Artist Finds His Center In Stone
August 7, Carmel, California ©1998 San Jose Mercury News

Mercury News Staff Writer
Jim Needham stacks rocks.

That's what the Carmel Valley man does: He stacks rocks, some as
small as a grapefruit, some as big as a microwave oven. And he
doesn't just stack them in piles, he deftly balances one upon another,
creating graceful if eccentric cairns and sculptures.

Working these days on a friend's land at the edge of Highway 1 in
Carmel Highlands just south of Point Lobos, Needham, 46, has got an
estimated 40 tons of granite rocks and boulders sitting around the
place, each stone pound hauled from a nearby river. Many have been
lifted -- by hand -- into delicately balanced sculptures that rise anywhere
from a couple of feet to a couple of yards.

Passing cars headed to and from the spectacular sights of Big Sur stop
frequently so tourists can snap a photo of the odd collection of stones.
Neighbors wave and smile when they see the guy known locally as
``the Stacker'' or ``Rock Man'' hard at work with his chosen medium,
rocks taken with the permission of property owners from the bed and
banks of the Carmel River.

``Sometimes I remember something my grandmother used to ask me:
`Have you got rocks in your head?' '' says Needham. ``In fact, I do a
show in Carmel Valley every year called `Rocks in My Head.' ''

Needham, an accomplished photographer who has had shows in
galleries around the world, worked for many years in high tech in the
Monterey and Scotts Valley areas. Then, after the CD-ROM company
he was involved with bit the dust, Needham decided he needed ``to
get back to basics, to touch the earth.''

``This,'' he says, waving his arm to encompass his rock garden, ``was
my response to technology.''

Needham lifts rocks weighing as much as 100 pounds or more without
straining his back, he says. His ungloved hands gently place the stones
atop one another until each finds its perfect point of balance.

``The rock guides you,'' he says as he places an 80-pound stone the
size of a watermelon on one shaped like a loaf of bread. ``Everybody
can do it.''

Although he says anyone can stack rocks, it's likely that Needham -- like
the late, great poet Robinson Jeffers, who built a home and a tower of
granite rocks just a few miles away at Carmel Point -- has a special
touch. ``My fingers had the art/To make stone love stone,'' Jeffers
wrote in his poem ``Tor House.''

Unlike Jeffers' house and tower, though, Needham's stacks are held
together not by mortar but by balance.

Needham says stoppers-by often don't understand that it's possible to lift
and balance one heavy, oblong rock upon another.

``People don't have balance in their lives so they don't understand it
when they see it,'' he says.

So he explains his art not in terms of balance, which is an ethereal
concept, but in terms of gravity, i.e., science. That satisfies the curious,
he notes.

A sign resembling one of those ``Men at Work'' markers hangs behind
some of his stacks of rocks. It reads, ``Gravity at Work.''

Needham says he started stacking rocks three years ago.

``The electronic publishing start-up I was part of failed,'' he
says. ``The river near my house had flooded. I was wiped out.

``And my heart opened and I started stacking rocks. . . . I'd seen rocks
and picked up rocks for years. I guess I'd thought that someday I'd build
a wall with them. I'd bring them home and scrub them and keep them,
but all of a sudden I began to stack them.''