Sculpture in the Moment

Sculpture in the Moment

By Peter Juhl

     "That's not going to last," a passerby remarks, nodding at my latest creation on the shore of a local city lake. On the boulder in front of me stand three oblong stones that I just balanced, one on another, forming a crookedly vertical sculpture that looks somewhat impossible. "That's the beauty of it..." My over-the-shoulder rejoinder doesn't reach him though, as he strides on toward the band shell and the beaches at the north end of the lake. Turning back, I smile at the half dozen people who have gathered in a little circle, staring at the thing. "I guess some people just don't get it," one of them says. The rest nod their solemn assent, already bound by this shared understanding.

     Like opera or NASCAR, rock balancing is an art form that you either get, or don't. Happily, most people do get this unexpected blend of performance art, sculpture, and parlor trick. A good balanced rock sculpture evokes feelings of serenity, power, tension: chaos held in check by the smallest of constraints. Seeing an armload of clunky stones perched on one another in such an unlikely but harmonious arrangement seems to stir feelings of wonder, even spirituality, and not only for the spectators: Most rock balancers I know consider the process itself to be a form of meditation.

     Balanced rock sculpture comes in many forms, all of which share the placement of rock on rock, using shape and weight alone to achieve a stable composition. Stability, though is a matter of degree: Some balancers like to work right at the edge of possibility, taking the rocks as near to falling down as they can. Others stack many flat rocks to great heights, or create simple and pleasing Zen-like arrangements of smooth stones. What are these styles called? Who knows? The art form is so vaguely defined that it's hard to find generally accepted names for its variations. Lately, though, with the help of the internet, rock balancers around the world have begun to find each other. Facebook and Flickr groups already exist, and other forums for sharing our passion are undoubtedly on the way.

     I've been balancing rocks for fifteen years, on vacations to Lake Superior's North Shore, Colorado, and California. For most of those years, I favored secluded locations, not wanting to acquire an audience. I found it unnerving to work with strangers stopping to look over my shoulder. Answering their questions drained the focus I desperately needed to sustain. At the bottom of it though, I was just embarrassed to be caught playing with rocks. But after years of walks past the boulders that hug the northwest shore of my favorite lake, feeling but resisting their pull, I eventually worked up the nerve and sat down among them in full view of the largest audience I'd ever experienced. It turned into a wonderful experience and I’ve never looked back. People were fascinated watching the process, chatting me up like some kind of sage or guru, and staring open-mouthed at the results. I quickly found visiting with the onlookers almost as gratifying as building the sculptures themselves. As for focus: What better way to train it than working in front of a dozen or more waiting onlookers?

     I never tire of the reactions elicited by these impromptu sculptures. It's the last thing people expect to see while out for a walk, and they always have plenty of questions.

Are those rocks actually balanced? They are. There's nothing holding them up but high school physics and karma. This question also comes in the form of a joke that every rock balancer hears far too often, which goes something like: "What kind of glue are you using?" I usually counter that with: "If I could invent an invisible, instant glue strong enough to hold these ten-pound rocks together, I'd be a wealthy man, and I'd probably be here balancing rocks every day instead of just evenings and weekends. But I still wouldn't be using any glue."

Is there a name for what you're doing? Most practitioners of this art form call it rock balancing or stone balancing. The term rock stacking is used as well, but it seems to connote laying flat rocks on one another. Rock balancing seems a better name because it is more general.

Are you building a cairn, or an inuksuk? While it involves placing rocks on rocks as they do, the rock balancing I do is very different from these forms. Cairns are intended to endure for years or even centuries, marking a particular spot on earth, like a trail, a summit, or a grave. The life of a balanced rock sculpture on the other hand, is measured in minutes, maybe hours under the best of conditions. The goal of the balance artist is to create a thing that, using small contact points and counterbalance, comes as near as possible to falling down, but does not, lasting long enough to be enjoyed. In other words, a sturdy balanced rock sculpture is a boring balanced rock sculpture.

How long did it take to build? If a sculpture takes more than a few minutes, it probably means you should change strategies or try some different rocks. Getting fixated on achieving a certain configuration is a good way to stifle the creative process. Some of the best sculptures are created quickly and without too much thought, often after abandoning a dead end effort and starting fresh.

What makes them stay like that? The physics underlying this enterprise is simple: The place where each rock rests on the rock below is called a contact. The rock balancer chooses each contact, looking for a small depression, bubble, or chip in one of the rocks. The curve of the other rock nestles into this depression. There must be three points around the edge of this depression at which the rocks are actually touching, forming a small triangle. The combined center of gravity of the rock or rocks above must be directly above the tiny triangle that forms each contact. There must also be enough friction at the contacts to prevent the rocks from sliding off one another. The smaller and further from horizontal the contacts, the better the sculpture. That's all there is to it.

How can I learn to do that? It's tempting to grab a few rocks and try to go high, but expecting too much too soon is a sure way to frustration. It may be possible for a novice to get three or four rocks stacked up, but they will likely look flat and not very dramatic. It's much better to start with one rock, learning to balance it with some panache before trying two or more. Choose a longish rock with rounded ends, and try to balance it on a boulder or other stable base rock. Find a contact depression in the base, not too small -- at this point try for something not much smaller than a half-inch wide, and deep enough so that your balancing rock does not "bottom out" in it. Nestle a rounded end into the depression with rock roughly vertical. Feel the direction in which it is trying to fall. Turn and twist, "walking" it around in the depression, always gently tilting  opposite the direction it wants to fall while trying to keep the end nestled in. You will eventually feel certain positions in which the tendency to fall is less pronounced. Pursue these as you continue finer adjustments. Eventually your fingers will sense a point where the rock attains stability: As you loosen your hold on the rock, it will no longer be trying to fall over, but will almost imperceptibly seek to maintain its vertical orientation. Loosen your hold further, making any necessary final adjustments by feel, until you have let it go altogether. With luck, you can take a step back, shake the ache out of your arms, and admire your first balanced rock.

     Stay with one rock until you have mastered it, balancing it  again and again, trying a different contact on the base, the other end of the rock, a different rock. Try using a contact that is on a slope. Try a smaller contact. Try it with the depression contact on the underside of the rock you're balancing coupled with a smooth surface on the base rock.

     Adding a second rock complicates things very quickly. If you can find a suitable contact on the second rock directly above the first rock's balance point, all you have to worry about is disturbing the first rock as you place the second. If you can't, then you have to adjust the first rock to account for the shift in the center of gravity you caused by adding the second rock. It all gets easier with practice, but it pays to take one step at a time.


     Loosely related to this artistic rock balancing are several traditional forms of stone sculpture. Most are variations on the cairn, a more or less permanent pile or stack of rocks built by cultures all over the world to mark trails, food caches, burial grounds, mountain summits, and other places of significance, especially in regions where trees are scarce. Cairns vary widely in size and shape, and have different names in many languages. One example is the inuksuk, a type of cairn used by indigenous peoples in northern latitudes. A stylized inuksuk was the basis for the logo of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Inuksuk often look vaguely human, and with good reason: The name is an inuit word meaning "ersatz person." Modern cairns are built on mountaintops by climbers wishing to leave some evidence of their ascent, each new visitor adding a stone to the untidy collection. A regional variant is the Danish kæmpehøj, pronounced something like "kemp a hooey," an imposing burial marker made up of several major-appliance-sized rocks supporting a vehicle-sized rock laid on top. Kæmpehøj were built by my own Viking ancestors and can be seen -- the cairns, not the ancestors -- sitting placidly in fields and meadows all over the countryside of that small nation, mute reminders of struggles long since forgotten.

     Given its long history and many variations, the placing of one rock on another is still a surprisingly obscure art form. There is no formal organization or governing body associated with rock balancing. Your local library is likely to have nothing at all on it. Searching yields only one book, Axial Stones by George Quasha, a glossy paperback of essays, photos of balanced rock sculptures, and some abstract drawings. Web searches will turn up many photos, a sketchy Wikipedia article, and a few web sites containing more pictures, plenty of outdated links, but scant useful information.

     So it's no surprise that watching rock balancing performed first-hand is a new experience for most people. There's nothing like seeing the dawn of recognition as I complete the first sculpture of the day. As I begin work with nothing yet on display, I'm vaguely aware of the suspicious glances and whispered questions exchanged by people who pass by. I can't really blame them:  At this point in the process I look like nothing so much as a muttering lunatic holding potential projectiles against one another in various arrangements of unknown purpose, eyes fixed on some invisible point between hand and horizon, face pinched in focus, clearly oblivious to the distressed looks and whispers.

     Everything changes, though, when after a few minutes' work and a final twist, I feel that uppermost rock tip into place. I step back to get a better view of the whole. Three or four hefty stones are alighting on one another as delicately as butterflies. The collective attitude warms in an instant as people realize I'm actually doing something. Wary uncertainty quickly fades, replaced by smiles, some a little puzzled, but smiles nevertheless. The older couple crossing to the far side of the path do a simultaneous double-take. She lets out a gasp and they approach me with a little self-conscious applause; The smirking teens stop in their tracks and proclaim its saweet-ness; The mother who had been warning her kids to stay close has pulled out her phone and is posing them for a picture in front of the thing.

     As I talk with the people who stop to look, I enjoy the satisfaction of having made some new friends who are genuinely moved by these simple art works made from ordinary rocks. I'll always remember one man in his early twenties who looked at the rocks for a long time and then took me aside and said, "It's my birthday, but it's actually been a pretty bad day with a lot of unexpected stress and drama. Just standing here looking at these rocks has calmed me down, and I'm in a much better mood. Thank you." When people ask me why I do this unusual thing, I may give any number of answers, but the truth is, I'm thinking back on what I did for a stranger without even knowing I was doing it. That's as much incentive as I need.

Copyright 2011 Peter Juhl.