Most people who live in Nanaimo have seen, scattered around various shores and harbour, the evidence of a person who has precariously stacked three rocks (God knows why) to make a sort of human figure. Somehow, the rough statues impel passers-by to stop, or perhaps to just slow down and pause, in their busy, complex lives.
As one of the fascinated audience, I was delighted to meet the creator of these primordial forms, as I sauntered around the harbour one day. I found him sitting apart from a handful of his creations, just watching the various reactions of tourists and locals to his work. It was only after I had engaged him in a chat that I discovered that he was "the Rockman.”
It turns out that his name is Mark Farrow, a 47 year old single dad who works as a roofing consultant for industrial construction. He’s a design authority, a bit of an engineer and a teacher in industry. You’d never know it, since he looks like a beachcomber with no shoes and long hair. But it’s all part of his time off. Ian, Farrow’s 13 year old son, loves it too. He often says to his dad, "Let’s go balance some rocks.”
Farrow started 11 years ago when he saw an elderly man doing it. The would-be artist thought, "It was just neat.”
So the roofer started piling rocks and discovered that it is an exercise in concentration and patience. He only uses triangular rocks. So when they’re stacked, they look like primordial people. Farrow tries to balance each rock on an easy spot first, and then looks for one that’s just a bit less easy. In this way, he looks for the almost impossible fragile perch in this unique, personal expression of creativity.
"I discern when there’s a perfect balance and then I let go at the right time,” reports Farrow. "The rock knows where it wants to go.”
Each and every construct has been a challenge, with the biggest and most difficult work being life size. They typically take between three and 15 minutes to build.
"It is simple and fun, plus I get such a kick from the response of people,” Farrow says, "It’s why I started.”
They certainly do have a variety of effects on passers-by. As I watched with him, I witnessed another passer-by take credit for the work. Also, a group of Oriental girls, who were obviously from Japan, were busy snapping shots of the display. Another lady had her young son stand in front of the scene for her pictures.
Farrow finds that people often confide in him, much like a long-time friend, but he also has strangers tell him to "get a real job.” Some admirers press him to take money as a show of their appreciation. Others feel the need to tear down the unique creations. He has even had waterfront shops asking him for Rockman t-shirts to sell. One tourist from Niagara Falls came to Nanaimo because a friend told her that she just had to see the rock statues. She confided in Farrow that although she had been to every museum, the rock people were the most interesting of all. But Farrow just observes it all dispassionately and keeps building rock people whenever the mood strikes him.
"It’s a meditative thing and a really good way of relaxing,” comments Farrow. "It also gives me tremendous, immediate satisfaction as an artist.”
There’s a contemplative side to the creative man as well. Farrow appreciates rocks as the fundamental material that human beings used to make houses, tools and weapons with since time immemorial. In today’s world, he perceives the "concrete town” of the modern landscape forming the backdrop against which the "ancient rocks” take on a human form. The triangular stones silently face towards the water, almost as mute sentinels, watching and waiting.
"There’s a sadness about them,” Farrow muses. "Now they’re just rocks.”