Tension and Release

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

Mark, though, was not having fun. TV cameras make him tense even before they arrive. At Angel Fire, before his accident, he and Elizabeth had a fight. "I can't listen now," he told her. "My mind is on 20 different things." That, she said, was his problem.

Now, once again, he was preparing for a date with a camera crew. He hadn't mentioned his sledding disaster to the Guinness producers, so they didn't know he was hurt or that he'd fallen behind schedule. He didn't want to scare them. He figured he could always tell them later, once the machine was working. Once they were about to film a triumph, not another disaster.

It's only natural that the newest generation of TV shows gravitates toward Mark. Extreme sports and "real world" programming concern themselves with "real" people and events, but in fact they show a heightened reality, a world that, like Mark's sculptures, is polished, bigger than life, and moves fast. Budgets are low; the announcers are breathless; and vividness always trumps subtlety. Above all else, you must capture the viewer's attention.

Azaba at the Art Car Parade: Elizabeth sat astride the monster's neck.
Mike Stravato
Azaba at the Art Car Parade: Elizabeth sat astride the monster's neck.
Tension: When the machine was cocked, Azaba rose in the air.
Deron Neblett
Tension: When the machine was cocked, Azaba rose in the air.

In '97, during Mark's first sled race at Angel Fire, he snagged a few seconds on Competition. He had a great-looking sled -- it resembled a ladybug on skis -- and a great back story. As Mark began his 15-second run down the ski slope, the announcer told viewers that the sculptor, a first-time racer from snowless Houston, had built a sled and entered Angel Fire only days after watching another extreme-sled race on TV. The bug sled zipped down the hill, but at the bottom, it failed to brake, and Mark crashed, unhurt but humbled, into the padding at the end of the run. His 15 seconds of fame were over, and the cameras moved to the next entrant.

Television got into Mark's blood like a tropical disease. He returned to Angel Fire and looked for other opportunities to feed his fever. In October he and two friends, Sean Ham and Ken Crimins, flew to London to compete in Junkyard Wars, a Learning Channel combination of reality TV and game show. In each episode, two competing teams are plopped into a junkyard, given a surprise assignment to build a particular working machine out of scrap, and assisted by an expert on that particular species of machinery. Mark, Sean and Ken christened themselves the Texas Scrap Daddies.

In their first round of competition, the teams were assigned to build dragsters. The dragster expert irritated Mark, who was used to doing things his own way. The guy knew racing cars, but he'd always built them from brand-new parts, not the unpredictable flotsam of junkyards. But as the cameras rolled, the Scrap Daddies pieced together a car from a lawn mower, a golf cart and a wrecked motorcycle. They won the race by one one-thousandth of a second and advanced to the semifinals. Mark savored the taste of televised triumph.

For the next episode, and the next round of competition, they were assigned to build a hovercraft. Once again, the expert irritated Mark, but once again, the Scrap Daddies produced a functioning machine, one able to float six inches off the ground. But on the racecourse, with massive Sean in the driver's seat, the hovercraft tipped, and the Scrap Daddies lost.

For his next TV outing, he wanted a team he unambiguously controlled. He'd already begun to build fighting robots to compete on Comedy Central's BattleBots. Elizabeth argued against the plan -- the radio controls were expensive, the competition required an entry fee, and they'd have to pay their own way to Las Vegas -- but Mark could not be swayed. He built one robot for each weight category, and in November he, Elizabeth and four members of the Scrap Daddy crew headed to Las Vegas.

Most fighting robots look like metal boxes with a bad attitude, or vacuum cleaners gone over to the dark side. But Mark, as always, had to do things his own way. His four bots resembled a family of stainless-steel turtles that had somehow evolved spikes and sharp whirling blades. Unfortunately style didn't count. All of Mark's bots were drubbed, and one even bled oil onto the arena, creating a mess that took a half-hour to clean. The spectators hated the delay. When Mark appeared to fight his next robot, they booed him.

He yearned for redemption. It was too soon to design new war machines for BattleBots; the next competition was a year away. But in December the Guinness show sent e-mail to former Junkyard Wars contestants, seeking a contraption that would throw refrigerators. Mark signed up.

Naturally, Elizabeth objected that the project made no economic sense. Mark figured that even using scrap, the throwing machine would cost $3,000 to build. If it worked, the Guinness people would pay a $500 honorarium.

Mark didn't care. He justified the expense by telling himself that he could later convert the throwing machine's base into an outdoor studio. He'd erect the frame in his yard, wrap it with tarps to make a giant tepee, and use the heavy-duty axle as a hoist for big projects.

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