By Susan Johnston
“Why rocks? Well, because they were there,” says John Felice Ceprano, reflecting on the stone balancing structures he has created at Remic Rapids for the past 34 summers. The project wasn’t planned. Ceprano says he was seeking a quiet place to meditate, relax, and get away from the ByWard Market, where he was living at the time. “I was able to enjoy an abundant supply of materials, with an abundant amount of space, and create something that I wasn’t attached to. I knew that each day things would fall down and then I would have to put them back up. And each time they go back up, they become more and more precise,” says Ceprano. After a few years working of his own volition, he received a Canada Council grant. The NCC has supported the work since 2000.
According to Ceprano, art has to provide some function and purpose in order to be valid. And balance is key. He means this both in terms of artistic composition and for how he works. “Initially I wished to be a meteorologist and that didn’t happen. I decided to pursue a career as an artist. Balancing rocks in the environment brought it all together,” says Ceprano. He elaborates on his philosophy: “There’s always an evolution to the next level of balancing. It’s a meditation. I’ve always been seeking peace. Through balance I can find that peace. The reality is that balance can’t lie. It just can’t. Either it’s balanced and it works or it’s not balanced and it doesn’t work. I came to the understanding a number of years ago that I was seeking truth through balance.”
Justice is Balance, this year’s theme, highlights “the injustices that have been imposed on all the minorities and all marginalized people. Women, Indigenous people, people of all different colours, and more. Many more,” says Ceprano. He sought to build on the idea of “no justice, no peace” to explore how we can find peace in balance. I ask him what he thinks about as he’s building the sculptures. He says: “Actually, nothing goes through my mind because the whole thing is dependent on feeling. It’s a tactile experience.”
His 2019 sculptures, The Sorcery of Balance, built on his studies of Indigenous cultures and shamanism, centred around the art of the double. In Ceprano’s view, this relates to the two points of balance coming to an equilibrium. “In the sorcery of balance everything is doubled,” says Ceprano. “There’s a lot of shamanistic values in my work, such as “the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”
I’m curious about how he builds the structures. In the past, Ceprano says he’s had assistance. “Tourists in particular, they see you moving a big rock, and they ask whether you need a hand. We move these very large rocks that sometimes weigh 300 or 400 pounds.” This year, he’s working alone, and behind a protective barrier. He’s seeking three-point balance so that the rocks don’t fall down easily. Ceprano explains, “I find the point where the stone best feels its point of contact and equilibrium. And then I just insert a small wedged rock. Inserting three shimmed, wedged rocks between the surfaces of a larger rock creates a really strong bond, and stability, and it won’t move unless you use force. The whole point is to have that three-point balance so that they don’t fall down easily.”
We return to philosophy. I ask him how he knows whether he’s satisfied with a particular sculpture. “I can always go back and tweak it somehow. To make it compositionally perfect. There’s no real end. I don’t know how it begins, so there’s no beginning,” he explains.
And nothing is permanent. “The wind will knock them down. The river will knock them down even more easily. So will the ice and everything else,” Ceprano says.
How long does it last? According to Ceprano, the sculptures stay until the river freezes. “It all depends on what kind of a climate we’re dealing with, and also how they’re regulating the river, with all the different hydroelectric dams that have been created on the Ottawa. When the cold season comes in, they begin to fall.”
Over the years Ceprano has hosted music, theatre, and dance events at Remic Rapids. While they won’t be taking place this year to limit gatherings, he maintains an archive from previous years on his YouTube channel. Want to know more? Check out John Felice Ceprano’s website, Ottawa Rock Art.
Susan Johnston is passionate about the transformative power of stories. She’s been making radio about social justice and the local arts scene since 1999, and currently hosts #AskingForAFriend on CKCU every Tuesday. This summer she’s exploring how we connect with the Ottawa River.