|A 60-foot-tall bull’s head and its “ancient warrior’’ sheep sentry at Porter Sculpture Park in South Dakota. (Robin Soslow for The Boston Globe)|
The artist in all his elements in South Dakota
MONTROSE, S.D. — Cruising through the high plains, the monotony of fields is broken by a rust-red colossus looming in the distance: a bull’s head, horns curving into the blue sky. I pull over to gawk.
This seems an unlikely place for a cultural venue, but Porter Sculpture Park thrives on free-range space. Visit when Wayne Porter is around for an artist’s tour well worth the modest admission. His shared metaphors, allegories, fairy tales, and riddles give you plenty to ponder back on the open road.
Glinting in the sun, the carnival-colored sculptures lure with their whimsy; the kinetic ones move with prairie winds or flicks of the hand. But to the inquisitive, they reveal darker sides.
The guided tour starts at the spare shed-and-auxiliary studio near the pebbled area for parked vehicles. “My father was a blacksmith,’’ Porter says. When Wayne was 3, he started repurposing his dad’s scraps. “I made a bull’s-head pendant. The bulls kept getting bigger.’’
Porter lives a couple of miles from his roadside spectacle on a sheep ranch that he, a vegetarian, turned into a vegetable farm with some goats. He picks up a foot-high model of a horse from a worktable. Cradling it in his arms, Porter says he is building “the world’s largest metal horse,’’ 40 feet tall and 7 tons.
Porter works with purchased metals and found objects such as vintage farm equipment. The garden pieces incorporate century-old corn planting and chopping tools, wagon wheel rims, pedal cars, grills (vehicular to barbeque), chains. “Creature from the black lagoon’’ wears an ancient refrigerator compressor. Vermillion flower petals undulate from atop a hulking blue . . . something. “That’s a cement mixer tub. I want to find more of those.’’
Porter leads visitors along mown, winding footpaths to optimal viewpoints for each piece, unpacking the gravitas layer by layer in his stream-of-consciousness patter. “I don’t do concepting or sketching; I’m naturally twisted.’’ Struggles for wisdom and peace are among his themes. Honey, Porter’s 12-year-old Australian shepherd, trots along.
The metal garden is populated by nearly four dozen pieces: dragons, dancing girls, possessed men, epic tulips, and airborne fish. Porter’s found-object structures have stories instead of names. Battling boars, he explains, mirror territorial humans engaged in violence condoned by society. “The buzzards are reincarnated politicians ready to pick the bones of constituents.’’ The cleaning lady daydreams of her ballerina alter ego. Porter recalls research suggesting that our perceived happiness largely “comes from choices we make each day.’’
He is also a poet; a post-trip flip through Porter’s self-published chapbook, “The Poetry of Art,’’ turns into a night pondering warriors and sheep, the folly of possession, the purpose of life, thoughts evoked during the tour. The less cerebrally inclined can simply enjoy the sculptures and stories at face value.
“Look at the feet. See the Egyptian influence?’’ says Porter, pointing at a screaming man balancing on one foot and one claw. Birds have nested in his mouth. Nearby, grass grows through a sculpted depiction of a skull.
Those craving a seat have a Zen bench inscribed with spare thoughts.
The metal artworks reveal the impact of rain, wind, hail, brushes with the occasional roaming cow, even the mice that build fluffy nests in crevices.
Wind has ripped off the wing of a dragon. “I can’t weld it back on because that could spark a prairie grass fire. [Nature] takes part in the evolution of the artistic process.’’
Along the way, Porter asks, “What foods do you eat?’’ “What books do you read?’’ One senses that these exchanges are part of why he guides the tours.
Why the hand bursting from a visibly perplexed man’s noggin? “Reaching for a thought?’’ I venture. “A thought bursting forth surprises even the thinker,’’ Porter volleys.
Tractor-trailers swoosh past on Interstate 90. A horn blows; Porter waves. “A friend of mine.’’
Surrounded by four Ramses-era sentries styled as rams holding spears, the “world’s largest bull head’’ rewards close inspection with its craft. The 60-foot-tall, 25-ton sculpture took three years to make from railroad tie plates, whose natural burnt sienna patina befits the bust of an extinct breed of longhorn. Wind blowing through holes creates a soundscape. Says Porter, “I want to add a Gregorian chant.’’
For Porter this installation is welded bliss, joining myriad inspirations: Egyptian art, Greco-Roman mythology, the Renaissance, archeology, manifest destiny. “The eyes are modeled on Michelangelo’s ‘David.’ ’’
Peek inside the bull to spy micro-art such as lifelike bats and flat metal steps. Can visitors climb into the cranium? Yes, says Porter, tempting me with the promise of sweeping views.
He slides a few keys into the padlock. No go. The metal worker, maker of colossal sculptures of deep portent, is flummoxed by a matchbox-sized lock.
Robin Soslow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.