It’s 3 a.m., January 2013. Sculptor Mark Larkin’s “Blender Brain” is in full churn with images of curlicue vines, women and men in flowing robes, their sinuous arms, legs, torsos whirling to an internal gypsy jazz musical score.
Story by Carolyn Males + Photography by Lloyd Wainscott
This particular pre-dawn awakening is all his wife Audrey’s fault. The day before, she had gifted him with a book of artist Aubrey Beardsley’s black and white woodblock prints. It was those art nouveau images — often humorous, sometimes grotesque and always seductive –– that has triggered the “on” switch in his fevered imagination.
Later that morning, fortified with a cup of coffee, Larkin pulls out a piece of graph paper and begins sketching an idea, one that will occupy both his waking and middle-of-the-night thoughts for months to come. In the end, it will result in Sandy Roads, a 14-foot, 450-pound steel sculpture that, in a few year’s time, will greet island beachgoers.
Clearly, Larkin was not in Omaha anymore. Nor was he still a funeral director. And more importantly, he was no longer in art exile.
30 Years in Art Limbo
As a college student in Nebraska and then in Manchester, England, Larkin’s dreams and waking hours had been filled with creative experiments in ceramics, paint, clay, lead, film and any other materials that struck his fancy. He’d even ventured into printmaking and designing jewelry. After graduation, he married and went into photography, putting his artistic skills to work in portraiture, sepia toning, photo murals as well as in commercial projects. But by 1980, fate intervened. Divorce, child support, then his father’s request for help at the family’s Omaha-based funeral home business sent him off in an unexpected direction. He headed to mortuary school and for the next 30 years, he shelved his esthetic aspirations and lived out his own real-life version of the TV show Six Feet Under.
Four years later, he married Audrey, who would lure him away from formaldehyde and prairies to beach vacations on Hilton Head. Once his toes hit the sand and the sea breeze brushed his skin, he was hooked. He became a man with a plan.
Return from Exile
He retired in 2008. They packed up, moved to the island, and Larkin, his head aswarm with possibilities, bought a large workshop from a cabinetmaker in Bluffton and converted it into a studio. Inching his way back from those fallow years, he started crafting tall-tiered candle stands, which he began selling in local galleries. Buoyed by his success, he bought welding tools, torches, grinders, and a plasma cutter that made nice clean cuts in metal. He fooled around with aluminum and found it too brittle. But a nice thick steel set his heart afire and he began creating 4-foot abstract table sculptures.
Then, a new inspiration struck. Alexander Calder.
Calder, one of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists, created grand-scale colorful mobiles, the movement of their delicately balanced geometric shapes powered by air currents or touch. Calder’s stabiles, on the other hand, sat solidly on the ground often with arms that articulated, sending the abstract shapes dangling from them in motion at the hint of a breeze. Larkin embarked on a series of mobiles and stabiles, a homage to his longtime creative hero.
However, soon Larkin’s fingers itched to create something new. Wall-biles were born. Instead of anchored to a ceiling or floor, he attached the kinetic sculptures to walls as one might do a painting. But oh, the difference. Touch them, blow on them or sit them by an open window with a breeze and watch them go.
Speaking of Calder
But back to our story of Sandy Roads. When we last left Larkin in his Beardsley wee-hour fantasy, he was working out ideas on paper. But now, it’s March and a new element has crept into his blender brain — and that would be Calder. Once again, it’s 3 a.m. and Larkin awakens with the sound of hot club jazz in his head. This time it’s 1930s Paris and Calder’s grand kinetic visions are pulsing through, mixing it up with the curvy torso-like Beardsle — inspired base he’s been designing.
The next morning, Larkin finds himself at the drawing table with a new design, an offbeat pairing. The Beardsley base will now sport three Calderesque articulating arms, long strips of steel that shift up and down independently in the wind.
Several blender-brain sessions later, another theme emerges. It turns out that Calder’s nickname is “Sandy.” Hmmm, thinks Larkin… sandy… the beach! Now two of Larkin’s favorite artists merge with his favorite place. Suddenly, the three arms become pointers to paths leading down to the sea. What better name than Sandy Roads?
A Gift To The Sea
Sandy Roads took its place among 19 other fine art sculptures in September 2013, chosen for the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry’s Public Art Exhibition. Here among the live oaks of Honey Horn, visitors could get close-up looks at huge masterworks of artists from around the world. After the show closed at year’s end, Larkin decided he’d like to gift the sculpture to the island and so began the long process of acceptance by the town, planning, and site placement. Today, Sandy Roads makes its permanent home at Coligny Beach, not far from where Larkin first dipped a toe into the Atlantic.
Sandy’s Road Trip
“What have I missed?” I ask photographer Donna Varner as I arrive early on an April morning at a landscaped circle on the path to Coligny Beach.
“Well,” Varner said, “so far it’s a bunch of guys staring at the ground.”
Indeed, Larkin along with Kevin Eichner and two town workers are on their hands and knees studying a 40-inch square black metal plate that they need to bolt into the concrete pad poured a few days earlier. The fit is critical since it will have to support Sandy Roads, Larkin’s 450-pound metal sculpture that the Town of Hilton Head’s public art program is placing here as a welcome to the beach.
Larkin leans back on his haunches and shakes his head. “We’re going to have to drill new holes.”
While they work, beachgoers, towels draped over their shoulders, shoot the crew interested yet puzzled glances. Once the plate for the 14-foot high sculpture is securely anchored, all four men heft the curvy, three-legged base which despite its airy appearance accounts for about two-thirds of the entire sculpture’s weight. With a bit of maneuvering, they bolt it in place. Then it’s up to Larkin and Eichner to do the rest.
Now comes the tricky part. Larkin hauls out a red 17-foot ladder. What follows is a delicate ballet as the two men lift, place, and balance each of Sandy’s three upper extensions. Unlike most outdoor sculptures Sandy is a kinetic work of art, which means the articulating arms rising from its base will move independently in the breeze. Depending upon the wind, the arms and arrows point in one, two, or even three different directions toward different routes to the sea.
Sandy Roads is up, two arrows pointing slightly skyward; the third swinging in the direction of the Atlantic.
A young boy in a swimsuit strolling past with his family gives Larkin a thumbs up. “Good job!” he shouts.
Larkin, exhausted and relieved, steps back to study the installed statue. Yes, a good job indeed.
Hilton Head’s Public Art Exhibition
Mark Larkin’s Sandy Roads made its debut at the 2013 Public Art Exhibition.
Don’t miss this year’s event when the Coastal Discovery Museum’s grounds once again are transformed into a giant outdoor canvas. The yearly show, the fourth juried exhibition and sponsored by the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, runs from Oct. 1, 2018 through Jan. 31, 2019. The theme will be “Envisioning Connections.” Jurors have selected 20 sculptures which best reflect a sense of “discovery, exploration, interaction, recreation, education and an element of surprise within the beauty of the Lowcountry region.”
Nineteen of the large pieces will stand among the fields, wooded tracts and gardens at Honey Horn. An additional piece, a neon sculpture, will be on display at the Hilton Head Airport. For more information, visit www.hhipublicart.org.