Portrait Of The Artist: How Terrence Martin Is Changing The World One Sculpture At A Time
He is a sculptor of metal. A liberator of metal. His art hinges on a paradox—how to make hard, dead material alive, fluid.
“Six hundred pounds of metal can talk,” he tells the world. “Really. It moves, it sings, it’s delicate—and the most amazing thing about metal is that it makes people talk. And move. Maybe even sing, too… I create metal art with an edge.”
This bold proclamation appears on Terrence Martin’s official website. What metal is. How it behaves. What it can become. The 46-year-old artist has spent the last ten years of his life converting his artistic ideals into sharp-smooth, lustering realities. Based out of an industrial warehouse in West Sacramento, where the sparks and smoke of his welding cast a vivid glow, Martin has created metal sculptures for some of the biggest names in California — the Pac-12 conference, Sacramento Kings, Vail Resorts, to name a few. He’s appeared on the DIY Network multiple times and has even been approached by HGTV for his own show, though he doesn’t think he quite fits the corporate mold.
The man’s passion for metal is rare and genius, but what drew me to him in the first place is this little relevant fact: Terrence Martin grew up in Gardnerville.
Martin was in grade school when his mother moved him and his sister from the Bay Area to Carson Valley. His grandfather, Shirley Pullman, had run a successful business in the Valley for years. Terrence would spend middle school and high school working for Pullman Heating and Air, developing a hardy work ethic.
“My grandfather made sure I was never bored,” he said.
Still, the young Martin found time for genuine G-ville play, otherwise known as “hooligan stuff.”
“We’d go out on Fish Springs Road to play in the ponds there, and to shoot BB guns and all that.”
I asked Martin if and how his artistic side manifested itself in childhood.
“I had the early influences of being creative and just building stuff,” he said. “Cars had a big influence on me—the mechanical aspects of cars.
“Thing is you just don’t know what you’ll become when growing up,” he continued. “Driving to the Bay Area and seeing all those driftwood sculptures at Berkeley right there, I just loved them. And that spider that used to sit outside Mound House? I know I was just a kid then, but all these things made me who I am.”
Many people who grew up in Western Nevada probably remember the spider Martin is talking about—that old VW Bug that had been painted like a black widow and lifted up on eight giant metallic legs.
Yet despite these early enticements in his life, Martin chose another career path after graduating from Douglas High in 1986. He moved to Salt Lake City and, at the University of Utah, pursued dual bachelor’s degrees in behavioral science and health. He ended up working for the university hospital in the highly specialized field of artificial organs, specifically artificial hearts.
“Testing, lab testing,” he clarified. “Essentially we tested artificial hearts in animals for human use.”
Martin’s undergraduate work led him to graduate school in Portland to become a certified cardiopulmonary perfusionist.
“I was the guy who ran the heart-lung machine and related devices during cardiac or open-heart procedures—transplants and a lot of wild stuff,” he said. “It’s very specific training. Only about 3,500 people in the U.S. can perform the job.”
Martin soon landed at Sutter Memorial Hospital in Sacramento, where he worked nine years and became a partner in the cardiac practice. He made good money. He’d found a successful career in what he had studied. But something was urging him in another direction, away from the medical industry. Something about the way he worked on cars in his garage in his spare time. Something about those sculptures he’d seen as a child. Then it all came to a head during a trip he took to the Rocky Mountains.
“It was one of those epiphany things,” Martin explained. “It literally occurred on a trip I went on in 1998 to Crested Butte, Colorado to go fishing and mountain biking. Around town there was this local artist, Sean Guerrero, and I was absolutely mystified by his work. Not only were they the coolest sculptures I had ever seen, but they were made out of car parts. He now specializes in bumpers, and he’s got multiple pieces in Northern California. I thought, ‘Boy, wouldn’t that be a way to make living.’ That’s what did it for me… I sold my shares to my partners, took my money and started Jagged Edge Metal Art… No welding class or nothing. I had taught myself to weld on cars while on call. I had spent a lot of time in the garage waiting to be called in.”
Martin opened his shop in West Sacramento in February 2005.
“After about a year, I almost ran out of money,” he said. “But then I suddenly started getting noticed and getting a lot of commercial work in restaurants and high-end grocery stores.”
In 2011, an 8-foot bass sculpture Martin had made won the inaugural Napa Art Walk and was displayed in said community for a year before being sold to a local hotel proprietor for roughly $30,000.
Larger commissions followed. The Sacramento Kings, for instance, commissioned Martin for two “Shields of Defiance,” one for fans in the concourse of the arena and one for the entrance to the players’ locker room. Players, he said, often touch the shield to boost morale before heading out to the court.
On New Year’s Day, 2014, Martin celebrated one of the biggest projects of his career. The Pac-12 and Big Ten conferences had commissioned him to create a gift for the 100th anniversary of the Rose Bowl and Tournament of Roses. He fashioned a rose sculpture out of steel, gold and chrome. It now stands as a permanent feature in the Tournament House in Pasadena.
“It’s in the Hall of Fame Room,” Martin said. “It was an amazing journey.”
His favorite completed project, however, is a 16-foot whale sculpture he made for Deer Creek Village, a commercial retail development in Petaluma.
“It has thousands of individual pieces—each one from my own hands. I started from the ground and worked my way up. I shaped it all the way up and out. It sits eight people inside. You can look up and see out of it. You can see the tail flipped over. It feels like you’ve been swallowed by a whale that’s diving into the sea. I don’t know why it touches people like it does. I’ve sat inside it and gone, ‘How the hell did I do this?’”
But such wonder would have never been possible without that initial leap from cardiopulmonary perfusionist to metal sculptor. He described it as a necessary act, something integral to his life.
“I think it’s interesting to have people wrap their minds around the change,” he said. “People say I was so brave for doing that… Thing is, though, if you’ve decided in your mind that you’re done doing something, then it’s really not that difficult to make the leap because you can’t wait to get the hell out.”
I’ve been trying to picture Martin’s Sacramento studio the way he describes it: a 6,500 square-foot industrial warehouse with 23-foot ceilings. Welding equipment. A CNC plasma cutter. Discrete parts. Assembled parts. Complete structures. Relics from another year, another month. Shiny new realities. Jagged edges that catch the eye—aesthetically. And cars. Lots of cars. An oddball collection of cars, Martin said.
“To me, cars are just kinetic sculptures you can drive.”
And what drives him? Martin’s story is peculiar in that he didn’t realize his artistic calling until his mid-30s. And when he realized it, he pursued it in a big way.
“I feel like when I worked in surgery, it was a difficult job and really hard work. I really had to stay alert and focused … and now, that’s gone… I’m putting things together. There’s no effort for me to do it. It seems effortless, the way my mind works while doing it…I get done with a thing, and I don’t even know how it happened.”
This “effortlessness” is a good way to describe talent. Some people are naturally good at certain things and able to perform them effortlessly. But talent is only part of the equation here. Elaborating on his artistic process, Martin shed light on the importance of education and skill:
“In order to create an illusion, in order to get people to see it, it goes back to my training—it’s all about anatomy and scale and size and relationships and space. A fish is swimming, and what are its muscles going to do when they contract on one side and bulge on the other? These relationships I got to keep in mind while building something. I look at images. It’s very much science-based, which is weird as an artist. But I find the analytical part was tough for me to learn, while the artistic part, the eye, I don’t even think about. I don’t know where it comes from. When people say I have a gift, it makes me feel funny. Honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Like his art, Martin’s career seems somewhat paradoxical. He was rigorously trained for a specialized scientific field. He literally had surgical precision in his profession. When he made the leap to art, suddenly his life experience, his education and training, found a new outlet, a natural home where innate talent set the parameters, where the precision of his former career could flourish in unexpected ways, without restraint.
Of course, there’s something else to his success, something harkening all the way back to Gardnerville.
“You got to stand out—that’s how you make it,” Martin said. “The truth is I can work harder than most people. I’m from Gardnerville, man. I grew up knowing how to work.”
Martin just saw one of his latest pieces installed in front of the new Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in South Lake Tahoe. The commission was personal for him. The 25-foot metal guitar incorporated recycled materials from Carson Valley. An antique door knob and strike plate. Some old drum cymbals from a friend’s rock band. He described the guitar as having a Western/ Tahoe theme congruent with TRPA design standards.
But the project hit close to home in other ways.
“It was really cool the Park family used local people, not only me,” he said.
Both the project’s architect and graphical designer, Casey Clark and Chad Andres, are Douglas grads themselves and former classmates of Martin.
“Even the building inspector (Lamont McCann) was from high school,” he said.
The project appeared to have stirred in Martin some degree of nostalgia.
“Growing up in the Valley made me who I am today. It’s still with me, everything I did, the beauty and everything else. I hope to get back there someday.”
For now, Martin is keeping his eyes on the prize, which, for him, means public art—big, bold public art.
“Essentially, you climb the ladder of public art,” he said. “The commissions get up in the tens of millions of dollars. It broadens into an international sort of level.”
When I talked to Martin for this story, he was just starting work on a new project in Silicon Valley, a 28-foot-tall stainless steel section of a silicon molecule. He said it will be a monument sculpture to mark the birthplace of modern technology. He doesn’t know yet what the high-profile project will mean for his career, but he’s excited.
“I feel like I haven’t been given a chance to stretch my wings that far yet,” he said. “I feel like I’m still climbing the mountain, so to speak… I’m waiting for that point in time when I get a huge commission to make a huge statement.”
By no measure is Martin languishing on the proverbial mountain. Rather, he seems to be enjoying every step of the climb.
“When you’re in school, you follow a path. People tell you what to do. But you don’t really know what you’re good at yet. It took me a long time to figure it out, a lot of trial and error. I’m lucky that I figured it out when I was still young enough to do something about it.”
Single, unmarried, Martin believes this change in his life, this metal and sweat, will be his ultimate legacy.
“Funny thing about art is that it burns that memory into your brain. People remember you by the impressions you make. I, as a person, might be bigger than most. I have crazy hair and all that. But what really makes people remember me are the things I make. They will be the legacy I leave behind, my mark on the planet. My sculptures are my children.”