An art aquatic

Terrence Martin stands inside his life-size, 15-foot-tall whale.

Terrence Martin stands inside his life-size, 15-foot-tall whale.

Photo By Gabor Mereg

Terrence Martin smacks a metal hammer against a steel plate, sharp thuds echoing from one side of his studio to the other. Resembling a burly caveman, Martin takes full swings each time, clutching his homemade hammer and slamming it cruelly onto the flat steel until it curves.

Inside his coal mine of a warehouse in West Sacramento, Martin is building his very own Trojan horse. Only, it’s a whale. A life-size, 15-foot-tall whale.

And, just like the Greeks’ secret weapon, people can gather inside of this whale. “Once it’s sealed completely up, you’ll be able to listen to a great echo in here,” explains Martin, 41, while standing inside the monster.

Outside the whale, he shouts over the classic-rock tunes blasting from his stereo while pointing out the whale’s arching walls, made entirely of steel scraps, or what he calls “drop-off,” made from leftovers from his business, Jagged Edge Metal Art.

So why is Martin building a giant whale? His goal is to break into the public-art realm by constructing the biggest sculpture of his portfolio and finding a home for it upon its completion in early 2010.

Like Ahab and his white whale, Martin’s fish has consumed his life since he started building it in April 2009.

“It’s sort of an ‘if you build it, they will come’ thing,” Martin says of making a living at public art. “There’s a lot of politics involved. Sometimes I think that maybe going against the grain is more likely to get you noticed.”

For Martin, a public-art gig would open many doors.

Public-art commissions work like this: Government-funded panels select site-specific proposals at proposed and existing locations. In Sacramento, ordinances require that 2 percent of eligible city and county capital-improvement-project budgets be set aside for the commission’s purchase and installation of artworks.

Artists can receive up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for their art.

But there are strict guidelines: All applicants must be active professional artists—teachers, exhibitors or previously commissioned designers. Martin describes this as a “once you’re in, you’re in” network.

In general, commissions are based on quality of past work, artistic excellence of a proposed design, and the artist’s experience and ability to carry out a project, according to Shelly Willis, art in public places administrator for the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission.

Martin previously had abided by these rules and applied for commissions, but with no luck. So he began constructing the whale with the scraps he’d normally recycle after building “meat and potatoes” projects: logos, shelf hinges, and even swine flu hand-wash stations for Nugget Markets, Mikuni Restaurant Group and more.

Inspired by a dream of the peaceful mammal, Martin researched the whale’s anatomy, chalked up a drawing on his studio floor and went to town.

And already, Martin’s luck is changing: He is currently one of three finalists for a public-art commission for the Santa Rosa Transit Mall, and is also part of the pre-qualified pool of applicants for the Sacramento airport expansion project, lead by SMAC.

No doubt, previous private commissions and his commercial work helped boost his chances; his noteworthy pieces include the hanging octopus sculpture at Midtown’s Mikuni and butterfly benches at The Fountains shopping center in Roseville.

“I’m happy to do [commercial work], but I just want to be doing the big things, too. I want to leave a footprint on the planet in some good way,” he says.

Before turning to art in 2004, Martin worked for more than nine years as a cardiopulmonary perfusionist, operating the heart-lung machine during cardiac surgeries. While on call for Sutter Medical Center, he taught himself welding in his Natomas garage.

In 2004, he’d saved enough money and traded in his scrubs for a flame-patterned bandana and welding apron.

“I don’t even know what happened between the ages of 25 and 35. All I was doing was working. Some of the surgeons thought I was crazy, but I explained that I wasn’t getting any younger,” he says.

Martin started off by donating several sculptures; a recent gift was a metal giraffe, titled “Up to My Neck,” which was installed this month at the Sacramento Zoo. This sculpture, also made of recycled scrap metal, won the Award of Excellence at the California State Fair this year.

So why not donate the whale, if only just to get his name out there?

Martin quit his health-care job—and built a giant metal whale sculpture. He wants to break into the public-art commission scene. Think Field of Dreams …


“I’ve donated so much, I can’t do it anymore,” says Martin. “It’s almost like being a rock band starting out. You’ve got to schlep equipment around in your car to free gigs, just to get your name out there. At some point it’ll pay off.”

Martin also is known for his guerrilla marketing. On Second Saturdays, he drives around in a truck displaying his creations: a giant metal boot, a fork and a scaly fish.

Once, he parked his truck in front of Mayor Kevin Johnson’s office, which prompted the mayor to come outside and say hi.

Similarly, when Mikuni asked Martin to make them something small—an octopus arm or tentacle—for a restaurant, he built a 13-foot-wide octopus and drove it out to their corporate headquarters.

“There’s a big difference between seeing art in person and seeing it in a PowerPoint presentation,” Martin says.

“When we first saw it from upstairs, it looked like a big spaceship,” says Mark Hefling, vice president of design and development for Mikuni. “Everyone fell in love with it.”

Former SMAC art in public places administrator Linda Bloom applauds Martin’s publicity methods. “Artists for centuries have looked for patrons with their work. I certainly promote self-enterprise,” she says. Bloom, along with current SMAC administrator Willis, also warns of the difficulty Martin may face in finding a site-specific commission with his whale—a hard truth Martin handles by keeping his eye out for sea-life-themed developments.

He’s a man with a blowtorch and a plan, eager to unveil the finished whale tail. He’s designed an entire forklift operation to remove the 4,000-pound sculpture from his studio when it’s ready for a spin around town.

“It is like Field of Dreams,” he laughs. “I might be standing in a cornfield with nobody showing up, but I’m hoping that won’t happen.”

Tale of a whale:

The specs on Terrence Martin’s public-art whale sculpture

• It’s made of roughly 5,000 individualpieces of various sizes.

• Approximately 200 pounds of welding wire will be used by the time it is finished.

• Some 2,500 cubic feet of argon/carbon-dioxide gas mixture will be usedby completion.

• The estimated weight of the finalsculpture is 4,000 pounds.

• Martin never used a tape measureduring its construction.

• The whale is so huge, it must be laiddown in order to get out of the studio.

• It’s made of roughly 5,000 individual pieces of various sizes.

• Approximately 200 pounds of welding wire will be used by the time it is finished.

• Some 2,500 cubic feet of argon/carbon-dioxide gas mixture will be used by completion.

• The estimated weight of the final sculpture is 4,000 pounds.

• Martin never used a tape measure during its construction.

• The whale is so huge, it must be laid down in order to get out of the studio.