BOULDER (AP) – Michael Grab tells two versions of the story of his first encounter with balancing stones, back in the summer of 2008.
In the first, he and a friend were “just kind of bored,” went down to Boulder Creek and started trying to stack whatever rocks caught their eye.
In the second, a certain psychedelic substance plays a role.
Either way he tells it, though, the results were the same: He was hooked.
Soon, Grab was balancing rocks at the creek whenever he had free time.
“At the time, I was working a warehouse job in east Boulder. It was one of those regular dead-end jobs that I was really frustrated with,” Grab said. “Rock balancing was, it was almost like a therapeutic way to spend my free time, to balance me out.”
Nearly seven years later, rock balancing is a full-time job for Grab, 30, as he builds a name for himself not only in his backyard but also around the world. Photos of his rock installations have spread far and wide on the Internet, thanks to blogs and websites such as This is Colossal, Reddit and Huffington Post.
He recently traveled to Switzerland for a live performance during the World Economic Forum and also has performed at festivals and events in Sweden, Scotland and Germany. He has balanced rocks in Croatia, Italy, Belgium, France, even the shores of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands.
Boulder, though, is home and where Grab hones his craft with singular focus.
“I never had a goal whatsoever when I first started. I just loved doing it – I love being at the creek, I love the quiet, I love the sound of the flowing water,” Grab said. “Just being in that environment felt like an incredibly awesome way to spend my time, especially crafting these incredibly unique arrangements every day. It made me realize the possibilities were endless.
“Eventually, it just took over. Soon, people started calling me this artist,” he said, with a laugh. “I’ve always been an artist, but I never considered myself a serious artist.”
He graduated from the University of Colorado in 2007 with a degree in sociology.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Grab quit his job and pursued the craft full time. By then, he also had seen the work of other master rock balancers, including one in San Francisco recommended to him by a passer-by in Boulder.
When Grab goes into his studio to work, often the only sound is the rush of water.
He wears the same uniform – chest waders and waterproof boots – no matter the weather.
From noon to sunset almost every day, he works in and around Boulder Creek, meditating and stacking rocks into increasingly mind-bending formations.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of minutes. Other installations take hours. None are held together by anything more than gravity (and a great deal of patience).
“People will look for any reason or excuse possible to explain what I do without me actually balancing – they’ll consider glue or rods or Photoshop or freezing them together on a sunny day, because it’s absolutely impossible that they could just be balanced,” Grab said.
Rock balancing, for him, is a meditative experience, he said.
“You have to focus so much on getting the rocks to balance and you’re tuning in to these fine vibrations. It immediately shuts off all the excessive mind chatter that usually goes on in people’s heads,” he said.
Grab isn’t coy, either, about a few months in 2013 and 2014 when he lived out of his car – he said in many ways, his life has mirrored the uncertainties of his art.
“It’s so transient and kind of random and chaotic – it follows nature – chaotic and ordered,” Grab said. “Since I started doing this professionally, it’s just been one thing after another, showing up in the perfect amount of time.”
What helped get him noticed are the stunning photographs of his creations that he posts to his website, www.gravityglue.com.
When he started out, he just had a small point-and-shoot camera. Now he has a much bigger setup for capturing his works – in the only permanent way possible.
“When I first started balancing rocks, I always got a bit anxious about them falling down – it was like, oh, crap, I didn’t get a picture of it – but the more and more I started doing it and the more collapses I saw, just as my experience developed, I stopped caring,” Grab said. “It’s definitely a lesson of the practice.
“There’s quite a bit of Zen or Buddhist overtones. Impermanence is a huge Zen philosophy.”
Theresa Janzen, a yoga instructor in Longmont, met Grab along the creek almost six years ago, well before he started balancing rocks for a living, and said that philosophy applies even when it is less-than-appreciative people triggering the collapses.
“There have been many instances where I’ve witnessed and where my children have witnessed people literally saying, ‘This guy is fake,’ and they walk up to them and push them over,” Janzen said.
“It’s so humbling to see Michael go, ‘It’s nature, it’s going to be that way anyway – let them find out the truth.’ He’s always OK with it.”
His commitment to his craft is phenomenal, she said.
“Even more than being impressed by what he does, I’m impressed by his dedication,” said Janzen, who owns prints of a number of Grab’s photos. “He stands for hours in icy-cold water just looking to find the perfect rocks, which sounds crazy to everyday people. When he realized what he could do with them, it was well worth it.”
A feeling for the impossible
Balancing rocks, not surprisingly, requires patience – a lot of patience.
On one unseasonably warm February afternoon, Grab crouched in the creek – the water still ice cold – for the better part of an hour, his hands enclosed in the kind of Kevlar-reinforced gloves intended for cold-water scuba divers.
A tweak here, a tweak there, repeated again and again. From the shore, it began to look impossible, that he had reached too far, was too ambitious in his vision.
And then, all of a sudden, he let go.
“Finally,” he said.
The top rock, a flattish, heavy black oval, sat on its point, motionless.
“I don’t even like that one,” he said, stepping back from his creation.
He ticked off the reasons: Too clumsy, the balance points too big. Not enough lateral movement, the top rock not interesting enough.
Over the last couple of years, he said, a recurring theme in his work has been “to make it look as impossible as possible.”
“Sometimes, it can take up to four to five hours for one single formation, because it’s so technically difficult, given only two hands and one’s anchored to each side of your body,” Grab said.
The basics of the craft remain the same, regardless of the level of difficulty.
“It’s all in the feeling,” Grab said. “You have to feel the vibrations through the rocks. You can feel a vibration every time a surface of a rock hits the surface of another rock because they’re both extremely hard objects. You just feel that vibration.
“You’re basically looking for points where they lock on one another. You need at least three points for something to balance. You need to center its mass between three points.”
Almost like antennae, he spreads his fingers wide over the rock in search of that sweet spot. When he finds it, the rock becomes almost weightless, he said.
Gravity, and the counterbalancing effect of stacking rock upon heavy rock, take care of the rest.
“Once they’re balanced, it’s pretty remarkable how stable they are in and of themselves,” Grab said. “If there’s no wind, they would last for months – no wind or no people.”