Peter Juhl’s fingers moved almost imperceptibly, shifting the softball-sized rock in his hands a hairbreadth at a time into a barely discernible dimple in the golfball-sized rock below, itself improbably balanced on yet another rock.
As he eased away his hands, the rocks remained as stable as if glued together. “It’s kind of like the opposite of a magic trick,” Juhl said.
“A magician shows you a deception, and if he’s good, you think it’s real. I’m showing you something real, and if it’s good, people think it’s a deception.”
He grinned: “After 20 years, I never get tired of the feeling of looking at something that shouldn’t be there.”
A cat’s paw of wind from Lake Harriet suddenly teetered the rocks and they tottered down — which made Juhl even happier. “To me, the most important thing is that they don’t last,” he said of his sculptures.
“I want to create something that’s on the very edge of falling down. It’s ephemeral. People stop and ask if I can build something for them that would be permanent, and that’s missing the point.”
Juhl, of Eagan, balances rocks to create works of beauty. There’s no particular name for the art form. Some call it “rocking stones,” for the subtle nature of the adjustments. “Equilibria” has its champions. Mostly, though, it’s called balancing rocks.
Juhl, 57, began more than 20 years ago, an idle pursuit on a rocky North Shore beach.
“I thought I was the only person in the world who did this,” said Juhl, an affable, unassuming soul who works in IT as a database administrator for Delta Air Lines. “I love my job, but it [rock balancing] is a nice way to disconnect from the logical.”
He’s since has become part of a global community of rock balancers who make up Balanced Art World International, or BAWI (bawiint.com), which has organized conferences on the Adriatic Sea; in Ottawa, Ontario, and, come September, in Flagstaff, Ariz. So, what do you talk about at a rock balancing conference?
“We don’t talk too much,” Juhl said. “We mostly just sit around with each other and balance rocks.”
Imperfections enable beauty
Humans have always used stones, encircling fires, hewing wheels, building walls, paving roads.
At some point, the utilitarian motives made room for creativity, striving to use gravity in ways that make it appear to defy itself.
To be clear: What Juhl and his cohorts do is quite different from the stacked stones you often see marking the route on hiking trails.
“People walk up and said, ‘Oh, I see you’re building a cairn,’ and I just gently say no,” Juhl said. “A cairn is meant to be durable, and these aren’t meant to last.”
In his book, “Center of Gravity: A Guide to the Practice of Rock Balancing,” Juhl suggests that there’s “something compelling about potential chaos,” that the tension between stones and gravity actually is calming. He likens it to how bracing a leg on a footstool feels more comfortable than letting it dangle. “There is ease in tension.”
Still, he added, the precariousness makes some people nervous, “like waiting for a balloon to pop.”
So, how does he do it?
“The best rocks have dimples, depressions or bubbles that you use to settle other stones,” he said. “That’s the cool thing: You create these beautiful things by using their imperfections.”
Once you’ve felt how a rock settles into a dimple, with its center of gravity discovered and aligned, the inexplicable starts to make sense. “It’s amazing how fast people catch on,” he said, allowing that some don’t. “But when they do, they get this great look on their faces.”
Michael Grab of Boulder, Colo., is renowned for his balanced rock creations — his website is Gravity Glue — and said the practice has changed his perspective from seeing the world in terms of limitations to seeing things “more in terms of what’s possible.”
“I like to think of stone balancing as a fairly intensive Zen training of sorts,” he said. “Impermanence is part of the nature of everything. I think a regular balance practice really pushes the practitioner to appreciate such a deep truth — that nothing lasts.”
He said he considers Juhl’s book one of the best, “and I really enjoy Peter’s style of balancing. It is quite unique, quirky and smooth — kind of like Peter himself.”
Engaging the community
Minnesota’s glacial history, especially along Lake Superior’s shores, created a treasure trove of pocked and rounded stones of all sizes that Juhl often uses in his classes — his sessions at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum routinely sell out.
He also explains techniques in his book, available on his website, www.temporary sculpture.squarespace.com, which has links to other balancers’ sites, among them Joel Carter of Minneapolis (www.rockpeople.org) and Doug Westendorp of Edina (www.doug westendorp.com/stone-poems.html).
“It’s important for any artist to engage with the community,” Juhl said. He loves sessions with kids because they often defy the conventional wisdom that youngsters have minuscule attention spans.
“Kids can be so focused if you give them something interesting to do,” he said. “They will run with this.”
One warning: There can be physical consequences to this meditative pursuit. Juhl has bruised many toes from rocks tumbling unexpectedly. Those who work with larger boulders risk greater injury.
“A guy in Ottawa has lost the tips of two fingers when they were crushed,” he said. “You don’t want to destroy the tools of your trade.”