A look of quiet concentration on her face, balance artist Kathy Clarke scans the Shell Beach shore for the right rock.
She spies a black stone pockmarked with round holes and sets it on top of the stack she’s already assembled on a nearby boulder. Picking up another stone — this one elongated and golden brown — she rotates the rocks carefully, feeling for the perfect position that will allow them to balance effortlessly.
“Click!” the Atascadero resident announces, beaming, as she steps back to reveal her latest creation.
Clarke, 61, is one of 14 balance artists from seven countries invited to participate in this year’s Balanced Art World International Festival in Ottawa, Canada. The event, which runs Aug. 2 to 4, will find Clarke and her colleagues from Brazil, Germany, Japan and elsewhere creating stacked stone sculptures in the Remic Rapids area of the Ottawa River.
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“To be standing in that river and balancing rocks with these guys, that’s my definition of a fabulous time,” said the artist, one of five Americans asked to participate in the festival. (She’s the only one from west of the Rocky Mountains, she said.)
A semiretired barber and photographer who has called Atascadero home for more than a quarter-century, Clarke has been creating rock balances — also known as cairns — for years. But she didn’t get serious about the art form until she discovered the work of Michael Grab, a balance artist based in Boulder, Colo., about two years ago.
“To have somebody that accomplished that I can learn from is fabulous,” said Clarke, who belongs to several Facebook groups for balance art enthusiasts. “It definitely has evolved my skill.”
Now she rarely goes a day without stacking stones. She’s crafted balances during rock-hunting expeditions to the Mojave Desert, on vacations in Aruba, Mexico and the American Southwest, and on drives through the San Luis Obispo County countryside.
Favorite local spots include Morro Rock, Shell Creek and the San Simeon area. She also has an installation at Stacked Stone Cellars in Paso Robles, which is helping sponsor the Ottawa festival.
“Sometimes I’m just cruising along … I look over, and there happen to be some rocks and a beautiful background,” said Clarke, who will usually stop and spend 15 to
20 minutes balancing.
She starts out by searching for stones of the appropriate weight, size and shape. In particular, she looks for heart-shaped rocks to place on top of each piece as a personal signature.
“You can look around and your mind is going, ‘That won’t work, that won’t work, but this one will,’ ” Clarke explained.
Next comes assembly — carefully positioning each stone to find that precarious “setting point.”
“You keep very minutely maneuvering the top one until it kind of clicks,” the Atascadero woman explained. “Once you feel that really tiny click, you can take your hands away.”
There’s no glue involved, just gravity.
“It’s this balance line that goes right through the middle of the rocks,” she said.
Most of Clarke’s creations — which typically stand 2½ to 5 feet tall — stay upright for months.
But even the sturdiest-looking sculpture can be toppled by wind, wild animals or earthquakes. In fact, whenever Clarke finds one of the 70 or so balances at her Atascadero home in pieces, it’s often an indication of temblors too tiny to be felt by humans, she said.
The artist always snaps photos of her creations, she said, in order “to share whatever I’m experiencing as beautiful with others.”
For Clarke, balance art is a form of meditation as much as a means of creative expression.
“Subconsciously, maybe I haven’t fully recognized that my life is feeling out of balance,” she said, until she finds herself outside looking for rocks. “Then I recognize that I was just needing some quiet and some peace and some present-moment awareness.”
When she’s stacking stones, she said, “I’m not worrying about the past. I’m not fretting about the future. I’m just there.”