“Compassion measures us as humans,” says sculptor Mark Cline, looking up from a life-size replica of the JMU Duke Dog as he applies another layer of plaster to its resin-soaked arm. The mind behind such cultural oddities as “The Town That Time Forgot,” an April Fools’ prank that scattered oversized dinosaur statues across the rural village of Glasgow, and Foamhenge, a scale remake of the Druidical landmark made entirely of foam, is building a duplicate of the famous mascot for the opening of a new restaurant in Harrisonburg.
He has agreed to an interview in the sunlit, two-story garage of a studio he works out of, and as he brushes and glues, he tells me stories about his past, undermining with every word the clever social critique on the tourism industry that I had planned.
Mark Cline works with manic energy. Sketches of his iconic subject matter hang tacked on a bulletin board at knee level. I ask him how much sketch work he uses in the early stages of development; he produces a Spock analogy to describe the bond he forms with his pieces.
“I try to become the piece,” he says, with a smile that disarms me. I expected Kline to either be self-serious in a comical way or funny in his self-deprecation, either a Michael Scott or a Woody Allen. What I hadn’t foreseen was an intelligent, dedicated artist that respected both himself and his audience.
The first time I encountered Cline’s work, I thought I had stumbled on a forgotten roadside attraction. I followed a sign labeled “Haunted Monster Museum and Dinosaur Kingdom” up a narrow hill to a movie prop gate with a skinny green slime creature with eye stalks sitting on the top, waving an arm as if inviting me in.
It was autumn; fallen leaves blew around me as I walked into the woods. Curious, I picked up a trail that led me to a cluster of buildings centered around a dilapidated house where the grotesque and bizarre met and held hands.
A Frankenstein monster with Elvis sideburns in chains lurked on the side porch. Around the corner of the house, a giant chicken stared at me obliquely. Alien tentacles came exploding out the top windows of the three-story house. Equally confused and fascinated, I followed the trail back down to a side clearing, where I immediately fell in love with whatever this place was.
Inexplicably, free of context, cartoonish dinosaurs trampled, gored, trapped and terrorized Union soldiers. One victim hung from the teeth of a T-Rex. Another hid in a tree house from his attacker. An out-of-time paratrooper caught in a tree dangled over the hungry jaws of a giant snake. I had no idea why, and in the quiet gray of late October, I didn’t care. I had found a secret world, and it was mine to write stories about or mock or glamorize as I pleased.
Over the years, I continued to visit, occasionally bringing along a trusted friend or two. I started noticing subtle changes: a new stage platform here, a sheet hanging there, noises in the woods. After an embarrassingly small amount of research, I realized my mistake. The site wasn’t abandoned at all, but functional and alive, with a living creator who could speak for it.
The experience has become symbolic for me of my generation’s struggle with the monster of the Ironic, that self-aware posture of crossed arms at the heart of ugly sweaters parties and trucker hats. I am talking about the distinction between genuine engagement based on appreciation and a joking half-love that acts in the spirit of “because it’s funny.”
Imagine coming to your grandmother’s house and finding five college students hanging out in her basement. They don’t know you or your family; they just stumbled into your grandmother’s basement looking for a good time. They nudge each other and make quiet jokes at your family photos, a wobbly wooden bench your late grandfather built, and your favorite handmade toys. One of them offers you five bucks for a mediocre portrait of your niece because it would be “so random” on her dorm room wall.
When we go to a diner not because we enjoy eating there but because it’s so crazy when the aging waitress yells at the cooks or watch a rap video over and over again because “Can you believe those jackets they wear?” we lose the immediate connection to the experience at hand. We step outside the moment and make a joke of it, isolating ourselves and, more importantly, dehumanizing the people at the center of that moment.
“I was being ironic,” we say, when we dance energetically, sing with emotion, or wear clothes that we think are ugly. “I wouldn’t really wear this dress,” she says, with the dress on her body. We mean that we don’t want our actions to be judged as sincere or earnest, but that contradiction of intention and reality puts us in a strange twilight zone between action and will, locking us outside of the human experience.
The divide isn’t clean cut, of course. Sometimes we should mock bad work; sometimes we ease into the real world by first keeping a distance and then slowly becoming acclimated; my ironic purchase of Blondie’s Greatest Hits becomes actual infatuation. She watches bad horror movies because she loves their silliness.
My motives surrounding my love for the Dinosaur Kingdom were mixed; I connected to the absurdity of the Abraham Lincoln-Pterodactyl paradox in an intangible way. I went because I wanted to, because the place where an oozing snail crept eternally toward a home that had once clearly been lived in bordered on the sublime.
What I had failed to do, however, was recognize that the statues had been made by a real person. I had disconnected myself from the human element that produced it, skewing my view of the monster museum and allowing me to treat it as an artifact, an extension of only me.
I now had a chance to connect the creation to a creator, and it complicated all my perceptions.
That creator, as it turns out, exudes goodwill and effusive charm and boasts a resume that includes tourist attractions in Virginia Beach, model bathroom sinks for the Broadway production of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and thirty to forty towering Yogi Bear statues throughout the U.S. for Jellystone Park Campgrounds. He darts to resin buckets and back, gliding around his current project with a focus that can only be described as professional.
Laughing, the surprisingly young Kline tells me about how he lost the Jellystone contract.
“I was planning to quit anyway,” he says. “I was becoming a manufacturer.” After he accidentally cut off his finger mid-job, though, they fired him.
He then immediately backs down from the seriousness of that process. “I am an entertainer,” he says. “That is what I am. Just one who knows how to do artwork.”
For an entertainer, Cline demonstrates a remarkable sense of artistic purity, shrugging off offers from film reps and MTV networks alike. He talks of turning down the Bad Girls’ Club and Wife Swap, both of which expressed interest in filming at his attractions, because the self-described family man didn’t know if they would treat his work with decency. He never pursued a career in the Hollywood FX scene, because the movie professionals “are not very nice people.”
Cline has set up camp in Natural Bridge instead. He added the Dinosaur Kingdom, as it turns out, to the Haunted Monster Musuem attraction in 2004, after his surprise joke in Glasgow had played itself out.
His work in Natural Bridge has helped breathe life into a community that at one time enjoyed the distinction of a focal point in the necessary route west through the mountains, a regional Pigeon Forge. The miniature golf courses and wax museums lost their main clientele when the Interstate replaced the old state road system, but Cline still develops new projects for the area that receive national attention.
Not all his neighbors appreciate his work, however.
In 2001, Cline’s Enchanted Castle Studio burned to the ground, taking all of his early art and film work with it. According to Cline, the day of the fire he found an envelope in his mailbox stuffed with fundamentalist tracts and a letter from a local religious group telling him to “beware the Lord’s judgment by fire” for his work in haunted houses and monster mazes. Though arson was never proven, Kline still suspects a connection.
As Cline articulates his beliefs about prayer and Jesus’ true significance apart from religion, I look in the yard behind us. The Frankenstein monster and the chicken sit fused, grouped in tall grass with a Frosty the Snowman statue, a cow with a hole in her back right flank, and a headless giraffe toppled sideways. 100 feet away, a smiling dragon three times my size reclines with a lute just under the fence that hides the studio from the road.
Earlier, Cline had described his youth as an undiagnosed ADHD sufferer in county schools; administrators placed him in the special needs class, where he learned both to set himself apart from the handicapped and to defend and support them. He breaks into a flawless Barney Fife impression, and I realize how many times he must have told this story before.
The strange part, the shock of the whole thing, is that I believe him. I see the grotesque, sideshow elements of his work; stories like his would normally make me suspicious. Cline casts a spell, even while applying resin to a fiberglass dog, but it is a good spell.
I ask him about irony, that dispassionate distance that makes treasures like the Dinosaur Kingdom an offhand joke at best. We go to places like Natural Bridge in order to access something real, but only from a distance. We assume that whatever we see is as insincere in its intentions as we are.
Cline gently suggests an old Buster Keaton clip, the famous one where Keaton stands still while a wall with a skinny door frame falls from behind him; the man casually misses a near crushing. Even now, the clip stirs him, he says, but to today’s audiences the wall doesn’t register as real, even though it is a physical prop made of actual wood.
“This is all real,” he says, gesturing. “If you’re not keeping your eyes open, you’ll miss some of this stuff.”
Cline is referring to the silly, strange worlds he builds, but I am thinking back to something he said earlier, the part about compassion measuring our humanity, and I wonder if it isn’t in that eager willingness to seek the good in all things and embrace it that we find a way out, an escape.
We should still make fun; we can’t take ourselves, or our monster museums, too seriously. My concern, though, is that we have become so addicted to stepping outside the frame of place and time that we can’t access the good anymore, because we can’t fully embrace any moment.
Cline refuses to allow his audiences to remain detached. One can accept or reject his work, but they cannot remain indifferent to it.
If ours is the age of the detached, the existence of a man like Cline blows that detachment out of the water, offering a laughable, forested America populated with plastic cows, painted mailboxes, and undeniable dinosaur kingdoms. He teaches us that if we can learn to embrace the world at its silliest, we may discover it at its best.
Mark Cline’s work can be seen in Natural Bridge, VA, or online at http://monstersanddinosaurs.com. Please actually buy tickets before visiting, or risk being eaten.