Do you recall the photos of stone tower formations that spanned the front page of the Other Paper on May 16th? Well, you no longer need to wonder who the inspired artist is behind those remarkable creations. South Burlington resident, and custodian at University of Vermont’s Davis Center, Jacques-Paul Marton, also known as JP, constructed the towers, which are known as cairns. On a recent amber lit evening, I met JP, his wife, Wendy, and their rescue poodle, Cooper, at the Wheelock UVM Barn located off Spear and Swift Streets.
Once a working farm owned by the Wheelock family, it is now UVM land. JP explained that, generations ago, farmers dug up the rocks in the field behind the barn then discarded them on the edges so the tractors could till the land without damaging their plows. This past January, JP and Cooper ventured to the field, following a different route from their usual daily trek through the woods, as Cooper was recovering from an injured foot. That precise choice led JP to new discoveries, stimulating his buried artistic talent. On the outskirts of the field, he stumbled upon a scattering of rocks. “I just saw rocks popping up in the snow,” he said. And so JP started stacking one rock on top of another.
We made our way along the perimeter of the field, the smell of moist earth permeating the air. The descending sun reflected off basil-green grass, highlighting JP’s dimpled smile as he expressed his sense of “tranquility” and how he gets “into a zone” when constructing the cairns. “It’s a form of meditation,” he said. JP’s art seems to have evoked a similar feeling in others. He said, “A woman who walks this field told me that this place has become her spiritual ground.” Midway through our walk, JP bent down, reached into the sandy soil, let it sift through his fingers, like a sieve. He glanced at the cairns off in the distance, pointed to them, and said, “It’s like another human being held those rocks.” He held his hands out, as if cradling an infant.
Dozens of cairns grace the hillside, like a collection of relics in a museum. Yellow, red stone, granite, concrete, and even remnants of farm equipment, like a rusted piece of a plow, and sundried cow bones make up each of JPs creations. Not one cairn, or rock, is like another. Some are topped with rocks that look like hats or mushroom caps. Others have shelves supporting a mini pyramid of blemished, rough-edged, and perfectly round rocks. One looks like a little girl perched on a rock wall. We stopped at the very first set of cairns JP constructed, a grouping of at least eight. His daughter, Claire, calls them the Rascals, because, as Wendy said, “She sees them moving at night.” JP has no idea how many there are, how many rocks make up each cairn, or how long it has taken him to build each one. “If you count, you end up making mistakes,” he said, swiping the sweet-summer air with his earth painted hand. Do we spend too much time counting?
JP continued through the tall grass, encouraging me to join him, to view each individual rock up close. “This one feels like skin,” he said, massaging the rock as if it were alive. “See, this one has a scar.” He studied every divot, pockmark, and unique pattern. “This one looks like it’s from another planet,” he said, cupping an amorphous shaped rock in his palm. “Look at the grain in this one.” He ran his hand over its smooth body. “It must be millions of years old.” He pushed aside a section of wiry grass, scratched at the dirt, and said, “It’s like digging through the past.” He stood up, and spread his arms wide, as if ready to embrace the landscape.
JP’s connection with the cairns is like a parent-child relationship. “Now that I’ve built them, I need to take care of them,” he said. So, he and Cooper walk this field every evening. He practices what he calls, “the earthquake test.” He jumps up and down next to each cairn to make sure the rocks don’t fall off. JP learned from experience. One of the first cairns he constructed succumbed to an avalanche. A rock tumbled down the pile, chasing Cooper along the way. Fortunately, Cooper escaped injury, and apparently was not traumatized by that experience. He followed us every step of the way, leaping and darting through the grass, and sniffing each cairn.
When JP started building the cairns, he didn’t want people to notice him because, if asked, he didn’t know how to explain what he was doing. But he no longer hides his intimacy with his art. Runners, walkers, and first time visitors stop to explore among the cairns and talk with JP about them. He recalled a couple he met in the field who told him that his creations reminded them of the cairns they saw on their trip to Hawaii. For others, the cairns conjure deep-rooted emotional responses about difficult pasts, which they willingly share with JP.
As we neared the end of our tour, JP said, “ I want to find a way to get people to talk, to take notice, to interact through an open and continuous dialogue with the world.” In the field of cairns, JP has certainly succeeded in his quest. As we climbed the hill back to the barn, basking in the syrupy light, a couple out for a walk stopped to talk with JP. “Hey, the husband said, “You’re the rock star.” But JP considers those who appreciate his art as the true stars. In follow-up to our meeting, he said. “I have been very fortunate … to have met people … who have left me with indelible experiences that have gone on to beautifully influence and enrich my Life.”
You have to visit the cairns to fully understand.
SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Contributor