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The Horse Years

May 4, 2016

Wayne Porter's 40-foot horse stands tall over the town of St. Lawrence.


“We’re on top of a giant horse in an almost nonexistent town talking philosophy.”

Wayne Porter was talking about physicist Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard's Walk — and the idea that the courses of our lives are wholly determined by random sets of circumstances beyond our control — between welding in place the pieces of an ear about 2/3 his height.

His enthusiasm for the concept might seem counterintuitive coming from a man who has spent nine winters at St. Lawrence building a 40-foot horse one steel railroad tie plate at a time. “It’ll be 10 years until I get the stupid thing done,” he says. “Next spring, I’m hoping. But I’m always wrong. I was wrong when I first started it and I said it’ll be about three or four years.”

So he works 12 hours or more per day, all winter, until Memorial Day when it’s time to open Porter Sculpture Park in Montrose for the season. Then in mid-September, it’s back to the horse. Some might think such dedication must be born of free will, but Porter argues it's more likely that a random combination of genetics and upbringing chose him to be the horse maker.

The horse has been Porter's wintertime project for several years.

He learned his work ethic and how to work with metal from his father, who owned a blacksmith shop in St. Lawrence.

“My dad had me working hard hours in the blacksmith shop when I was 12. Like someone would come in and bring in an old leg of a bathtub, so I had to look at the one they had and hammer another one out to look like that one. Or a high-speed gear … it has to be balanced because the whole thing will just fall apart. We did it just by looking at it.”

Soon he started using that uncanny ability to eyeball a part — and to recreate an existing one or make one that doesn’t exist yet to spec — to his art.

After attending South Dakota State University and earning degrees in political science and history, he returned to St. Lawrence to farm sheep (Porter, though a vegetarian, would rather see grass grazed than plowed — he can expound at length on his ideal cattle hybrid, based on ancestral aurochs, or the rationale for cloning a wooly mammoth) and get back to sculpting. Soon he sold the sheep and devoted himself full time to his art, beginning with his 60-foot bull head, which towers over the prairie acreage he chose near I-90 in Montrose for his sculpture park.

The bull head was a three-year project. A horse built more-or-less to scale (Porter likes the aesthetics of elongated necks, and it shows, though his is still a “believable horse”) is a more ambitious project. The symmetry required to achieve some balance is more complicated. The center of gravity is higher.

Porter's experience working in his father's blacksmith shop in St. Lawrence is useful when welding high atop the steel horse.

He built a frame out of steel rod based on a small bronze model, then began the slow work of shaping and arc welding each individual plate into place. To shape the plates, he heats them red hot in a wood-burning furnace he built himself, bends the metal with a press made by his dad, then pounds it to perfection. “When I make the horse I have to make it from the inside. I don’t know what it’s going to look like on the outside, so I have to have a different kind of visioning. And when I go down and look from afar, all I can do is see if I did it right or wrong.”

Time is always on his mind. “I don’t stop moving. I just keep cutting steel. I like working fast. I don’t take breaks. I’ve got to move. So I don’t clean the steel up on the floor, because that kills productive time. I always think I’ve got to produce. I’ve got to watch time. Play around, do anything else but build a horse, a 10-year horse will become a 40-year horse. You have to triage and I triage toward productivity.”

When the horse is completed, there’s still the iffy task of transporting it to Montrose. How to figure the Bayesian probability of the horse making it intact? Either way, after the last external plate has been welded in place, Porter will have some internal work to stabilize his horse atop a tractor-trailer. Either that or, “put some wheels and a sail on it, and it will make it there eventually.”

The welding season is almost over, and it’s been a good one. There have been a couple winters when frostbitten fingers have forced some recovery time. “It takes weeks before they’d stop stinging. What I’d do until they heal again is I’d write children’s books until the weather cleared up.”

"I need to create, and if I’m not working on the horse I’m going crazy, so I have to put the energy elsewhere.” Almost as if compelled by an impersonal force greater than himself or the horse.

Michael Zimny is the social media engagement specialist for South Dakota Public Broadcasting in Vermillion. He blogs for SDPB and contributes arts columns to the South Dakota Magazine website.


07:43 am - Mon, May 9 2016
Dakota Gail said:
I first visited the sculpture park about 13 years ago, It is a fabulous experience!

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