes subjects who have odd or unusual facial features (meaning that they particularly stick out); some of his favorites include John Candy and Jack Nicholson.

Alex Queral, Ringo 64 (Ringo Starr) Alex Queral’s “Ringo 64” (Ringo Starr). Photograph: Projects Gallery

However, making mistakes in the painstaking procedure can be disastrous. Queral told The Telegraph, “Nearing the end of the carving and then suddenly having it ruined by a careless cut can be pretty crushing. You have to start all over again.”

Alex Queral, He Was So Right About Bush (Michael Moore) Alex Queral’s “He Was So Right About Bush” (Michael Moore). Photograph: Projects Gallery