First Light | The Cairns of Periwinkle Cove

Against the backdrop of a New Hampshire beach, an artist’s work takes on a life of its own.

By Yankee Magazine

May 02 2022

Photo Credit : Jared Charney

By Robin Catalano

Just before 6 on a late-April morning, the sun breaks through the clouds over the rock-strewn beach of Periwinkle Cove in Rye, New Hampshire, and shines on an artful stack of eight stones. James Ayer brushes wind-whipped gray hair from his face and stuffs one hand into his jeans pocket. With the other, he gestures to the precariously balanced sculpture, and the dozen or so others around it. “I have a tendency to make something out of things that are just lying around,” he says.

Earthworks artist James Ayer has transformed this rocky bit of coastline in Rye, New Hampshire, into a kind of open-air sculpture gallery.
Photo Credit : Jared Charney

An earthworks artist for more than four decades, Ayer grew up in a creative, working-class family in Kittery, Maine. As a child, he fashioned miniature cabins out of twigs and leaves, and natural paintbrushes and paints from flowers. By the age of 15, he was creating sculptures from rocks and other found objects, including metal, wood, leaves, shells, and feathers, both in the woods and along the beach.

He first began making rock sculptures in Periwinkle Cove, just south of Odiorne Point, about 25 years ago. “I put up a few, and then a few more,” he says. “At one point, I made around a hundred. When I came back the next day, most had been knocked down.” So he created more sculptures. And when he returned a few days later, there were new ones. Lots of them.

Since then, Ayer’s art on the Rye coast, on a beach unofficially dubbed Rock Sculpture Point, has taken on a life of its own. As the cairns are erased by the vagaries of waves and weather, residents and visitors of all ages create new stacks based on his original designs—a sort of dialogue between artist and audience.

“His practice is ephemeral,” says Boston-based art adviser Margaret Erbe. “He finds things in nature, configures them in a new way. Then we see how nature responds, how it changes and decays. Nothing stays the same. That’s part of the art.”

Earthworks—art made from and within its local environment—are common in Native American culture. Ayer’s family believes their lineage contains Abenaki and Cherokee ancestry, and the artist has drawn inspiration from these traditions for decades.

Grandmother SaSa, an Abenaki healer in West Ossipee, New Hampshire, explains that art in indigenous cultures is a part of life—so much so that many Native American languages don’t even have a word for it. “It’s a way we connect to the spirit and our ancestors,” she says.

Materials used in Native American art are inextricably tied to geography, notes Tess Lukey, a research associate at the Art of the Americas department of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and a Wampanoag tribe member. But Grandmother SaSa points to a deeper significance to Ayer’s chosen media. “Stones are the record keepers. They are the first thing that was on the earth. They hold our memory. If we know how to read the stones and understand them, they will teach us something.”

When asked how he chooses rocks for his sculptures, Ayer shrugs and says, “They tell me what to do.” He leans down, picks through some nearby stones. Then, under the bruised purple of the lightening sky, he begins to stack, starting with flatter rocks on the bottom, and different sizes, shapes, and colors on top. You might expect the movement to be clunky, a reverse-Jenga-like process of trial and error. But his work is fluid, swift, a fusion of engineering and intuition.

Stacking rocks into a cairn—a word that derives from the Gaelic term for “heap of stones”—has been practiced across cultures to mark everything from trails to burial sites. In Ayer’s hands, it also becomes a means of artistic expression.
Photo Credit : Jared Charney

Within seconds, he’s built a six-rock cairn—wobble-free, despite the wind blustering around the cove. He gingerly places a small pinkish rock on top—the lighter color draws focus—and looks up with an impish grin. “You’re pressing your luck with the top rocks,” he explains.

For Ayer, the call of a beach like Periwinkle Cove is twofold: Its flinty shores provide an endless supply of materials as well as a meditative quality. He stands with longtime girlfriend Daphanie Sullivan, also an artist, gazing out at the ocean, past a boulder where a double-crested cormorant pauses, wings spread like a matador’s cape to dry its feathers. It’s easy to imagine Ayer might be hearing a message in the crash of surf against rock.

Besides the cairns in Rye, Ayer has crafted hundreds of sculptures on the East Coast, from Maine to North Carolina. These include mystical pyramids, a pair of heavy curved stones improbably balanced on two asymmetrical stacks of smaller rocks to form a rough-hewn “O,” and heartlike formations that seem to pulse under the tangerine and cerise of a setting sun. He’s even created whimsical works, like a mother duck followed by a gaggle of ducklings, and a blockheaded man slouching against a stone wall. His favorite, a cone-shaped sculpture with an opening at the top, is on York Harbor Beach in Maine. Gazing through the hole and across the way toward Stage Neck Inn yields a glimpse of a stone cross on an outcropping.

A boatbuilder and carpenter by trade, Ayer has also created paintings, woodwork, and photography. Yet the stone sculptures remain his most recognizable art. Each piece speaks not only to his connection with the earth, but also to the challenge of creating balance—both literal and metaphorical.

Stacking rocks into a cairn—a word that derives from the Gaelic term for “heap of stones”—has been practiced across cultures to mark everything from trails to burial sites. In Ayer’s hands, it also becomes a means of artistic expression.
Photo Credit : Jared Charney

While the creations of earthworks artists are rarely mentioned in the same breath as those of contemporary gallery stalwarts, “I would be really sad to see these kinds of things in a gallery,” Lukey says. “You wouldn’t get the full experience of a stone stack if it weren’t on a beach, surrounded by other stones that it had interacted with at some point that, for example, made it smooth. That kind of visceral feeling of the environment around these works is inherently a part of them, and integral to their effectiveness as an art piece.”

Ayer seems unbothered by the lack of comparison to other artists, and even by the hurricanes and blizzards that topple his work. Instead, he revels in the dialogue with both nature and other humans. “I like to see when people get in on it,” he says of the near-irresistible urge that takes over in the presence of his rock cairns. “It gets people outside. It’s soothing. It’s good for them.”

Grandmother SaSa believes Ayer’s art speaks to people, much like the stones speak to him. “It’s telling us a story,” she says. “It’s asking, ‘What are you remembering?’”

For more information on James Ayer’s art, go to