"Physics Inaction": MU professor balances sculptures on his lawn

Monday, September 21, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:54 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 21, 2009
Mark Milanick, a professor at the pharmacology and physiology department at MU, creates balancing rock and wood sculptures on his lawn, stretching from South Glenwood Avenue and Redbud Lane to West Rollins Road. He titles his project "Physics Inaction."

COLUMBIA — Mark Milanick picks up a pointed, irregular rock about 2 feet in diameter. He carefully places it, sharp side down, on a flat stone resting on a log.

He slightly loosens his grip, and the rock wobbles.


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He moves it around, trying different placements until he finally locates the perfect groove. He lets go and takes a step back. The rock holds, and he looks pleased.

Milanick, a professor at the medical pharmacology and physiology department at MU, has been making sculptures by balancing rocks, logs and branches on his lawn for the past three years.

Yet, he is reluctant to call his work art.

“It’s more of a balancing act,” he said. “Sometimes the balances are artistic, sometimes they are not.”

Although the sculptures have no direct relation to his scientific research, their formation and permanence are limited by the constraints of science and nature.

Milanick aptly titles his project, “Physics Inaction.”

At least a dozen sculptures are visible from the road on Milanick’s sloping, forested lawn, which stretches from the corner of South Glenwood Avenue and Redbud Lane to West Rollins Road.

Most of the sculptures are precariously stacked stones on a log base, usually arranged in clusters of three or four.

A few incorporate branches, including one where a spindly stick supports a much weightier one while a stone rests at their intersection.

Some look almost human; one has a hair of vine growing from its "head."

He works close to the road so he can share his work with the neighborhood.

“Plus, the ground is flatter down here,” he said. 

Neighbors can provide a range interpretations of the sculptures. They remind Anne Gowans of Native American sacred ground. Don Ranly believes they evoke natural imagery reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe’s artwork. To Betsy Miller, “It’s an homage to the earth mother goddess.”

Milanick simply calls them sandbox therapy. 

Several years ago, he was clearing a pathway on his lawn by yanking out euonymus vines. When he got tired, he walked away and began to stack rocks at the bottom of the hill.

Soon it became a respite from the destruction of the vines.

“I wanted to do something positive — building something instead of tearing things down,” he said.

Milanick enjoyed it so much he began to arrange rocks in his yard on a regular basis. He experimented with construction and material, building a table or resting stones on branch tripods, for example.

He began to use logs when a tree collapsed in his lawn and was too big and heavy to move. He chopped it up on the spot to create pedestals for his rock creations.

“Sometimes there’s just a convenience where the material is,” he said. “I don't like to move things too far.”

When favorite ones collapse from rain, wind or gravity, he replaces them the same way.  Less favored pieces were rearranged or moved elsewhere. Through this process of human and natural selection, the sculptures assumed a distinctive style.

Today, the sculptures still serve as therapy for Milanick, especially when he’s stressed at work. His research primarily involves theory and often result in sets of dry data.

When he gets home, he evens out his mind by balancing objects on his lawn.

The sculptures’ ephemeral nature and use of found materials draw comparisons to environmental sculptor and photographer Andy Goldsworthy, an esteemed British artist whose work can be found at museums in New York, London and San Francisco.

Like Milanick, Goldsworthy relies on the forces of nature. He uses whatever materials are available and allows his pieces to shift, transform and decay without human interference.

Milanick didn’t find out about Goldsworthy until after he began creating his own sculptures, but he does cite him as an inspiration.

Milanick wants to add a self-balancing wind mobile and a horse made out of branches to the collection.

His pieces are beginning to attract attention beyond his immediate neighborhood.

Jackie Lennox, who walks past Milanick’s lawn three to four times a day, has made a habit of checking if any changes have been made.

“People are starting to notice it more," Lennox said. "It causes a lot of talk around here."

Dan Goldstein, an amateur photographer, uses the sculptures as his subjects. He's tried different methods, including taking flash pictures at night. "I love them," he said. 

Others seem grateful for the whimsy they provide. “They've added an artistic and cultural component to the neighborhood,” Betsy Miller said.

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