Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


June 30, 2008

The Rock Artist

On a lonely Staten Island beach, artist Douglas Schwartz creates cairns that are a blank canvas for those who stumble upon—and sometimes dismantle—them.

James Curcuru

It's a chilly and dreary morning on Staten Island's South Shore, but Douglas Schwartz approaches his studio with enthusiasm. He is alone except for a few tired-looking fishermen scattered around a fishing pier, and the bay's motionless water casts a somewhat somber tranquility on the scene.

New York City may be the art capital of the world. It is also the utter antithesis of untouched terrain, and the city prides itself on this identity. Among the myriad unknown artists in the city, few are as organically odd and off the beaten path as Schwartz. An avid naturalist, and one of the city's premier outsider artists (quite literally), Schwartz has been crafting his life's work miles away from anywhere that could be considered an artistic hotspot.

Douglas Schwartz. All photos by James Curcuru.
"There is nothing worse to Schwartz than audience apathy; even the destructive rage of a baffled passerby has its place."

Douglas Schwartz. All photos by James Curcuru.

Schwartz constructs delicately configured sculptures made of various stones, driftwood, and the occasional found item washed up on shore. The majority of his sculptures are oblong stacks of stone called cairns. Each cairn is a hodgepodge of size, shape, and color, and it is at once crude and textured. Cairn construction is a worldwide phenomenon.

At least once a week, every week, Schwartz can be found on the modest coastline along the little known beaches of Mount Loretto. A former orphanage ground, Mount Loretto was once owned by the Archdiocese of New York—it served as the filming location of The Godfather's famed baptismal scene—and it is now in the possession of the New York State Parks Department. Its primary attractions are bird- and boat-watching. Somewhat unknown even among Staten Islanders, its relatively undisturbed terrain serves as both Schwartz's workshop and exhibition space.

I accompany Schwartz on one of his routine pilgrimages down to the beach at Mount Loretto. To the unprepared eye, stumbling upon Schwartz's work can be startling or confusing. Entering the drab shoreline to the right of a large fishing pier at the intersection of Sharrott Avenue and Hylan Boulevard, you first see a sprinkling of smaller rock formations that lead past a small watchtower to the realm of larger cairns. A simple stroll along the shore turns into a brief experience of the surreal, somewhat akin to an unassuming walker's first trip through Tom Otterness's public installation The Real World in Manhattan's Rockefeller Park.

We walk southward along the shoreline, chatting about his work. As we weave through the cairns, Schwartz briefly pauses at the occasional sculpture to make minor touch-ups. Luckily, there hasn't been any significant damage done to any of his pieces since his last visit.

Douglas Schwartz and cairns
One minor point of contention arises. Surveying the ground, we find the word "JESUS" spelled out in stones, not far from one of the cairns. Looking a bit miffed, Schwartz swipes the stones apart with his feet, saying, "Sometimes I'll find something that I didn't do, and sometimes people will come along, ask me what I'm doing, and want to help me." I can't help but wonder how frequently this has actually happened. Considering the beach's obscurity, and the early hour at which he tends to come down, I assume it must be a rare occurrence.

Schwartz has been faithfully cultivating his canvass of choice for the past 10 years, come rain, heat, sleet, or snow. There is little state-owned parkland within New York City, most of it far from midtown, and a unique set of regulations comes with the territory. Schwartz explains: "That "Forever Wild" sign means that I can latch onto it and not worry that one day the land'll be developed for tract housing, and my work gets pushed 12 feet under the ground. That's the importance of the site…It's like a little buffer zone; whatever happens outside of the gates will happen, but at least one can still go in there and it'll be the same." The Parks people fiercely preserve properties such as Mount Loretto against foreign infringements, while also maintaining a laissez-faire attitude towards unobtrusive installations. Schwartz's respect for these conditions has allowed him to pile away to his heart's content.

A thick blue rope that has washed up on the shore catches Schwartz's eye. Seemingly on instinct, he darts for it and drags it further inland. Coiling the rope in on itself, Schwartz places his nest-like improvisation at the foot of a cairn. "I like to work quickly, sometimes before I even think about what I'm doing. It's almost a Jungian technique."

I don't doubt that Jung would have had something to say about Schwartz's elemental approach to art. There is a vague familiarity in its primitivism, one that allows the viewer to conjure up impressions of some humble pagan shrine to a long-lost lower deity. Schwartz insists that while there is a spiritual component to his work, he doesn't want it to bear any traces of an organized religion (which explains his Jesus tiff), and that it's not meant to symbolize anything other than a love and respect for nature—if even that. It's up to the viewer to interpret.

We reach the point where the cairns begin to taper off and stop to talk some more, looking off into the direction we'd came from. In the hazy distance, we see a solitary figure approaching. A young man of about 20 is walking slowly and turns his head from side-to-side, clearly inspecting the cairns. From the puzzled expression on his face it is obvious that this is his first time seeing them. As he passes, he pauses to give us a shy but friendly hello, and then begins on his way. Before he can leave, I ask him what he thinks of the cairns. "I just…I wonder…why? It's really neat, but…why?"

Schwartz, born and raised on Staten Island, brings to his work his appreciation for the borough's unique place in its city and his lifelong love of the natural world. Staten Island is often derided for a lack of cultural contributions and a provincial mindset. Aside from a very short list of memorable musical exports (hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan and David Johanssen of New York Dolls fame), its progeny seems noticeably out of step with the rest of the city's innumerable artistic offerings. Only half a century ago, one could still find fading remnants of an agricultural tradition that was once the island's lifeblood.

"It's not so desolate that you're a hermit on the mountaintops, and it's not like the Village where you're one of many," Schwartz said later. "It's very easy to become unique and the pressure is taken off."

Schwartz and the young man, named Chris, begin to chat. Chris explains how he's found his way to the site: "My pastor told me about this place. He mentioned it in one of his sermons." A leather-bound Bible sticks out from the back right pocket of his jeans. The good-natured, sad-eyed lad is in fact a born-again Christian. Schwartz, whose concerns of unwanted denominational associations are now all but forgotten, looks pleased.

I rummage through my backpack to grab my camera, and before I know it, Schwartz and the young man are hoisting up a large rock, intending to place it against a cairn he's already constructed for additional structural support. After the rock has been placed, the lonesome pilgrim bids us goodbye and is on his way.

Schwartz exudes a curious gregariousness, a slight proclivity for theatrics, and a concern for public opinion that one might not expect from a man toiling in obscurity. Schwartz hopes to encourage his viewers, whatever their number, to seek an intimacy with the natural world—no matter how little of it is left.

"I'm trying to create a pleasant or beautiful experience because a lot of times in the city one thinks of nature as kind of dirty and not that pleasant, like the pests. … Without something like daily farm life, you don't really encounter it. I create the sculptures down on the beach and hope that they kind of induce people to suddenly just go out there. And once they're out there, they'll start to experience things. … It's just life the way it could be."

Having spent his formative years supporting environmentally friendly politicians and studying biology at Manhattan's Hunter College, he decided long ago that he would never drive a car (certainly no easy task on Staten Island), and he still hasn't. He also has a manifesto about his beach installation.

Schwartz is as committed to his day job as to his art, and it is a major source of inspiration. Now a senior employee at the Staten Island Zoo, he's helped present the natural world to the public for years. "That's the whole point of the zoo, to experience animals in a non-threatening fashion. If you highlight certain things, even just, 'Oh, look at that,' eventually the people have little epiphanies and they have something that sticks with them their whole lives." Aside from selecting animals for the zoo to purchase and being responsible for their subsequent care, Schwartz is the surrogate parent of Staten Island Chuck—New York City's sole (and therefore official) groundhog.

Schwartz lives with his wife, and Chuck, at their home in Tottenville, Staten Island's (and therefore New York's) southernmost neighborhood. The New York Times has profiled Schwartz's unique duties with the furry forecaster, and he partakes in the zoo's annual Groundhog Day festivities to much fanfare. (Check Chuck's record). "Sometimes I feel like an idiot with the groundhog, but the public response is so positive that I can shake that off and I'm able to do more. It's my job to create a scene that goes well—at the zoo and at the beach." Schwartz's zoological work serves as the more practical yin to his art's more abstract yang: two different means to a common end.

Schwartz's cairns haven't been met with universal regard. Despite his sculptures' benign intent and remote location, his work has suffered from criticism and wildly unfounded misinterpretation. He often finds his work vandalized or entirely dismantled. "Vandalism is a big teaching tool for me. If they don't like it they'll kick it down. Either I make it stronger or just keep at it so they realize it means something to me and that this isn't just a temporary thing. … The worst damage will occur once college finals are done. The locals drink heavily, become bored, and will destroy the entire complex. Rebuilding will take two or three weekends."

A pair of women once stumbled upon his work and interpreted it as Satanic detritus. The borough's local newspaper, the Staten Island Advance, was disturbed enough to print an article on his work entitled "Cult Activity or Sophomoric Prank?"

Schwartz has taken the public bewilderment in stride, however, and views even the most unkind reactions to his work as proof that he's done something worthwhile. "It's like a gut kind of reaction—that's why I love the drunks who come down to the beach. It's very [grunts] 'like' or [grunts] 'don't like.' If they get frightened or angry, you're still connecting with them, you can explain yourself, and at least you've got their attention." There is nothing worse to Schwartz than audience apathy; even the destructive rage of a baffled passerby has its place.

I ask him how he would like his work (and himself) to be remembered: "I think there's nothing I could do now to not be known as 'the rock guy,' and in a hundred years, what, if anything, will be remembered? Maybe not my name, but hopefully there'll always be stories about the guy who moved around the stones. You become part of the local scene, almost like a physical landmark. That's a nice situation—Staten Island is good for that. … What I'm trying to do is create my own set down there for a live-action theater on the soil. Whether or not the show that I call my life sells any tickets, well, we'll see."

James Curcuru

James Curcuru is your average post-collegiate wunderkind looking for kicks from the printed word. He lives in Brooklyn.

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- Arts
- posted on Jul 02, 08

Excellent work there, Jimmy!

- Arts
- posted on Jul 02, 08
Nestor Kirchner

I thought Jimmy-five-toes was causing trouble way down south? And this all strikes me as a bit...phallic. No?

- Arts
- posted on Jul 02, 08

How do you pronounce the mysterious Cairn?
I've found all sorts of ways online, but none seem definitive.

- Arts
- posted on Jul 02, 08

Nice article buddy.

- Arts
- posted on Jul 05, 09

Whenever I have visitors from out of town, I bring them down to the beach to witness the mystery of the cairns. I am little crestfallen to learn that there's such a mundane explanation, as opposed to aliens, satanists, etc.

One thing I take issue with: yesterday I noticed that someone had set up Tibetan prayer flags, and they have been there for a while. But Mr. Schwartz objects to someone spelling out JESUS with the stones. Biased, no? Perhaps Mr. Schwartz should take a strict anti-establishmentarian stance and keep all vestiges of religion out of his art. (lol)

- Arts
- posted on Jan 19, 12
douglas schwartz

We are down at Page Ave. beach and Huguenot Ave. beach every friday.

- Arts
- posted on Mar 31, 13

Nice piece. Good to get people out to see Schwartz's work and think about their own surroundings.

Article by James Curcuru

James Curcuru is your average post-collegiate wunderkind looking for kicks from the printed word. He lives in Brooklyn.

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