An unlikely art project has appeared on a South Burlington farm: piles of stone that look simultaneously contemporary and ancient. But they weren't created by prehistoric residents, and they didn't create themselves.
The accidental artist behind these sculptures is Jacques-Paul Marton, 56, who lives in nearby Stonehedge and routinely walks his dog, Cooper, through the fields of the farm (behind Wheelock Surplus Barn) at Spear and Swift streets that's owned by the University of Vermont. And everyone else who routinely walks or jogs there has had the pleasure of watching these creations — Marton calls them cairns — take shape.
Marton, a custodian at UVM's Davis Center, says he started building them last January.
"They didn't plant corn this year, so I started taking out my dog in the pasture and noticed these odd little piles of rocks," he says. "I just started piling them up — it happened on a lark."
Marton grew up in a farming community in New Jersey where there were "more cows than people," he says, and he understood that farmers had to clear out stones from their fields in order to plow. In Vermont, of course, that resulted in the ubiquitous stone walls that help define the landscape here.
Marton, whose rural origins were followed by an urban stint in Trenton, N.J., moved to Vermont 10 years ago. And in his sudden urge to arrange rocks this year, he opted not for a utilitarian, linear wall but for vertical piles that are aesthetically pleasing. What makes them so?
"The rocks have to be in agreement," Marton says. "You can't build one with all stones the same size. It has to be a perfect mix of large, medium and small sizes. I can't tell you how I knew how to build one," he adds. "It just came to me."
Like thousands of stone masons before him, Marton intuited — or discovered by trial and error — the secrets of structural integrity and balance. And his explanation sounds both practical and like a formula for an ideal society: stones of different sizes, shapes and colors in harmony. And to extend the metaphor, Marton also integrates oddball "residents," such as pieces of bone or barbed wire.
In addition to the joy he's found in creation, Marton has been overwhelmed by the positive response from others.
"I've had amazing experiences with other people there [in the field]," he says. "One young woman said it was her spiritual place. Another said her grandfather wanted to have his ashes spread there."
Marton, who is open and garrulous himself, says other walkers in the field have been inspired to share life stories with him — and to make sculptures themselves.
"My greatest day so far was seeing a mom with a couple of little kids building one of their own," he says. "I'm just so happy that I'm making an impact in the community."
Marton waxes philosophical about the stones, too, pondering the glacier that deposited them in the fields. And he's looked into ancient cairns. "They appear all over the world," he says. "They're all there to bring people's attention to something."
Marton has attracted attention, too. So much that he's worried too many people will show up at this relatively private place and ruin a neighborhood treasure. But that concern is secondary to his desire to share.
"I feel very fortunate that I just picked up that one [first] rock and had a connection," he says. A year-round bicyclist and volunteer at Shelburne Farms in the summer, Marton adds, "I love to be put in the raw moment." His work in the South Burlington field has provided many such moments. "It's touched something in me and seems to touch everyone," he says.
Marton's brother-in-law took pictures on a walk through the field and made them into a video, which can be seen on YouTube here.