Peter Juhl’s rock balancing classes at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

Artist Peter Juhl teaches rock balancing classes at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

There’s no “magic” in Peter Juhl’s stone balancing, but he wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to believe there is. The Eagan artist has a knack for creating unbelievably balanced towers of rocks and then photographing them—sometimes just seconds before they topple. “The challenge is to build something really delicate that looks impossible,” Juhl says. “I try to see if somebody doesn’t believe I did it without glue or steel rods, and that’s what makes it exciting.”

Juhl’s work has been on display at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and is sold at Unearthed Arts in Waconia. He also teaches rock balancing classes at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. “Three years ago, we had this stone balancing class submitted to us and decided to go ahead with it,” says Jill Leenay, business manager for the education department at the arboretum. “People want to try new things and most of them want to find new ways to decorate their gardens. We added this class, and it kept selling out.”

Putting on a one-hour PowerPoint presentation that includes his own art and art from other balancers, Juhl tells people what this art form is about, the theory and physics behind how it all works and why it works. “I give them pointers on how to do it and bring in a bucket of rocks so they can practice,” Juhl says. “It is really fun to see the look on someone’s face who couldn’t even imagine what they could do. People come away from those workshops really pumped up and that is very gratifying.”


(Which Way is Up?)

One year, Juhl’s talk focused on how you can really change the look of the sculpture with stones that are big and heavy, round and smooth, or jagged. “It all came down to how you would like to make your decorative area different,” Leenay says. “The smooth rocks create more of a Zen atmosphere while the jagged ones give a natural, harder kind of feel.”

Although rock balancing has become a serious hobby for Juhl, he stumbled upon it serendipitously. Twenty years ago, Juhl set out on a family vacation to Lake Superior’s North Shore to get away from his IT database administration job for Delta Airlines. While there, he was skipping rocks along the water and became rather bored. Juhl picked up a stone and decided to try something different. “I took a stone and tried to see if I could stand it up on its end,” Juhl says. “Then I tried to put another on top of it. By the time I was done, I created something that was kind of cool looking. I got a rather cool feeling of accomplishment from it.”

A few years after practicing this new hobby, Juhl found out that stone balancing is actually an art form and has a tremendous community of people who dabble in it. “Before social media hit the scene, we were all our own islands discovering this art by accident,” Juhl says. “Through the use of Flickr, Facebook and Instagram, we have now been able to find each other and even meet with one another. Social media has been an interesting catalyst, but it has helped us to learn from each other as well.”

So what is stone balancing exactly? Simply put, it is taking stones on location from a beach or mountainside and balancing them in a way you find pleasing. It is not exactly a mainstream art form, but more people are becoming interested in it and want to practice and pursue it. For Juhl, it has been a way to escape the pressures of work and unwind. “It’s a nice counterpoint to working with computers all day,” Juhl says. “There are a lot of different techniques you can try.”

Juhl often works on his masterpieces at Lake Superior’s North Shore for a few good reasons. “There are a lot of beaches and the rocks come in a great variety,” Juhl says. “The shapes and colors you find and the emphasis of the blue waters and skies form a great backdrop for my work.”

Juhl doesn’t just balance stones. He also photographs his structures after they are complete, but he doesn’t use a tripod or timer with his camera. “I carry the camera with me as I create my pieces,” Juhl says. “The tricks to taking the photos before the formations fall are countless. I try to find the contact points where the rocks touch and then position the camera at those points. This keeps the sightline unobstructed by the rocks themselves and tends to look much better.”


(Sugarloaf Orbs II)

Another aspect for capturing photos is looking at the different angles and taking advantage of the sculpture that has been made, but this must be done quickly because the standing time for each sculpture varies and is unpredictable.

“I’ve had a sculpture that lasted for 24 hours and one that fell within half a second after I took the photo,” Juhl says. “It all depends on the weather because the wind can blow it over.”

Although Juhl’s art is temporary, his dedication to it definitely isn’t. “It kind of keeps you young,” Juhl says. “I love trying to come up with new ideas and this really allows you do that. Something as ordinary as a few rocks on the ground and just using your hands, mind and powers of concentration is really cool.”

Seek Balance

Find matted and framed prints of Peter Juhl’s work, as well as his book, Center of Gravity: A Guide to the Practice of Rock Balancing, at Unearthed Arts,
44 W. Main St., Waconia; 952.442.4499.

Juhl is also teaching several classes at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in the coming months, including The Power of Balance: Stone Sculptures for Your Garden on May 30 and August 22 and Stone Balance Master Class: Intermediate to Advanced on September 12. Classes are $42 for arboretum members and $55 for non-members.
Find registration details at arboretum.umn.edu.