A Cairn is Born – Introducing the Waymaking Cairn

All of my original works are protected by copyright and may not  be copied, duplicated, or used in any way without my explicit permission. But if you ask me nicely and tell me something exciting about how the work might be used (especially if I get to participate) I have a feeling the answer could very well be “Yes!”

Allow me to introduce the Waymaking Cairn, which is the keystone of a new practice which I began before I knew that this might/could or would be a new practice. A practice that slowly reveals itself to me as I continue the work. The Waymaking Cairn came into being in the presence of the 12 members of the Listening Body workshop facilitated by Heloise Gold on RPI's campus in Troy, New York

This is the cairn, photographed where it first came into being; on a bed of rocks located on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, July 2014, within the meditation circle.  I was participating in a three day Listening Body workshop with  11 other participants, engaging in a variety of meditation exercises as facilitated by Heloise Gold. Following this workshop we would all be attending the Deep Listening Conference.      In retrospect, I believe the various meditative methods we engaged in, which included Tai Chi,  opened up my consciousness, allowing me to focus deeply on the rocks on which we sat. As I sat cross-legged in the circle with the others, I began to select rocks within my reach one at a time, placing them around me, contemplating each one’s unique shape, color and striations, feeling the heft and particular outlines of each.

When we broke from the morning session I picked up the four rocks I found particularly interesting and put them in my camera bag, intending  to add them to a growing collection I had at home, which displayed stones from previous travels around the country. From across the circle David Arner called to me, “Julie, let me give you a stone.” I was surprised, because  he began to search the stones at this feet.  I realized that he had no stone ready to give me. Rather, he was looking for the stone that he wanted me to have, allowing his intuition to guide him.  I wondered if this was in response to his observation of my careful contemplation of the stones durin20140708_3331g our circle time. He handed me an oblong stone, its base color a deep grey, with irregularly placed white stripes circling the stone, zebra-like. I was touched by this simple gesture and fascinated by this oddly shaped rock that reminded me of my crooked little finger on my right hand, which has a permanently swollen and crooked knuckle from an  injury that healed badly.  Maybe as a pianist who needs his hands in good working order, my sad little crooked finger had caught his attention.  .

At this point, the stones had not yet been assembled into the cairn. This happened at the next circle time when we were sitting on the same bed of rocks and I saw Jane, sitting across from me, assembling a cairn. Later, she would tell me that she had been inspired to make a cairn after watching Jesus make a cairn. Jesus was to my immediate left in the circle and so the cairn which he made was out of my sight lines as he was stacking his stones on his left side. At our next break I retrieved my stones from the camera bag and I began experimenting with my five stones looking to see if they might be stackable. I quickly discerned that there was only one way that the stones could be stacked and that it would always be a precarious balancing feat. This truth about balance would be the first of many metaphorical understandings of how my existence and the cairn’s existence were intertwined.

The Waymaking Cairn comes into sharper focus as I begin to discern how this is a conjoined art practice and meditative practice.

The Waymaking Cairn comes into sharper focus as I begin to discern how this is a conjoined art practice and meditative practice.

Thus was the cairn born; from a series of simple, unremarkable events that combined to bring about a greater focus and appreciation; a sense of awe and blessing, and a call to continue the journey of discovery in this new art practice. Without any understanding of how or at what moment I was inspired to do so – was it that same day or the next/ — the idea came to me to photograph this small cairn in relationship to its surroundings.   But not just any surroundings.  Intuitively I was selecting settings, but it would be a while before I found a method in the mindfulness.

And so, the travels of the Waymaking Cairn began; first around the RPI campus, the college town of Troy and then in the many places to which we have travelled since.


My process in creating the Waymaking Cairn  images begins with the mindful act of being attentive to my surroundings. In this mindful state , I am able see something extraordinary in the ordinary, I see with fresh eyes the often overlooked elements in my existence and surroundings, and perceive something compelling in the otherwise ignored, less-than-attractive or taken for granted objects and surroundings.   My senses of hearing, smell, sensations of touch, movement and temperature all inform my mindful sight as I walk with my camera. My spiritual nature is alive and channeling all this sensory input and finds a way to speak in the image as well. Interestingly, now that the cairn series has had time to imbue me with a particular sight, I find myself looking for visual opportunities whereby the cairn can be a character with the dual roles of participant and observer within the frame. Technically speaking, this creates some interesting compositional dynamics to incorporate an iconic figure that is less than 6 inches tall.

In the Hindu tradition, the avatar is understood to be a soul in bodily form on earth; an embodiment or manifestation of a person or idea. The Waymaking Cairn serves as a visual avatar for me, the photographer, whose mindfulness brought about this encounter, memorialized in the photographic frame. Sometimes I will take multiple shots at varying distances and angles because each shot offers a different relationship or a progressive understanding of and with the subject. In pondering the relationships of cairn to its environment, new understandings of the symbolism within the image will arise in my consciousness. The symbolism and the psychic qualities of the images are not exclusively somber ones, though. They can be joyous, playful, whimsical, ironic and more. The most compelling images I have created of the cairn have within them in a strong visual relationship with that other “thing” which thereby creates a new composition with the cairn cast as character in the scene and witness, all at the same time. My minimalist captions are intended to give voice to the nature of my mindful/contemplative state and what I see in the frame.


I have been fascinated by cairns for quite some time. Finding cairns at random places in my travels, I would wonder about who made the cairn; when did s/he make it? What was his or her reason for making that cairn at that time and place? After that fleeting sense of connection to the mysterious maker of the cairn in some previous time, I would let go of that train of thought and simply focus on the cairn itself, feeling its call: be here, now; be still, breathe; attend to this moment of time and focus on being in this place and only this place. Interesting to note is that I have long understood my photography practice to be a meditative practice, a manifestation of the call to attend to the moment in time and place. But I had never before felt the need to create a cairn and leave it in any 20130710_3456particular place. Now I employ the cairn to attest to the mindful meditative act, acting as a visible partner while serving as iconic subject and witness in each photographic image. Hmmm, could this be a new variation on the role of participant observer? I think so!

20130708_3658      When I realized what a strong hold this new practice had upon me, I began researching cairns appearance in various cultures and geographies through the ages, in the hopes of using the information to better explain to myself and others what this new practice was about and why it was important.

Historically, cairns have  been used to mark a place of significance for the person(s) who created the cairn. Though the Waymaking Cairn is no more than 6 inches tall, some cairns are huge, weighing many tons and would have required numerous people and machinery to put these boulders and stone piles into place. Whatever the size, the markers seem (to me at least) to be there to alert others to the place as well. Sometimes cairns serve as geographical markers at key crossroads. Other times historians conjecture that they mark the place where something significant took place. Maybe it was a birth, a death, a wedding, a peace treaty, a ceremonial marker…. the possibilities are as infinite as are human activities. What all cairns seem to have in common through the ages is that they mark as special a time, a place, an event, a person or persons, a relational event, for example.20130708_3667

What I understand and elaborate upon in this practice, which is also a life journey, is the precious act of being fully present to the world in which we live. I do this by paying special attention to the mundane, often overlooked places and times, as well as those things that more easily can evoke fascination and wonder. I don’t have to know why places, people, objects and events call me to mark that place in my journey, I need only be grateful for the breath of life and the glorious senses that allow me to see, hear, wonder, bless and even giggle sometimes in the moment of feeling alive and connected to the world around me in these  moments.

I will be regularly posting photos of this participant observer WayMaking Cairn as it bears witness to the mundane, the extraordinary, the overlooked, the sublime, the ordinary, the unremarked and miraculous in our travels.

We, the cairn and I, will chronicle the sacred act of attention and connection to life. Oh, yes, and the lovely, regular encounters with whimsy!




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