MASON CITY — Concrete artist Mark Whitten traces his love of cement work to the Mason City industry in which members of his family earned a living for years.
His grandfather and uncle were employees at Lehigh Portland Cement Co., located not far from where Whitten grew up on the North End.
“It really drives my passion for this work being able to revisit cement as an artistic medium,” said Whitten, 40, at his downtown Mason City studio.
Formerly a custom home builder, Whitten opened his concrete arts studio, Earthmedium, in 2007 at 12 S. Commercial Ave., in the Bergo Mini-Mall.
And although concrete carving is making a re-emergence, Whitten likes to point out that its history goes back to the days of the ancient Egyptians and the Romans.
Whitten brings a new focus to the art form, most commonly used in theme parks, resorts and high-end retail venues, into the residential market.
“We’re taking the skills from the theme industry and applying them to the decorative concrete industry,” he said.
Trained at the Minnesota Institute of Fine Finishes in Minneapolis, Whitten wet-carves objects out of concrete, a process that he said provides unlimited possibilities.
Three-dimensional forms are sculpted around bent and welded steel armatures and fabrications.
“Our biggest challenge is educating the public on what is available to them,” Whitten said. “There’s a lot of flexibility, as opposed to pre-manufactured goods.”
Everything he makes is unique to his clients, who may have a certain look or aesthetic in mind.
Locally, Whitten created a stone-look fireplace as a prop for the Mason City Community Theatre, a high-end bar for a night club, fireplace surrounds, fire pits, grottos, water features and sculptural pieces for decorative walls.
But his skills have taken him farther afield in recent months.
A member of Rock-Carvers, Artists and Theme Builders (RAT) International, Whitten was called upon to help sculpt a 13-foot tall, 20-foot long, 8,600-pound acrocanthosaurus for the Whitte Museum in San Antonio, Texas, earlier this year.
He also helped build a two-story castle for a waterpark in Dallas as part of a RAT design-and-build team.
RAT International donates large-scale sculptures such as these each year, primarily to natural history museums and child-focused venues, Whitten said.
Whitten is also an instructor for the organization, although he said he is still learning his art and expects always to be a student himself.
North Iowa contractor Jason “Jake” Hackett of Rock Falls hired Whitten to build a hearth-stone fireplace around a wood-burning stove in his rural home.
“I was looking for something unique,” Hackett said. “People that have come in think the stones are all individually cut and it’s not. It’s carved concrete. It’s amazing.”
The stones were painted in multicolors to resemble real stones, Hackett said. What appears to be a large piece of timber for the mantel is also carved concrete.
Whitten said he hopes someday to operate a school where he can teach others the skills he’s learned.
“There’s just so much to learn and so many options,” he said.
Mark Whitten can be reached at 641-583-0303.
Further information is available at his website, www.earthmedium.com.