On a warm Saturday evening last month in downtown Ellicott City, the moving current of passers-by walking along the bridge paused as people looked down into the river to see a different kind of current changing course.
In the river, several men and women were up to their knees in the water, moving rocks seemingly at random. Soon, a heart began to take shape in the clear water; on larger boulders nearby, small stacks of rock balanced against the water.
The waders were members of the community art group Nature Art in the Park, and they were preparing for the third annual Patapsco River Rock Building event, Saturday, July 13 from 1 to 5 p.m. in the river under the bridge between Oella and Ellicott City. While Paint It! Ellicott City will be going on above the river along Main Street at the same time, the group expects nearly 50 people to be in the water at various points in the day, creating rock sculptures.
"The whole idea is to get people to look down and think about their relationship with nature," said Jillian Storms, a member of the Nature Art in the Park who lives in Columbia. "Just stop, look and think. This is something that resonates with people, and it's done all over the world in different cultures. The sculptures don't need words to explain them: They're words in and of themselves."
The act of creating a rock sculpture, said Richard Ellsberry, one of the event's organizers, can mean different things to different people. For some, it's a self-competition to see how many rocks they can balance on one precipice. For others, it's spiritual.
"It's so deep, this idea of simplicity, minimalism, fragility," he said. "It's gentle, but it's also a fun thing that makes people smile, and it works with people on many different levels."
The idea of slowing down and noticing one's surrounding was close to Teddy Betts' heart, said Doug Retzler, of Ellicott City. Retzler said Betts would spend hours hiking along the Patapsco, cleaning up the river and creating rock sculptures "way out in the wilderness, where few would stumble upon them." Betts drew a following as he built up rock sculptures in the river, and when he died suddenly in 2010, his friends and other members of the Friends of the Patapsco River established a small, rock sculpture memorial tucked behind the bridge near the road on the Oella side.
The rock building event soon followed, Retzler said.
"This is a memorial for him," he said. "Rock building was a kind of zen process for him, really encapsulating his involvement with the river. It slows you down. It changes your pace and your perspective, and it changes the way you think and see."
Retzler shifted rocks in line as he spoke, building the heart up higher in the water.
"This is just something people see, recognize, know," he said. "It transcends. There's an ebb and flow to this, to rock building, and maybe that's why it's such a peaceful process."
Ellsberry said that since the very nature of land art like rock sculptures is "ethereal, ephemeral, evanescence" — in other words, temporary — it helps connect the artist and the viewer more closely to nature.
For Tamara Chanmugam, of Ellicott City, who has been participating in the event all three years, rock building is a connection back to nature — extremely important for the many children she hopes attends Saturday's event — and back to her native India.
"There's this tradition of revering the river," she said. "It's such an important resource, and just this simple act of rock building brings you back and connects you with the water. You're one with it."
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