Local man builds quirky art empire
By Sarah Freeze | Photos by Stephanie Harris
Mark Cline talks with an energy that’s hard to miss. His mind jumps from topic to topic so fast that there’s barely enough time for his mouth to catch up. He swaggers across his studio, which is packed full of his fiberglass sculptures and sweltering in the late summer. But the heat doesn’t seem to phase him as he discusses the mechanics of his Dr. Seuss’s Grinch sleigh that he rides annually in the Christmas Parades for both Lexington and Buchanan, Virginia.
“It rocks back and forth when I walk to the front and back,” Cline explains, gesturing with his hands. “You can see Max down there,”
He points at the iconic pup with a reindeer antler tied to his head,
“I come down here and do the whole ‘Max! Where are you, boy?!’ — the whole thing,” he says.
He acts it all out in front of the float, which is full of other sculptures to be climbed on, bending down on one knee near the front to talk to the fiberglass sculpture in his stage voice. All that’s missing is the green makeup and a Santa suit.
Cline’s company, Enchanted Castle Studios, has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a Monster Museum at Natural Bridge in 1982, which he had up-and-running by the time he was 21-years-old.
In the past 29 years, Cline has started a Ghost Tour in Lexington that still runs annually from Memorial Day weekend until October. He’s been commissioned for projects all over the state, from Virginia Beach to Buena Vista. His other attractions — including “Professor Cline’s Dinosaur Kingdom” and “Hunt Bigfoot with a Redneck” have been temporarily postponed due to a fire at Cline’s Studio back in 2012.
But here at JMU, not a lot of students would know who Cline is at first mention. Perhaps they would know about Foamhenge, which is an exact replica of Stonehenge made of Styrofoam located just an hour and 10 minutes away from campus in Natural Bridge, Virginia.
Foamhenge was built on April Fool’s day in 2004 as a practical joke. Sculpted from donated foam and reinforced on beams of donated wood and steel, each piece is an exact copy of the 4,000-year-old stones in England. The only real difference is that, while the druids took 1,500 years to complete the original Stonehenge, Cline and his friends were able to craft the stones in just six weeks, and raised them at their location in Natural Bridge in a single afternoon.
“[The druids] should have used foam,” Cline says jokingly.
Cline’s company tries to do a sculpture every year for April Fool’s; the most recent was a giant fiberglass ant on a water tower in Goshen, Virginia, in 2013. Another in Glasgow, Virginia, involved several fiberglass dinosaurs that were put up all over the town. Some still remain today, earning the town the title of “The Town that Time Forgot.” But none of the other sculptures have received the attention that this Styrofoam replica has over the last 10 years, an impressive number, seeing that the sculptures were only supposed to last about 90 days.
Instead, Foamhenge has been featured in a Huffington Post article titled “America’s Quirkiest Roadside Attractions” on Sept. 11, as well as ranking third on National Geographic’s “Top 10 U.S. Roadside Attractions.” The Henge even has its own definition on Urban Dictionary. Cline says that he’s gotten phone calls about his work being featured in tour books overseas.
But Cline was not an overnight success; all of this has come from a lifetime of hard work and dedication to a job that he loves. The real start for Enchanted Castle Studios came during a low point in Cline’s life. Fresh out of high school, Cline’s grades weren’t good enough for college and he wasn’t what he calls “military material.” So without school and without a job, he spent that first year living in Staunton on his own.
“I was a bum,” he admits easily.
That all changed when, one day, Cline took out his notebook and wrote down one simple question: “What do I want out of life?” The answer came easy enough: He wanted to be happy. With that written down, his next step was completely logical. He hitchhiked to the unemployment office and took the first job that they had available: working at a resin company.
Resin is commonly used to make small plastic knickknacks, and that’s what Cline did for the company. Then one day the owner of the company pulled Cline aside after work.
“Let me show you how to make a mold of your hand,” the owner said to the 19-year-old Cline, who eagerly consented.
“Man I could make anything out of this,” Cline said when he held the perfect mold of his hand later.
“Good,” his boss says. “Here’s a five-gallon bucket of resin, go make stuff.”
Now, Cline leans against the door of his studio, looking out over the small lot of his artwork that has been used all over the state of Virginia. He folds his hand in front of him, pretending to write on it as he thinks of that day back on that park bench.
“What if I hadn’t sat on the bench that day?” he asks, the question sounding like he’s asked it several times before. “What if my pen was out of ink? What if I had forgotten my notebook that day? Or just didn’t want to write ’cause I was feeling lazy or something?”
The “what if” questions go on and on; as all of the possibilities play through Cline’s head as he regards the moderate success he’s built for himself.
Finally, he nods to himself and shakes off the darker thoughts. He looks over his work again and smiles. “It’s not about the money,” he says, completely unprovoked. “It’s about the healing, making people feel good. That’s what it’s all about.”