The Horse Years: Wayne Porter Wraps Up Another Winter's Work on His Horse on the Hill

Last Updated by Michael Zimny on

“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. 

porterhorse13*web.jpeg

His enthusiasm for the concept might seem counterintuitive coming from a man who has spent nine St. Lawrence, South Dakota winters 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 3 or 4 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 horsemaker.  

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.” 

porterhorse8*1280.jpeg

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 SDSU 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 then 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 bullhead, which towers over the prairie acreage he chose near I-90 in Montrose for his sculpture park. 

The bullhead 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. 

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.”

stove2.jpeg

press2.jpeg

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 got to move. So I don’t clean the steel up on the floor, because that kills productive time. I always think I got to produce. I got to watch time. Play around, do anything else but build a horse, a ten 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 then himself or the horse. 

porterhorse29*web.jpeg

subscribe to SDPB email updates banner image Web_Art&Culture_330x85-2.png sdpb food pages link children and education link banner image sdpb news and information link image science and technology posts link sports and leisure link banner image

Related content from SDPB Radio - Art

Dignity Dedicated Near Chamberlain

South Dakota has a new monumental piece of art. A fifty foot tall stainless steel sculpture now stands on the...

NATIVE Act Boosts Tribal Tourism, Art

This week Congress passed an act to spur tribal tourism and increase support for tribal art. The act boosts federal...

Dakota Midday: 'Rivers, Wings, And Sky' And Artistic Partnership

Art and poetry go hand in hand. Artist Nancy Losacker and and poet Norma Wilson show just how to combine the two creative outlets in their joint-exhibit and new...

Eagle Butte Explores Culture And Art At Graffiti Jam

Artists from around the world are shaking their spray paint cans in preparation for the second annual RedCan Graffiti Jam. Hosted by the Cheyenne River Youth Project,...

Books

Michael Dirda: A Life In Books And The Pulitzer Prize

Pulitzer Prize-winning book reviewer Michael Dirda takes a look back at a career as a professional reader. From...

Dakota Midday: J. Ryan Stradal

J. Ryan Stradal is the author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest. A Minnesota native, Stradal lives in Los Angeles...

Dakota Midday: Paul Andrew Hutton

Paul Andrew Hutton joined Dakota Midday from the SD Festival of Books in Brookings. Hutton is a distinguished...

Dakota Midday: Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Jennifer Richard Jacobson is the author of the 2016 Young Readers One Book South Dakota, Andy Shane and Delores...

Music

Dakota Midday: Bob Everhart Tours With Rural Music

Live phone interview with Smithsonian-Folkways recording artist Bob Everhart. He’ll discuss the preservation of...

Glenn Miller Music Still Puts Folks "In The Mood"

Glenn Miller and his big band were at the height of their fame when World War Two began. Two years after...

Original Compositions Celebrate National Parks

A Michigan ensemble is hitting the road with new music to celebrate the anniversary of the National Park System. Two...

Dakota Midday: Hank Harris And Jeff Severson

Hank Harris and Jeff Severson join Dakota Midday for live music and musings on everything from the influence of...

Theater

Dakota Midday: Lisa McNulty On Female Artists

The Off-Broadway Women's Project Theater is the oldest and largest theater company that promotes women artists in...

Dakota Midday: Playwright Bill Russell's Journey to Broadway

Tony nominated Broadway lyricist and playwright Bill Russell was born in Deadwood and raised in Spearfish. His...

DWU Plans $1 Million Theater Project

After dedicating a new sports and wellness center this past month, Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell is now...

DakotaCast Podcast (Episode #12): Rapid City Central Theater Director Justin Speck

The 60th annual State One Act Play Festival took place at O’Gorman High School in Sioux Falls over the weekend. It...