Wayne Porter's ghostly procession to the bull head.
Wayne Porter's ghostly procession to the bull head.

Porter Sculpture Park

Field review by the editors.

Montrose, South Dakota

Over countless miles, staring at America's strange sights, we've become 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.

Wayne Porter explains his fascination with cartoons.
Wayne Porter explains his fascination with cartoons.

That's why a giant bull head, visible along a South Dakota stretch of I-90, had all the makings of another mysterious, out-of-context landmark. But it turns out that you can easily get the artist's story -- because he's still hanging around at the bottom of the head.

Wayne Porter greeted us in a little shack on a windswept hill of prairie grass. The view out the door is of a huge yellow hand sticking straight up out of the sod, and of the 60-foot-high Egyptian bull head, which has become a landmark along the interstate. "I come from 200 miles from here where no one else lives," Wayne told us. From the looks of this place, no one lives here, either, except for Wayne.

Tribute to cartoon buzzards.
Tribute to cartoon buzzards.

Wayne Porter and his Bull head.
Wayne Porter and his Bull head.

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 told us. That was in the early 1980s. But Wayne preferred metal to merino (that's a Wayne 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's artwork was not appreciated in his small hometown ("You haven't lived 'till you've been called a Satanic pornographer"), so he sold his sheep and hauled his sculptures here, several hundred tons of them, to sit among grazing cattle and burrowing badgers. It's a quiet place, with plenty of room for large art. During the summer months, despite the wind (which often howls), Wayne is here as well -- giving tours, sharing his insights and opinions.

Extinction.

Wayne is not a big guy, so we asked how he was able build such huge sculptures alone, without fear of being crushed or crippled. "You just gotta have some kind of luck," Wayne said. Also, his big sister stops by every couple of weeks. "She's technically a doctor," he said, suggesting that whatever injuries he may suffer are manageable as long as they don't incapacitate him immediately.

Giant horse.

We followed Wayne along a mowed path through the high grass, past a pair of eerie, red-robed monks; a row of buzzards on poles; goldfish in a big wireframe bowl; and a pink Chinese dragon that Wayne can move with a yank on a concealed lever. He provided 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."

With so many potential subjects to choose from, how does Wayne decide what to sculpt? "I do what the voices in my head tell me to do," he said.

We stopped 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," Wayne said. "I gotta fix that. But the problem when you weld with galvanized steel is that it produces a poisonous gas." Similar obstacles confront Wayne when his other sculptures occasionally need repair. "You cannot weld out here," he said. "You would start a prairie fire."

Pandora's out of the box...again, at Porter Sculpture Park.
Pandora's out of the box...again, at Porter Sculpture Park.

We continue past a Grim Reaper made of pipes; a large, dissected frog with angel wings; a stick-figure man with his thumbs in his ears; and a 28-foot-high claw hammer -- the biggest in the world, according to Wayne -- that honors the five hammers that he broke while building his shack. The big tool is impressive, but it is 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 Mount Rushmore," he told us. "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 metal, holding Halberds, topped with ram's heads. The bull's eyes, Wayne claimed, are copies of the eyes that Michelangelo used in his statue of David.

"You don't do this without being obsessive," Wayne said of his art. "You get in a frenzy and just keep working until the thing's done." How does he know when a thing is done? "It hasn't killed me," he said, "and I don't have any more iron to put in place."

Giant bull head.
Giant bull head.

Wayne took 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 framework, leading to an interior observation platform. It offers an up-close view of a crucified life-size humanoid devil, which Wayne called a cross between the demon Pazuzu and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, suspended high above the ground. Wayne swayed contentedly in the darkness, admiring the creature, king of his domain.

"I love living in a fantasy world," he said. "Reality's too scary."

On our way back to the shack, we passed 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, open-mouthed head with a hand erupted out of it's scalp. "You guys travel all over," Wayne said. "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 over-the-edge posturing, Wayne is a friendly fellow who likes to meet people and who wants to share what he's worked so long and hard to create.

A 40-foot-high horse, inspired by one sketched (but never actually built) by Leonardo da Vinci, is Wayne's latest massive sculpture, erected here in 2019. More are in the works. "I'm making big things, huge things," Wayne promised. "I keep saying [to an imagined sculpture], 'You cannot be born. I don't have time for you.'" But the voices in Wayne's head say otherwise.

"At the present rate of production," Wayne said, "I am backlogged 200 years."

Porter Sculpture Park

Address:
45160 257th St., Montrose, SD
Directions:
I-90 exit 374. Turn south and drive a half-mile. Entrance on the left.
Hours:
Daily May 15-Oct. 15, 7 am - 8:30 pm. Closed and gated off-season. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
605-204-0370
Admission:
Adults $10.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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