Tension and Release

Mark Bradford built the world's biggest, coolest catapult. But could the unlucky artist make it work?

After graduating, he worked as a carpenter for a couple of years until a friend's mother, herself an artist, talked him into studying art at Houston Community College. He soon dropped his academic courses in favor of welding big metal sculptures. His landlord let him display them in his apartment complex's front yard: weird thronelike chairs made of steel vines; a half-dog, half-bug creature; a smiling face with spiky hair. For the '90 Art Car Parade, he built the Steamroller, a giant cylinder powered by human beings who ran inside it like hamsters in an exercise wheel.

Along the way, Mark got married, had a daughter and got divorced. He says he's matured a lot in the last decade, and that it shows in his art. "Mature" isn't the first word that pops to mind when you consider Mark's shiny, frenetic oeuvre, but over the years, his pieces have become more complex and polished -- as in polished with a fiberglass grinding disk. Mark says he's always learning something new about metal and motors, and those new ideas often show up later in his works.

If you live in Houston, you've almost certainly seen Mark's work -- if not in the Art Car Parade, perhaps at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, where his Watch Owl stands guard outside the south gate. Or, even more likely, you've noticed the one-man show that Mark has installed in his own front yard, at 100 Heights Boulevard, across the street from the Art Car Museum (see "Revolution in Chrome," by Lisa Gray, July 6, 2000). The bungalow he rents is almost entirely obscured by Carmadillo, a 50-foot-long creature whose gazillion shiny scales cover a pickup truck's motor and a van's frame. Other works rotate in and out, as Mark sells them or tires of them. In March the yard included his and Elizabeth's sleds from Angel Fire; several 12-foot-tall dancing creatures; and Azaba, a long-legged stainless-steel monster with eyes made of big blue marbles.

Mark usually loses interest in his creations as soon as they're finished -- for instance, he doesn't bother to keep Carmadillo in driving condition -- but he still has a soft spot for Azaba. He created the monster for last year's Art Car Parade, but unlike most of the wheel-based artwork, Azaba didn't begin life as a car. Mark built the creature like an especially complex piece of sculpture that just happened to clutch wheels in its four clawed feet. Motor-scooter engines hid inside Azaba's legs, and the driver sat inside the beast's belly, invisible to viewers. For the parade, Elizabeth dressed as a half-naked prehistoric babe and sat astride Azaba's neck, waving to the crowd while Mark drove. They won the Judges' Choice Award.

You might have expected that to be the high point of Mark's involvement with the beast, that he'd park the monster in the front yard and forget him. But Mark didn't lose interest in this creation, and while designing the Refrigerator Throwing Machine, he hatched a grand plan. Instead of using just any massive hunk of metal as the heavy weight, he'd use Azaba. The monster would show TV viewers what Mark's work is all about: recycling, and movement, and fun. And perhaps most important, Azaba would look wicked cool dangling high in the air.

At a coffeehouse, Mark sketched his vision. He'd remove Azaba's engines and wheels, and give him a canister to clutch to his belly. The canister would be open, so Mark could add or subtract hunks of scrap metal to adjust the machine's throwing power. More weight meant more power, but also, more risk that the machine might buckle.

Math and physics, of course, had never been Mark's best subjects. He's a hands-on thinker, and so he could put his hands on something, he built two scale models of the trebuchet -- one three feet tall, another 20 feet tall -- and tested them in his driveway and backyard. Tinkering revealed the machine's secrets. To get the farthest possible throw, he found, the sling should release when the long arm is at a 48 degree angle from the ground. Earlier, and the payload flies high instead of long; later, and it smacks the ground too soon.

But even the 20-foot model used a counterweight that was only one-twentieth the size of Azaba, who in his modified state weighed 6,000 pounds. Mark did the math and got someone to check it; he found that when the full-scale throwing machine flew into action, Azaba would exert 10,000 pounds of force. The axle, he knew, was super-strong, made of 410 stainless -- but was it strong enough to withstand that? What about the chain that held Azaba? And what if the whole assembly began to twist? Could it bear the weight? If Azaba crashed to the ground, could Mark rebuild him?

The Scrap Daddies remind you of Peter Pan's Lost Boys. Some of the guys look like artists, others like construction workers. They drifted around the throwing machine like kids at a clubhouse. Mark called W.T. "my main man," but he didn't know W.T.'s last name, or Cazz's, either. B.J. (Walter), whose cell phone sometimes connected the throwing machine site to civilization, turned out to be a lawyer. B.J. said he didn't have a lot of fun as a kid, so he's determined to have it now.

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