If you’ve seen a parade of 8-foot-tall ants climbing the side of a building, a life-sized foam replica of Stonehenge, or a T-Rex lunging through the trees with a Union soldier in its mouth, then you know the work of Mark Cline.
Dubbed “Virginia’s Roadside Attraction King” by Atlas Obscura, Cline has spent decades building foam and fiberglass sculptures, many inspired by monster and science-fiction movies. He’s got thousands of works at truck stops, amusement parks, restaurants, and other unexpected sites in the commonwealth and around the country.
Despite his relative fame as an artist, the Waynesboro native doesn’t seek accolades. “One time NPR asked me, ‘How do you want to be remembered? Give us three words.’ And I said, ‘A good man.’ They were expecting ‘a sculptor’ or ‘an entertainer,’ but none of that’s important. It’s really not important,” he says.
What matters to Cline is knowing that every project created in his studio in Natural Bridge, Virginia, entertains the people who see it. Whether he’s built a giant octopus eating a boat in a lake or installed Spiderman scaling down the outside of an old building, his projects mean something.
“[Seeing these sculptures] gives people a chance to smile. It gives them a chance to laugh, and laughter has been proven to heal people,” he says. “I had a conversation with my daughter earlier today saying, ‘Honey, if you can find something that you go into in your life that helps people, then you have found your place in heaven.’ Because that’s where heaven is. It’s a place that’s above poverty. It’s above hate. It’s above pettiness. It’s all about healing, and you’ve got to do it through whatever talents you have.”
You could call it divine intervention that Cline became a sculptor at all. He describes being 19 years old, “jobless, penniless, and fresh out of high school with no immediate or long-range plans.” One day, sitting on a park bench and feeling frustrated, he asked himself what he wanted out of life. As he wrote in his journal, he realized he wanted happiness—and the only way he would find it was by helping others.
He hitchhiked to Waynesboro, went to the employment office, and asked for a job. “They said, ‘We don’t have anything.’ I said, ‘Well, okay.’ I turned around and was getting ready to walk out the door—I had my hand on the doorknob—and the lady says, ‘We have something.’ I said, ‘I’ll take it.’”
The job was with Red Mill Manufacturing, a plant where they made figurines out of resin mixed with pecan shell flour. After work one day, a co-worker showed Cline how to make a mold of his hand. It was a revelation. “I said, ‘I can make all kinds of stuff out of this.’ He said, ‘You sure can, Mark. Here’s a five-gallon bucket. Go home and play with it.’”
That fortuitous connection gave Cline an outlet for the overactive imagination he’d embraced as a child, back when he built inventive props for school plays and pulled practical jokes like slicing off a fake hand in art class. The adult version of his creative streak became sculpting with fiberglass.
He taught himself how to do it, since “there was nobody out there to show me how it was done.” As a result, he developed his own technique—and for now he’s the only one in the world who sculpts the way he does.
As part of the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program at Virginia Humanities, which pairs master artists with vetted apprentices, Cline is passing on his creative approach for the very first time. He’s begun teaching and mentoring Brently Hilliard in fiberglass sculpture. Through the process of mutual discovery, he hopes to transmit the aspects of the craft that matter most to him.
“I could teach anybody how to be a sculptor,” Cline says, “but it’s no good unless you’re using your talents for something good. So ultimately I would like to see [Hilliard] use whatever I teach him to help others and inspire them in some way.”
Being an artist isn’t easy, he says. The work itself requires a willingness to suffer. “I lost my first wife over it. I had two major fires. I came so close to going bankrupt, one time I was on the courthouse steps.” But he welcomes the failures as well as triumphs “because that’s where you learn.”
Turns out the young man sitting on that park bench had it right. “Twenty-four hours a day on this planet, someone is being entertained by something that I’ve built, something that came out of me, something that I created,” he says. “My goal was to create happiness, and that’s exactly what this stuff does.”
Cline and his apprentice, Brently Hilliard, will be celebrated at the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase, along with 14 other master/apprentice pairs on May 5 at James Monroe’s Highland.