Art teased from the river

Passers-by inspired to join teacher in stack sculpture

July 18, 2008|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

Where the water quickens just before the bridge, a man is stacking stones.

Squinting in the July sun, he lifts a fat rock from the river, balances it on a gray slab and reaches into the warm shallows for another.

"I do what the rock wants to do." says Teddy Betts, a 53-year-old special education teacher. "This is the summer of no stress for me."

Since school let out, Betts has spent many hours soaked to the knees in this stretch of the Patapsco near the Main Street bridge in Ellicott City.

While Dexter, his scraggly terrier mix, picks his way through the current, Betts piles stones with the dreamy concentration of a visionary or a child lost in a haze of summer days.

For years, Betts has stacked rocks in hidden nooks during hikes near his Ellicott City home. But, for reasons he can't put his finger on, he started building rock sculptures in this particular spot a few weeks ago.

Residents and visitors have gathered to view the sight and some have joined him, arranging rocks, driftwood and gourds according to their own creative whims and building an impromptu community art work.

"The river inspires me," says Betts, taking a drag from the cigarette clamped between his lips. "It's my higher power. Doing the stones is connecting in a spiritual way."

Around him, a throng of stone sculptures rises like a silent, stoic crowd. Some of the piles evoke the comforting stance of a wide-hipped prairie woman, others the beefy heft of a football player or the precarious geometry of a hunched sea bird.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its apparent simplicity, rock stacking has attracted fans across the world.

San Francisco artist Bill Dan crafts sculptures of improbably balanced rocks, and British artist Andy Goldsworthy fashions egg-shaped sculptures from stones. A Florida group can be hired to create rock sculptures as performance art. Stacks have appeared in Zion National Park in Utah; Death Valley, Calif.; and on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

For Betts, a man feverishly devoted to his hobbies - he has collected countless Pez dispensers, painted several hundred portraits and carved dozens of walking sticks from branches chewed by beavers - stacking rocks is a sort of meditation.

As the water whirls over his sneakers, Betts says that the impermanence of the rock sculptures adds to their appeal. Like the Buddhist monks who shape intricate designs from colored sand and then destroy them, or the Guatemalans who create elaborate carpets of colored sawdust to be trampled by Holy Week parades, he believes in the beauty of the ephemeral.

"A good rain will take every one of these down," he says, gesturing at the piles. "The great thing about a river is that it's dynamic. It's moving. It's changing."

Betts points out that Ellicott City, where he and his wife have raised their three daughters, was founded because of the Patapsco. The three Ellicott brothers, Quakers from Pennsylvania, purchased land here in the late 1700s in the hopes of building mills powered by the river.

Although the area is now better known for charming shops and restaurants, Wilkins-Rogers Inc. continues to produce Washington brand flour near the river. The mill's towers can be seen looming above Betts' spot by the bridge.

A member of the Friends of Patapsco Valley & Heritage Greenway, a conservation group, Betts hopes that the rocks will draw attention to the river, which flows through portions of Howard, Carroll and Baltimore counties before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay. He calls it "Maryland's best-kept secret."

It's hard to imagine a person more devoted to the Patapsco than Betts, a Long Island, N.Y., native who moved to Maryland about 25 years ago. He carries an album of snapshots of the river's small cascades. He patrols the shores looking for litter and tries to collect a bag of trash each day of the year. In his orange kayak, he has paddled stretches of the river from Sykesville to Elkridge.

"Such abundance," says Betts. "The river continues to give, and the more I give, the more I get back tenfold."

As Betts moves through the water, a baseball cap pulled over his gray curls, passers-by pause on the bridge to watch. Children with mouths stained cherry-snowball red, languid teens and office workers in sweat-dampened suits all stop, fascinated by the river's transformation.

"It's so real, so natural, so expressive," says Roberta Merrill, a 52-year-old chef from Ellicott City, as she snaps photos of the rocks to send to friends.

"I'm just trying to figure out what the message is," says Lauren Hall, 19, of Catonsville.

"Peace and love?" suggests her friend Carly Loftus, also 19 and from Catonsville.

Joan Eve Shea, the proprietor of an antiques store bearing her name on Main Street, says that the rock sculptures add to the community's dreamy charm.

"It's just eye-catching," she says. "I thought I saw a penguin and then a lady there today. It's great for the imagination."

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