Michael Eckerman’s free-form rock work mimics the sea
Michael Eckerman tinkers, experiments, and fabricates his undulating stonework in an Eastside compound that looks as if J.R.R. Tolkien had settled down in suburban bohemia. Eckerman calls what he does “free-form rock work.” That pretty much describes him, too. You’ve seen his work—in sudden spherical monoliths that pop up on Santa Cruz street corners, or in the commissioned fireplaces, gateways, and walls of private residences of Santa Cruz, each one capturing the rush of ocean waves—in stone.
Handsome and lanky, with mischief in his eye and worn, leathery hands, Eckerman arrived in Santa Cruz 35 years ago after wandering, playing, and building his stonework signatures all over the world. “I got into this kind of building from friends I met in Israel,” he says, where he was briefly incarcerated for smuggling, back and forth from Quebec to Israel the route took him. “I wasn’t very successful as a smuggler,” he says with a grin. That’s when his first son Ea was born. Ea—known for colorful surf-theme watercolors—was raised by his mom in Oahu, and came out to live with his Dad to study at UCSC. The father and son often work on projects together.
“I’m doing dogs now,” Eckerman tells me, running his hands over a life-sized canine with pale blue glass eyes, made of welded steel rod and filled with soft river rocks. “Our dog died in ’07,” he says, pausing briefly, “and I started making dogs.” Eckerman’s labyrinth of front porches, studios, photo lab, machine shop and outdoor work spaces is an appealing wilderness. “I built it so that the kids could always come and stay here,” he says. He nods in the direction of the cozy wraparound sprawl punctuated by a wood-fired blue-tiled hot tub and giant bundles of driftwood awaiting future projects.
“We stumble into things, don’t we?” he responds when asked how he got started with this rock thing. “At one point I traveled a lot—still do—and I met a guy in Spain. He had land in Quebec. He built a cabin and I built the fireplace. It worked.” One thing led to another and the jobs led to Santa Cruz, where he worked on the old Depot Restaurant in 1972. “I did the brick work and the pathways. They’re all gone now.”
Where does he get his rocks? “I get ’em wherever I can,” he replies with a mock-demonic laugh. Eckerman’s reach is vast. He’s done private residential work as well as public sculptures from Australia to Menlo Park, including work for Jack O’Neill, who wanted a certain kind of fireplace. “I do waves, but in a static material. That’s kind of interesting, isn’t it?” he grins, rhetorically. “It takes some patience, and I have patience.” He fits each rock carefully into the exact spot, feeling his way into the right fit. “There are so many sides to a rock,” he says. Eckerman does admit feeling a kinship with Scottish environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, whom he’s met and who shares his fondness for found materials in nature.
Eckerman doesn’t plan to give up rocks for a while yet. “I still have to work for a living. I’m starting to feel it [age] in the hands and the feet.
I’ve always enjoyed working alone but now I do need assistants for big jobs. People to bring the rocks to me,” he says.
Even though “there are always jobs,” Eckerman doesn’t repeat himself. “I always want to do something original—have it stay exciting. I like to personalize it. I feel like a surfer—but with rock.” Somehow, that makes sense.
Steel welding, tiles, rock sculpture, “I just do it all here,” he says, pointing to the well-stocked courtyard studios that ring his main workroom.
“It’s never for the money. Some things are more important than the money.”
PHOTO: Michael Eckerman at his studio in Santa Cruz. CHIP SCHEUER