Urban Anthropology Student Paper

Urban Anthropology Student Paper

In October 2016, a fan who followed me on Instagram & Snapchat emailed me asking if he simply could take part 4 separate observations of me rock balancing in my "natural habitat." The reason for this research was for his anthropology paper that was due at the end of the semester in December.

I was definitely already be out at lands end, so it was no problem for me at all to let Alan tag along. The following brief essay is Alan's paper about our time together. I haven't changed or modified the original text in any way - it was great to see what someone else walked away from the rock balancing experience.

- Travis

Alan and Travis Ruskus Lands End

Final Paper

Urban Anthropology

Fall 2016

Alan Hernandez


            For my ethnography topic I chose photography and art because art has been and it will continue to be a popular culture that has increased from the moment people realized they had the potential to create something spectacular with the use of their imagination. There are no limits in Art, and that is what makes it beautiful because there are so many forms of art that we see and create, such as paintings, poetry, sculptures, photography, etc. Also, social media has taken over the internet and it is one of the most influential platforms to exist and it is only growing. I decided to do a sort of participant-observations with this guy named Travis, a really tall guy from Colorado who’s made a living by building phenomenal rock balancing art, takes incredible pictures of it and sells them online in his website for a good quality and a good price. I followed Travis on Instagram around march of 2016 and that’s when I first saw his photography work which blew me away. He has been doing rock balancing for quite some time now. Travis is one of those guys that you just want to know more of because there is something intriguing about the way the talks. He is a really committed and passionate guy that does what ever he sets his mind to. He is also really open minded and full of wisdom for a guy that’s roughly in his early thirties. It’s as though he’s lived through many generations and knows something that nobody else does. 


            [1] As defines in David McCudry, Dianna Shandy and James Spradley’s “Conformity and Conflict, Readings in Cultural Anthropology”, metaphors represent a comparison, usually linguistic, that suggests how two things that are not alike in most ways are similar in another. Travis uses his rock balancing sculptures as a metaphor for life. Also in Conformity and Conflict, a symbol is defined as anything that we can perceive with our senses that stands for something else. There are many factors that partake into the process of building those rocks balances that are symbolic of everyday life lessons. Travis tried to convey a specific theme every time he would build a different set of rock balance. Some of the many themes are limits, time, failure, development, origin, choice, etc. For example, failure is very crucial in his art as well as it is in life because nobody is perfect from the very start; it is reached by failing and trying over and over again. One must learn from times where things are falling apart. Travis explained to me how he could’ve given up a long time ago when it seemed like it was impossible to achieve all these new rock balances that he has built these past few weeks but he never did. Sometimes he would be almost done completing a balance that took hours to make but then the rocks would crumble apart. And although it looked really frustrating to me when it happened, he would simply pick them back up and start building from scratch. He accepted failure and learned from his mistakes.

            For all of our meetings we would go to the Miles Rock Beach in Lands End around 5pm so that Travis would have enough time to build his rock balance and take a really nice picture of it with the sunset behind it. For the most part I would just sit there and watch. I wouldn’t really ask any questions while he was in deep thought because I didn’t want to interrupt whatever idea he had in his head. It was almost as if he was meditating since rock balancing requires a lot of patience and perseverance. Travis showed me a trick he does when he’s in the process of making his rock balances that basically works at any moment in life where I’m feeling really stressed and overwhelmed. He told me to breath in and breath out three times, but every time I exhale, to think of something positive in my life such as the fact that I am still breathing, or that I am in such a great city. This is where I realized that his rock balances are in fact a metaphor for life because they require so many of the skills that everyone needs to be successful and prosper in life. Travis told me that when people see him in the process of building his sculpture, they tell him that what he’s trying to do is impossible and that they don’t believe in his vision until he proves them wrong. Those people could represent society because sometimes it feels as though everyone is telling me that what I want to do with my life is not realistic and that I should just get a job at a big corporation where I am guaranteed higher pay instead of writing music but as long as I believe in myself, that’s all I need. 

            When we first met, we would just talk about the art projects he’s done before but not much of his personal life. Eventually he started telling me more about himself, what he used to do before he started rock balancing, what he wants to do in the future, his opinion on a lot of things. Towards the end he would even let me take pictures and videos of him and his work which he would use for his weekly videos. I felt like we developed a mutual trust with each other. [2] Just like Claire E. Sterk expressed in her ethnography work “Fieldwork on Prostitution in the Era of AIDS” both parties, In this case Travis and I, needed to get to know each other, become aware and accept each other’s roles and engage in that reciprocal relationship in order to make this work, and we did. He became the professor and I became the student. I gained so much knowledge and wisdom from those four times we met. 


            For the most part, from those couple interviews and observations, I learned why photography is such a beautiful and fast growing culture. Travis explained to me that he sells his paintings not just to profit from his artwork and have enough money to keep doing what he loves, but also so that whoever buys it places is in a place in their home where they could just stop and stare at its beauty for at least 5 seconds when they’re feeling stressed so that they could feel relaxed, even if it’s for such a short period of time. The rock balance and the ocean create this sense of peace on the observer. I know at least I felt it when I was in the fieldwork. Photography and Art do so much more in today’s society than anything else. In our modern culture, with the help of social media, photography and art are everywhere. Travis helped me understand why it has such a huge impact in our lives.



[1] David W. McCurdy, Dianna Shandy, James Spradley. Conformity and Conflict, Readings in Cultural Anthropology. Pearson Education Inc. 2009, 2012, 2016.

[2] Claire E. Stark. Fieldwork on Prostitution in the Era of AIDS. Reading; Conformity and Conflict, Readings in Cultural Anthropology. Pearson Education Inc. 2009, 2012, 2016

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