Manuel Cisneros never thought of himself as an artist. To hear him explain it, he was never particularly creative as a child. He didn’t go to art school. He didn’t visit museums or galleries. Art simply didn’t figure into his life much at all . . . until it did.
“I just started doing it three or four months ago,” Cisneros says of the stone cairns he’s been building in a cobble field at Emma Wood State Beach, just down from Surfer’s Point. And he’s been doing it nearly nonstop. Almost any day of the week you’ll find him there, amid a pile of boulders just south of where the Ventura River meets the Pacific, close to the ruins of the WWII artillery emplacements.
There’s something Zen-like about the way Cisneros works — for viewers as well as the artist. On one blustery afternoon, he muscled a large stone up to the top of the pile and held it in various positions over another rock, feeling for the subtle shifts that tell him if it’s steady or not. Within moments he had a boulder nearly 3 feet long comfortably settled lengthwise in a slight groove on its base. His strength, concentration and intuitive sense of equilibrium are impressive, as is the speed with which he can do the seemingly impossible.
Photo by: T Christian Gapen
Stone sculptures aren’t unusual in most beach communities; almost anyone who has spent time around rocky shores has seen large boulders and bits of driftwood stacked up, some poised on just a single point. It’s a neat trick, creating something that looks so precarious but is actually quite stable — an elegant demonstration of balance.
So it’s not that Cisneros is offering up a shocking new art form. But the sheer number of sculptures he’s created atop the boulder pile, as well as their size (some rise several feet) and composition, is a little breathtaking. The dozens of cairns he’s erected are, from a distance, vaguely reminiscent of Stonehenge or the ruins at Delphi. And the closer you look, the more surprising they are. A simple stack of flat stones isn’t stunning for its feats of equilibrium, but for its careful gradation of color . . . and the narrow upright boulder that acts as a base. Two unusually shaped rocks are placed in such a way as to create a window. Eight-foot-tall wood branches topped with beach detritus resemble palm trees. It’s a fun puzzle, figuring out how Cisneros put some of his creations together.
One particular cairn with “Everything Happens for a Reason” written vertically on the stones is a clue to how Cisneros found himself here. A native of Guanajuato, Mexico, he came to California 12 years ago at just 19 years of age.
“Like everybody, I was looking for a better life,” he says. “Sometimes you have dreams.” Improving his condition proved difficult, however. Cisneros worked at a manufacturing plant in Santa Paula that made helicopter parts, but was living hand to mouth. “I was working every day, 7 to 5, just to pay the rent,” he says. “So I decided I needed to do something else to make money.” Cisneros prefers not to discuss this side of his life in detail, so suffice it to say that he was making some bad decisions and living life on a dangerous edge.
Photo by: T Christian Gapen
“Before, I was just living day by day. I had no motivation,” he recalls. “When you’re living that kind of life, any day could be your last.” After a few violent altercations and a brush with the law that almost landed him in prison, he realized he needed to turn over a new leaf. So last December, he packed up a bag and just walked away — from his job, his associates, his home, everything.
“I had no direction. It was 1 a.m. and I was just on my bike,” Cisneros says. He ended up in Ventura and spent that first night at Subway, which was open 24 hours. Homeless, he became part of the transient community at Mission Park and then later started sleeping at Pierpont Beach. Odd jobs would come along, but he was unable to find stable employment. “When you sleep in the street, it’s difficult,” he says. “But I think I needed something hard to help me make a change. Sometimes the things that are more difficult make you stronger.”
Discouraged by the lack of work, he found himself spending more time at the beach, and was drawn to the rocks, just as a diversion. “I’d make three or four stacks a day, and they were usually destroyed when I’d go back,” Cisneros remembers. “So one day, I just decided to spend all day working in the rocks.”
Stacking stones became his sole preoccupation. The physical labor of moving large boulders around was satisfying, and the contemplative nature of balancing and composing his sculptures fed his soul. Often, he doesn’t know what a sculpture is going to look like until it’s finished; he enjoys the way the rocks, wind and ocean waves work their own magic on him. Something else came to him down in that boulder field: a sense of purpose.
Cisneros’ brother, Juan, photographs some of his sculptures on the beach in Ventura.
Photo by: T Christian Gapen
“It was a hard time in my life because I was homeless,” he explains. “But it was also a really nice experience in my life. Because I found something.”
Cisneros spent so much time building cairns that he soon had a large collection that attracted the attention of people on the beach. This public reaction caught him by surprise. “People who saw the rocks, they really liked it,” he recalls. Cisneros, an affable guy with a ready smile, enjoys chatting with the folks who come up to him while he’s building, and is happy to show them a demonstration or talk about his art. “The most important thing is when you can make other people happy. I’ve had so many people say ‘You made my day!’ ”
The rock artist has enjoyed the attention, but lately has been building after dark to take advantage of the peace and quiet. “I also like to build when no one is around so there’s an element of surprise when people finally see it,” Cisneros says. “I like to see the expressions on people’s faces.” Certainly he brings joy and wonder to the people who see his works. But many have an emotional reaction as well. “Some people when they come out here, they start to cry,” he says of the boulder field that is his primary “gallery.” “Something happens. I don’t know why, but it affects them.”
Since Cisneros started building his cairns, his life has taken a turn for the better (and not just in an artistic sense). Some friends he made at the beach are letting him pitch a tent in their yard and sleep in their van — not the Ritz, but more comfortable and safer than sleeping on the streets. Every day he spends in the boulders, he says is like a gift. And he has direction and hope, two things that eluded him until recently. “I feel like everything happens for a reason,” he says, referencing one of his sculptures. “Everything’s connected. And I have a feeling I have to wait a little bit more. But I feel something good is coming.”