Mark Cline doesn’t mind being billed as the “Blue Ridge Barnum” for his new exhibit at the Taubman Museum of Art. After all putting on a good show for those that have seen his foam sculpture creations, either at the Natural Bridge resort or outside one of the other venues where they are located has always been the goal. “I’ve been called a lot of things,” said Cline, singling out the Poor Man’s Disney and The Wizard of Odd as favorites.
While many debate about whether or not Cline’s work is art, or belongs in a museum like the Taubman anyway, Cline, a Waynesboro native who talked about his creations during an opening night reception last week, welcomes the discussion. “Its all part of the show.”
Cline said his dedication to a career he sort of fell into after high school may have cost him his first marriage; early failure even led to a suicide attempt. While on a mountaintop near Afton, Cline resolved to close his eyes and walk towards the edge of a cliff. He assumed he’d get there, fall off into the abyss and be at peace. He decided to open his eyes after talking some steps – only to discover he was about a foot short of the edge. Cline now 51, took that as a sign that he was still here for a reason, and although not a religious person, he stepped back from that ledge with a renewed sense of purpose and a will to go on.
That’s led him to “Foamhenge,” the giant King Kong currently adorning a balcony at the Taubman and assorted other characters cast in foam. Many of the pieces brought in for the Taubman exhibit (which runs through April 1) have been outside and are weathered; some have been painted over (quite poorly) to Cline’s chagrin.
The changes and weathering do add personality and a storyline to each piece, notes Cline, who does commission work for businesses and private owners, some of them very wealthy. “It sort of does tell the story when you peel back the layers –who painted it, what their story was.” He’s brought some of the photographs and drawings that are used to help create the sculptures to the Taubman exhibition as well. “Some of them have been outdoors for 15 to 20 years,” he said. “They’re made to turn heads and bring tourists in.”
Even from early childhood Cline was good at identifying shapes, for instance creating a derby hat needed for a school play from his mother’s mixing bowl. “I think she’s still kind of mad at me,” he jokes. Snow sculptures – one he did of the Statue of Liberty as a youngster that wound up in the local paper – made him realize the power of celebrity. Cline knows celebrity now and has been featured on a number of national cable TV networks.
Literally “a bum” after high school with no prospects, Cline drew inspiration from passages in his journal and decided that helping others would bring him happiness. He cleaned up and headed to the employment office. Cline was “halfway out the door,” with his hand on the doorknob, when told about a factory where he could make polyester figurines. The owner who hired him saw a potential and showed Cline how to make a mold of his hand. One thing led to another and Cline was on his way. “Being in the right place at the right time,” he calls it.
Cline, who rebuilt his Rockbridge County studio after a fire in 2001, moved a tour of his foam sculpture art down the road to Natural Bridge the following year. “That’s where we created the Haunted Monster Museum, Dinosaur Kingdom and Foamhenge,” said Cline as he took a break from creating yet another piece last week, a twelve foot tall wizard bound for the Jersey shore. Brian Sieveking, an adjunct curator at the Taubman, helped assemble twenty pieces for the show.
Cline said he would not have selected some of those chosen; others he is “really proud of.” Some date back as far as 1985. His early Styracosaurus would be laughed at by paleontologists; since the Jurassic Park movies came out in the ‘90’s Cline has tried to be more accurate when sculpting dinosaurs in foam, since “the bar has been set higher.” He’s more interested however “in getting kids to marvel [at it].”
Another project Cline is knee-deep in? The gigantic head (12’) and knees of country singer Sara Evans, destined for a private pond outside a speedway in Alabama – set up like she is taking a bath. A billionaire “that is one of my favorite clients, obviously,” commissioned the piece.
“The only reason they exist is to create smiles on people’s faces,” said Cline, who considers the world as his museum and finds it “ironic” that he has now landed at the Taubman. “I look up and see the side of a building, a lake, a ridge… these are all potential stages for me, to put my work out there for the public to see.” He doesn’t care if others see his work as art or not: “I have fun doing what I’m doing.”
See taubmanmuseum.org for more on the Mark Cline exhibition and others that have opened recently at the museum in downtown Roanoke. “Creating happiness is the most important thing,” said Cline, “taking people’s minds away from whatever woes they might have, just for a little while.”