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The Ephemeral Artist, Balancing Stones And Life

Tom O’Dwyer’s Sculptures Are Rock Stars

Most people would agree that a good life is a balanced life.

Tom O’Dwyer, who has lived in Park Hill more than 20 years with his wife Carol, takes that principle literally. O’Dwyer has many talents, but surely the most interesting among them is rock balancing, which he freely admits is not merely an eccentric hobby or pastime, but a full-blown obsession.

Stone sculptures – also called cairns – have been around in some form since pre-historic times. (Cairn is a Scottish word. The first cairns were road markers, as are today’s traffic cones.) They were originally purely utilitarian, serving as durable landmarks, but it was inevitable that they would become an art form as well.

O’Dwyer thinks of rock balancing as an ephemeral art – creating impermanent things, subject to alteration, dynamic. This is ironic because he has spent much of his life as a mason, a professional who is paid to make rocks and bricks and mortar stay solid, permanent, or at least long-lasting, resistant to change.

“How you can put things together, take them apart, and put them together again fascinates me,” O’Dwyer says. “Rock balancing is very democratic. Anyone can do it. You start with something very basic and build from there. Engineering meets architecture. It teaches you to appreciate form, balance, angle, proportion, weight. Your best tools are a keen sense of touch and concentration.”

O’Dwyer has completed pieces with and without glue. Five works will be on display at the VFW Gallery, 841 Santa Fe Drive, the first and third Fridays every month. This summer he is going to be teaching an eight-session class on rock balancing at the Park Hill Library. The class is free.

People can also check out O’Dwyer’s art in his front yard, at 2645 Clermont St., this spring and summer.

Rock stars

Balancing, like any other art, has its rock stars, and some of the installations are huge.

Among the items that have been balanced for amazingly long periods, to the delight of large audiences, are cars, couches and bicycles. Peter Juhl is considered one of the best of the balancers. Google his name for photos and biographical information, and read his book, Center of Gravity, for his philosophy and techniques. O’Dwyer also recommends visiting, featuring the work of Michael Grab.

O’Dwyer frequently loiters around the businesses near the corner of 23rd and Dexter Street. He often wears a sweater, a cap, and a scarf, conversing in a rich Irish brogue, which he obtained growing up in the town of Limerick, in the southwest portion of the Irish Republic.

“We were working class,” he says. “My father was a baker, my mother a homemaker/caregiver. I had four brothers and two sisters. We were all brought up believing that a decent day’s work results in a decent day’s pay. Pretty basic. You can’t go wrong with that approach.”

Catholicism was a huge presence in O’Dwyer’s youth, but over time he soured on the Church. “Everyone knew about the pedophilia and the emotional abuse – but we were in denial, we looked the other way. We were taught to not question the church on issues like abortion. Thankfully, I learned to appreciate how the Church devalues women, and I identified with more liberal causes. One of my favorite slogans is, ‘Keep your rosaries out of my ovaries.’”

25 years a mason

O’Dwyer spent 25 years as a mason, his first few years in the profession as an apprentice to some of the most skilled and experienced masons in the region, including Paul Pine (whose house in Evergreen featured an exterior made entirely of quartz) and Dick Ruden (an “old time bricky”).

O’Dwyer has worked on a wide range of projects and explored many different techniques in masonry, from tuck-pointing to constructing elaborate walls, shelves, chimneys and walkways.

He’s skilled with various materials, including “cob,” a mixture which can include sand, clay, straw, water, cow dung and sour milk – similar to stucco but more durable.

He retired in 2003, and now devotes all of his creative energy to stone art and gravity sculpting.

O’Dwyer and Carol, who works at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church, love Park Hill, but they have some concerns.

“I like the diversity and the sense of community,” says Tom. “But I’m concerned about all the pop-tops and the ‘contemporary’ architecture – a lot of it is crap. I’m a traditionalist. I think we should preserve Park Hill’s character.”

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