Porter Sculpture Park
Montrose, South Dakota
Over countless miles, staring at America's strange sights, we're used to the sad fact that some places will never be fully explained, or even understood. A ruin of a failed utopia. Folk art without intelligible labels and with no living creator. A cryptic statue alone in a field, with no button to push for a recorded explanation.
When we first saw pictures of the startling giant "bull head" along a South Dakota stretch of I-90, it had all the makings of another mysterious, out-of-context landmark. But as it turns out, you can easily get the artist's story -- because he's still hanging around at the bottom of the giant bull head
Wayne Porter was moved to create giant metal sculptures for the edification of interstate motorists. He has the metal banging skill of M.T. Liggett and the yarn-spinning banter of George Daynor. But you look at Wayne and wonder how he can make things this big and not seriously injure himself.
Wayne met us in a small shack perched on a wind-swept hill of prairie grass overlooking I-90. From here, he can survey two of his creations -- a huge yellow hand sticking straight up out of the sod, and the 60-foot-tall Egyptian cow head, which has become a landmark along the interstate. During the summer months, when the wind isn't too bad, Wayne hangs out at the shack -- giving tours to the curious and adding his insights and opinions.
Wayne learned ironworking from his dad, went to college, came home and started a sheep ranch. "The only vegetarian rancher in the state, I think," he says. That was in the early 1980s. But Wayne preferred metal to merino (that's a sheep joke), and began making art from old farm equipment, cement mixers, and anything else that he could get his hands on. "Dad once asked me, 'What happened to those car springs?' And I said, 'Well dad, I chopped them up and made a sculpture out of them.'"
Wayne was not alone in his urge to make art out of metal junk. But he was willing to think big, and he wasn't too fond of his job, and had the good fortune to live where there was lots of land. He also had the motivation to move out of his hometown, where his art was not well received. "You haven't lived 'til you've been called a Satanic pornographer," he says.
We follow Wayne along a mowed path through the high grass, past a stick-figure man with his thumbs in his ears, a row of buzzards on poles, and a pink Chinese dragon that Wayne can move with a yank on a concealed lever. He provides non-stop patter. "Those buzzards are 'reincarcerated' politicians ready to pick the bones of their next constituents... those goldfish are tranquilizing but the real thing is that they're easy to make... Do you like cartoons? I always wanted to be part of a cartoon. I used to think life was a cartoon."
We stop at The Screaming Man, a drop-jawed eggplant of a creature that Wayne made from a galvanized hot water tank. "The birds like to build nests in his mouth," he says. "I gotta fix that. But the problem when you weld with galvanized steel is that it produces a poisonous gas." Similar difficulties confront Wayne with his blue Chinese dragon, whose left wing has fallen off. "I can't weld it back on because the grass would catch fire."
We continue past a Grim Reaper made of pipes, buxom fertility nymphs cavorting around a goat, and a 15-foot-tall pink-headed hammer that honors the five hammers that Wayne broke while building his shack. The big tool is impressive, but it's dwarfed by its neighbor, the giant Egyptian bull head, which according to Wayne weighs 25 tons and took three years to build. "It's the same size as a head on Mt. Rushmore," he says. "I think it's the world's biggest. I haven't heard anybody say they've got a bigger one, and if they did have a bigger one, I wouldn't argue with them because they're crazy."
The head is guarded by human skeletons made of iron, holding Halberds, topped with ram's heads. "Because of the sheep," Wayne says. The bull's eyes, Wayne explains, are copies of the eyes that Michelangelo used in his statue of David. "He did do naked guys," Wayne says. "He shouldn't have done that, 'cause that was evil. But he does good eyes."
Wayne takes us on a tour inside the head. It's a rusty, lockjaw-waiting-to-happen adventure that clangs and bangs and shrieks every time that we painfully collide with some part of it. Tiny metal steps are welded to the interior framework, leading to an observation platform. It offers a view of Wayne's sculpture of a life-size crucified devil, which Wayne calls a cross between Pazuzu and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. He admires it, sitting in a big metal swing suspended high inside the head. Wayne sways contentedly in the darkness, king of his domain.
On our way back to the shack, we pass more of Wayne's art: a nightmarish jack-in-the-box welding a spiked club, a large spider threatening a spring-haired Little Miss Muffet, and a giant, screaming head with a hand erupted out of its scalp. "You guys travel all over," Wayne says. "What do you learn about people who do this stuff? Are they obsessive compulsive? Do they need a psychiatrist?"
Wayne doesn't need therapy. He needs to make art. For all of his wisecracks and over-the-edge posturing, Wayne is a good guy who likes to meet people and wants to show them what he's created. He excitedly tells us about his latest project, a version of Leonardo da Vinci's huge 24-foot-tall horse. "I build in little teeny pieces, and I have no way of measuring -- so I could spend years on this thing and it may not work," he says. And Wayne is making it even bigger than the original -- 40 feet tall.
"I'm not da Vinci, so I make it bigger," he tells us. "If you can't make it beautiful, make it bigger."