South Dakota has the world’s largest ball of invisible twine – I know because I’ve seen it. No doubt, every state in the union has idiosyncratic attractions; some historically meaningful and others just plain idiosyncratic. And as we have happily discovered during our RV journeys, many are quirky art installations installed along highways – such as the ball of twine – for the sole purpose of entertaining travelers passing through.
Sometimes, the most interesting feature of a roadside attraction is the story behind it, which most travelers will miss & at best, may wonder for a moment as they whizz by at 80 mph. Take for example, this one. Over fifty years ago in a small town of about 200 people somewhere in South Dakota, an inspired young boy created his first sculpture in his father’s blacksmith shop. Only 10 years of age, the boy carved a small bull’s head from iron using a cutting torch and drilled holes in it so he could wear it as a necklace. By age 12, the boy learned from his father to weld which inspired him to create larger sculptures from metal scraps. After high school graduation, the young sculptor left home, earned a college degree (in political science and history, not art) and dropped out of law school. He then returned to his hometown and became a vegetarian sheep farmer. In his spare time, he indulged in his art which evolved into very large metal sculptures. Meet Wayne Porter, the sole creator of an unusual and intriguing roadside attraction, Porter Sculpture Park located next to I-90, 30 miles west of Sioux Falls.
What often draws me to art is the variety of critiques it elicits. And if ever there was a venue for roadside art critics, it is Trip Advisor. Traveling art critics now come in cars and RVs between Memorial Day and Labor Day to visit Wayne and his art. Here’s what they are saying about his sculptures:
- “Absolutely stunning large sculptures”
- “Artwork ranging from the whimsical to the surreal”
- “Definite sci-fi influence to the artist’s designs, but imaginative, creative, clever and quite good”
- “I think it’s just some guy whose artistic impulse was uncontrollable”
- “Quirky and fun, dark and introspective”
- “It is nothing but a bunch of creepy statues on side of road”
- “Some of the sculptures are very blatantly satanic and can creep out anyone even in broad daylight”
Wayne’s artistic vision is BIG, as in 60-ft tall metal sculpture big. At the beginning, he put his large art on display in his tiny hometown because there was no other place to put it. It was not well received – maybe not so much for the size, but because the sculptures appear to be inspired by cartoon fantasies with a dark surrealistic edge to them. Not everyone’s cup of tea. The town’s reaction to Wayne’s art was not lukewarm and probably rose to hysteria as Wayne has been quoted to say “You haven’t lived ‘til you’ve been called a satanic pornographer.” As a result, in 2000 Wayne moved his large sculptures to a piece of family-owned cattle-grazing land. He gave up his sheep and devoted his life to Porter Sculpture Park.
And he is beholden to no one. He creates whatever he wants including a 7-ton, 40-ft tall metal horse. But that’s not what gets the attention of people passing by – rather, it is the 60-ft tall bullhead weighing in at 25 tons. No engineers were involved with the development or installation of these pieces, just a group of friends and family.
I visited Porter Sculpture Park on a hot, cloudless summer afternoon. Earlier in the day, Vivian and I parked the RV in a lovely campground in the middle of a corn field about 12 miles from Wayne’s sculptures. We unhitched the truck from the RV so that I could visit Wayne’s sculptures. As I pulled into the parking area (nothing more than a gravel lot with a rundown trailer on one end and a large shed on the other), I noticed a gentleman working in the shed. When the park is open, Wayne lives on the premises with his dog Bambino. Being the only visitor, I surmised I was about to meet the artist.
What makes Porter Sculpture Park special is that every visitor gets to meet the artist when he comes out of the shed to greet you and collect his admission fee. After that, they can spend as much time and take as many pictures as they like. Visitors can also partake in a lively conversation with Wayne who loves to share his stories and insights and sprinkle them with his unique sense of humor. For about an hour and a half, I walked around the field of art taking photographs, reading the poetry and watching the meadowlarks guard their nest inside a blue dragon’s mouth. I also spent about an hour talking with Wayne.
Because of the location of his park, Wayne has the unusual privilege of meeting thousands of people every year because they stop in to view his art. Funny thing, this South Dakotan has never been as far as the Black Hills or Badlands National Park. Yet you get the sense from talking to him that he has the best reason not to – the world comes to him. And there is nothing he enjoys more than sharing his whimsical creations with all that come to view them and if you ask, he will share his whimsical, yet thoughtful philosophies on life and art.
I wandered around Wayne’s sculpture dreamscape in the prairie and talked with him about art, current events, South Dakota and cows. A conversation with Wayne is almost like walking through his Sculpture Park – almost every sentence, like every sculpture entertains you with his beguiling imagination and sense of humor. You never know what will pop up. Before leaving, I told him that I was enchanted with the prairie and wanted to photograph it. He looked over at his cow pasture and recommended I should try to photograph cows.
The next morning, we continued west on the flat I-90 to Badlands National Park. Along the way, we had one more piece of art to visit. Geographically, South Dakota is split in two by the Missouri River that runs north to south. The difference between the west and east portions of the state goes beyond a time zone – upon crossing the river a traveler enters country that contains several national parks and monuments, and Native American sacred land.
Dignity of Earth and Sky is a 50-ft tall and 12-ton statue installed at the Chamberlain Interstate-90 Welcome Center overlooking the Missouri River from its east side. Compared to Wayne Porter’s bullhead, it is mediocre in size – but it is anything but mediocre. Dignity is the creation of South Dakota’s artist laureate Dale Claude Lamphere. During its 2-yr construction, Lamphere called upon three Native American women ages 14, 29 and 55 to serve as models and perfect the face of Dignity, designed to honor the cultures of the Lakota and Dakota people. During the building of Dignity, a group of expert metal fabricators worked with Lamphere who consulted structural engineers, cultural advisors, material suppliers and electrical contractors. How did all this come to be? In celebration of South Dakota’s 125th anniversary into statehood, Norm and Eunabel McKie of Rapid City gifted the $1 million statue to all the people of South Dakota in 2014.
In case you are wondering, here are what the roadside art critics say about Dignity on Trip Advisor:
- “The statue is amazing”
- “The statue is huge and quite stunning”
- “It is truly impressive and beautiful”
- “A wonderful statue in a wonderful setting”
- “She is beautiful”
- “Magnificent can’t even describe how beautiful the sculpture is”
- “The sculpture is superbly done”
Art comes in all forms. It may be inspired by “horses living in my head” or to “serve as a symbol of respect and promise for the future.” From wherever the inspiration comes, what makes it art is the artist. And somewhere along South Dakota’s highway is an artist’s gift to you, by way of a generous donor or a father’s blacksmith shop. On your journey, take the time and experience it. And if you are fortunate enough, you’ll get to meet the artist.
As we continue our travels toward the Badlands and the Black Hills, I’d like to leave you with these thoughts, written by Susan Claussen Bunger, Instructor of Native American social systems.
“As is evident through history, humans will ultimately disillusion and betray. As is such, I have a new role model who is solid and sturdy. She literally owns a spine of steel and reminds me of the injustice in the world, but also the strength, perseverance and survival. She signifies people who have prevailed through the centuries. She represents all who resist and strive forward. She portrays a rallying cry for those who wish to be heard and valued. She stands strong and proud, meeting the morning sun and bracing against the nighttime cold. She contemplates the world through a poise of conviction and fearlessness. Her name is “Dignity”.