Travis Ruskus offered meditative guidance to the assembled first-graders at Red Hawk Ridge Elementary School on Aug. 24.
"While you're doing this, it's important that you stop to think," Ruskus announced to the students bent over the small piles of rocks and stones spread across the lawn of the school's outdoor amphitheater. "It's important to see how you're feeling."
Such inner inspection is a key component in the unorthodox art lessons that have become Ruskus' creative specialty. Ruskus, a native of Boulder, forgoes canvas, paint, brushes and other traditional studio materials for a much more primal medium. Now based in San Francisco, Ruskus works with rocks. Specifically, he's become an expert at stacking stones in ways that seem to defy gravity. By finding precise pressure points and subtle contours, Ruskus builds natural rock sculptures that are at once delicate and monumental.
But Ruskus' own artwork is only part of his artistic mission. Instruction has become a big part of his life as an artist, and his most recent destination was Red Hawk Ridge Elementary. Ruskus visited art classes helmed by Red Hawk Ridge art teacher Amy Marsh for a series of workshops that reached nearly every student at the school. He worked with first- through fifth-graders to teach the craft of working with stones.
According to Marsh, the clinics offered lessons that went beyond the physics of stacking stones. The mission of the classes was to give students a different kind of creative platform that stressed the importance of composition, concentration and physical materials.
|"A stone is just a metaphor for whatever you're trying to achieve," -- Artist Travis Ruskus|
"We want to show that art is not just product, but concept and process," Marsh said. "Balance and composition are the root of any art project, and this gets them in touch with those kinds of concepts … There's also connections to engineering and math."
Ruskus' lessons also include a constant stress on meditation and careful planning, elements that brought their own value for students of all ages and interests.
"It's been so successful. Even the kids who are jumpy will sit with it for 10 minutes and try to create a piece. It makes them feel good about themselves," Marsh said. "What I'm really hoping is that they all identify as artists."
The art of stone sculpture offered a similar sense of liberation for Ruskus, who found the medium when he was enrolled in culinary school and searching for artistic direction. Since he first wandered into a creek and explored the aesthetic potential of stones fished from the water, Ruskus has found a degree of purpose and peace in the medium. He cites the minimal environmental impact of his sculptures – once he's balanced the stones and photographed the result, he disassembles the sculpture and returns the materials to their original spots.
"When I first started to do this, I had a lot of people come up to me and say, 'Whoa, that's crazy … and I could never do that.' I wanted to take the experience that I was having in the creek and translate it for others," Ruskus said, adding that working with elementary students has added a different dimension to the instruction process. "I can keep it light, or I can also go into deep concepts that are harder to understand."
Those concepts range from the basic physics behind stacking stones to more universal themes of focus, gratitude and time. Ruskus sees his art form as a key to tackling bigger ideas that can challenge even the most experienced artist.
"A stone is just a metaphor for whatever you're trying to achieve," he said.