Harnessing Motion: Professor's Cast-Off Metal Creations
By LAURA J. MONDUL | SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER | July 05, 2009*** Published: June 22, 2009 in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier. ***
Those who know him describe Marvin Tadlock as a character of many layers, much like the sculptures he creates. Not your average sculptor, Tadlock also is a teacher, inventor and mechanic rolled into one.
"The thing about Marvin is he is a remarkably seeing person," said Perry Johnson, a former student of Tadlock's and now assistant professor at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol. "On the surface, he's brash and a ruffian, but underneath he's remarkably sensitive. I don't think you can be an artist without that sensitivity."
Tadlock has become something of a trademark at VI, where he has been teaching for 38 years. He is known for his sometimes biting humor, demonstrated in his many sculptures, which are displayed across campus, as well as in downtown Bristol, Kingsport and many other cities across the eastern United States. His pieces are easily recognizable – usually massive steel structures, stationary and kinetic, as Tadlock loves working with motion. For years, he has been creating art using cast-off metal from the junk yard to represent his impressions of the world around him – but that has not always been the case.
A native of Wilmington, N.C., Tadlock grew up working in the garage with his father, who was a wheel alignment specialist.
"Building things really comes easy for me," he said. "It's a lot easier than painting. I can't be abstract with paint, but I can't be anything but abstract with metal. I guess I prefer the metal because I'm just a three-dimensional person, not two-dimensional."
Tadlock left home and attended officers candidate school in Oklahoma, and served in the U.S. Army Reserves for about nine years, but realized he just wasn't a military person. He ended up studying engineering at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and working as a maintenance mechanic at Carolina Nitrogen Corp. The work ended up being an important building block for his future: Tadlock said he learned to fabricate steel, put things together, balance and move things, which would become important tools of his trade.
"I learned how to work," he said. "Like using the grinder – people think you just start grinding, but really, it's almost like a ballet. If you use the tool correctly, you make it really work for you."
After four years at the plant, Tadlock realized he was very visual, and kept noticing things and putting them together in designs in his head.
"My life is like living a Rorschach Test," he said, laughing. "I'm just always looking at things, moving them, lining them up and making them click."
He recalls the pivotal moment in his career when he and several workers were moving sheets of steel with a crane. When they lifted a particular piece, Tadlock noticed the colorful rust patterns that had been created on the steel by condensation, and found it beautiful. Though his coworkers thought his perception unusual, Tadlock had found his calling and enrolled in night classes for art. From there, he was hooked.
Within five years, Tadlock had completed his bachelor's and master's of fine arts degrees at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Upon completion of his degree, he started teaching at VI, where he leads classes in sculpture, design, ceramics and art education. In 1990, he also completed his doctorate of education at the University of Georgia.
Now, he spends most of his time in his studio and offices at the Virginia Hutton Blevins Art Complex at VI, which ironically, used to be the Blevins Tire building before it was donated to the college.
Tadlock's studio contains an impressive amalgamation of large steel sculptures as well as the smaller knick-knacks he is always working on. Also inhabiting the building is Tadlock's faithful sidekick, Lewis the dog, who is almost as much an icon at the college as Tadlock himself.
But Tadlock busies himself with much more than teaching – he produces sculptures regularly and participates in several annual juried art competitions. He has had countless pieces displayed publicly, many of which have been bought by businesses for permanent display.
"Marvin has produced so much art over the years, and that's really difficult for a teacher, because you are so focused on sharing your creativity with your students," said Jay Phyfer, a photography professor at VI and long-time friend of Tadlock. "What's so impressive is that creativity extends beyond sculpture – he's also an inventor. If he needs a special tool, he'll make it."
One example is the "Tad-Jaw III," a massive power hammer that Tadlock built in 1999. The machine now inhabits the lower floor of his studio. Like most of his work, the hammer is built almost entirely of salvaged metal from the junk yard, including part of a cement mixer, a vise and an air cylinder. Tadlock uses the machine, itself a piece of art, to form and shape steel for new sculptures.
"I looked at buying one, but I couldn't afford $5,000-$6,000, so I just made one for about $500," Tadlock said. "Even though I flunked out of math trying to be an engineer, I know how things go together. Some people just do things intuitively rather than mathematically."When he is not teaching, building or inventing, Tadlock travels to where his sculptures are on display to do restorative work, treating the rust that accumulates over time. Along with Lewis, he packs up his diesel truck with a propane torch, metal brush and his secret formula of linseed oil, paste wax and turpentine, and embarks on road trips to preserve his work in cities such as Lenoir and Cary, N.C., and even as far away as Philadelphia.
As if traveling to restore these works weren't enough, Tadlock notes that it's a feat just to deliver the pieces, which are often up to 12 feet high and weigh as much as 400 pounds. Once again, Tadlock relies on his knowledge of moving and balancing, and often can load the pieces into the back of his truck himself, using a small crane that of course, he built, and is mounted in the truck bed.
"Marvin has so many facets, as an artist, sculptor, welder and teacher, but he also has a good soul," Phyfer said. "He always tries to do the right thing – every
semester he worries about grades like he's receiving them rather than giving them. He always tries to do things for others.
"Above all, Marvin is very free and spontaneous, and you can see it in every piece he makes."