NARRAGANSETT — Everyone has a passion in life, or many passions; some people find theirs as a child, some spend years in pursuit of it, and others, like one Narragansett man, just bump into it.
Evidences of his passion happens to also be shrouded in mystery – a mystery for beachgoers, that is. Throughout the year, rock sculptures or piles, known as cairns, pop up along areas like Narragansett Pier and Black Point. Locals and tourists admire these gravity-defying rock sculptures and often wonder, “Who did that?”
Douglas Barrington is the man behind the rocks – one of three, he said – who takes credit for building memorable works of art along the southern Rhode Island coastline. This passion came quickly and grew rapidly for Barrington.
“The way it started was I was walking on Moonstone Beach one day and for some reason it just hit me. I’ve seen other people do it and I thought, ‘Let’s try it out.’ I started there and it kept growing,” Barrington said.
Rock balancing is hard work, and it can be seen as an art form; it involves using the rocks’ shapes and weight to create a stable unit. From stacking and balancing to counterbalancing and free styling, there are many ways to build a rock sculpture. The balancing isn’t magic, but it is an old practice. For centuries, civilizations have used cairns for navigation, messages, memorial monuments, spiritual offerings and, of course, art.
“It’s all balance, and that blows peoples’ minds,” said Barrington, who revealed the most common question he receives is, “How much glue do you use?”
Replace the word “glue” with “patience” – that’s what is truly required to make rocks balance, Barrington noted.
“It’s not for someone who wants instant gratification,” he said. “You really need to stay focused.”
The longest he has spent on a piece was a little more than an hour. One time, he tried to balance a single rock for 40 minutes. The challenge is finding the rock’s dead center or fulcrum.
When two rocks won’t balance, “sometimes you realize it’s not the rock, it’s the wind,” Barrington said. “I very rarely give up on a rock.”
Barrington is self-taught. When he began, he stacked the rocks, and later progressed to balancing. He considers the practice temporary, environmental art. He’s been told by a fellow rock cairn artist that he has developed his own distinct style, but he doesn’t want to put a label on it.
“Each time I do it, it’s something new. It’s all about trying to get out of your head. I’m just trying to find that center,” he said.
When Barrington is ready to build, he likes to start by searching for the base rock. In the past two years, his rock cairns have grown in size and stature; his last “monster”-sized sculpture was nearly 5 feet tall.
“It’s all about feel,” he said. “You can’t force an object to do something that it is not naturally able to do.”
The rocks’ forms, sizes and weights dictate Barrington’s work, and different environments produce different types of rocks. For example, he has noticed his work near the sea wall at Narragansett Beach tends to be more spherical compared to other works that are angular.
“I’m following what my head and my eyes are tuned into,” he said. “I think [to myself], ‘Where are the rocks going to take me today?’”
Between Mother Nature and mischievous people, he has often seen his magnificent work fall down.
“I don’t get upset, because I know it’s temporary,” said Barrington, who now takes photos of every cairn he builds. “It’s a two-step process. You build it and you’re feeling good, but you kind of want to keep a part of it for you, for posterity.”
For the public, Barrington believes the sculptures are an enhancement to the landscape, as their silhouette stands tall before a backdrop of crashing waves. For himself, the sculptures are a form of self-expression and a way to connect to the environment.
“When I do it, I do it for me,” he said.
When he began building, Barrington was dealing with health issues in his family and building sculptures was an outlet for him to get out and clear his head. Little did he know, he would find himself going back day in and day out to keep building.
“This is the first time I’ve actually been able to do something creative and finish it without walking away,” said Barrington, who often finds himself unable to focus on other artistic pursuits like playing the guitar, writing a book or painting. “I feel comfortable enough to show it to the world.”
Barrington is always trying to find new and challenging ways and places to work. He learns and gets inspired by fellow cairn artists including Michael Grab, who balances rocks around the world.
“Some of the stuff he does just boggles the mind,” he said.
Barrington’s goal is to continue to grow as a rock sculptor, as well as make sculptures that last as long as possible. Rock balancing isn’t a career for him, but an activity to keep his head clear.
“This is about creating something,” he said.
The rock balancer will continue to show up at Rhode Island beaches to build, but don’t expect to easily catch him working. To focus, Barrington tries to avoid crowds – plus, he doesn’t mind having a little air of mystery surrounding his sculptures.
“I would rather have my work speak for itself,” he said.