He sees stones on the seashore

Bob Hayden creates art with nature’s own handiwork.

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Bob Hayden with one of his tower stone sculptures.—Gabrielle Mannino

Longtime Martha’s Vineyard resident Bob Hayden fashions his artwork with ancient forms, the stones that wash up on the shores of Island beaches.

“Each stone holds millions of years of earth’s history … Harsh winds and hammering ocean waves eroded bluffs of rock, clay, and sand, dumping crumbled rock debris into the ocean to be swept ashore,” Hayden says. “Sharp and rough broken edges of the rocks have been worn away over thousands of years by the slow nibbling of daily wind, storm waves, and blasting sands — sculpturing smooth and gracefully shaped stones.”

Hayden doesn’t carve into the stones’ surfaces, but instead configures them in their pristine state into three-dimensional compositions that start with a flat-bottomed stone and then are arranged with increasingly smaller, differently shaped stones of contrasting color on top. Hayden tries out endless combinations, interested by each stone’s distinctive facets, striations, textures, and natural embellishments, before finding a composition to his liking. He glues them into place, and when set, finishes them off by varnishing their surface, which gives them a glorious shine that brings out their natural colors and mimics what they look like when they’re wet.

“Balancing them on top of one another takes a while. One of the standards I hold for myself is that you can see most of each individual stone; that none outshines the others. It can take me one or two hours of experimenting with them before being satisfied.” And he adds, “If I don’t like it, I throw it out.”

Hayden was inspired to create his pieces by ancient Scottish stacked-stone cairns, which were gravestones made of piles of rock that were heavy enough to protect the human remains underneath them from being dug up by wild animals. He has built two variations himself that sit handsomely in front of his house, like iconic symbols of his art welcoming you to his home. By and large, Hayden keeps his larger pieces, as they are heavier and harder to move around, but there are people who use them in their gardens or yards. He sells the medium and small ones, which children particularly like, that can fit nicely anywhere inside your home.

Hayden’s downstairs “stone laboratory,” as his grandchildren call it, is filled with stones of all sizes, shapes, and colors. To the untrained eye it might look chaotic, but he knows exactly which stones are where, primarily grouping them by shape and color. Hayden continually adds to and winnows down his inventory as pieces strike him or not. “Anything I don’t like I throw out,” he reports, which is a good thing, or he would immediately run out of room.

Hayden culls his bounty from Martha’s Vineyard seashores, explaining, “I go out whenever I have the urge, it’s very relaxing, or when I have a need for a particular sort of piece. During my childhood, teen, and adult years, I relished the outdoors — especially beaches. For over 50 years, I stepped on and marveled at the vast colorations of the stones and felt a calming effect of the sea-stone world.”

Hayden had an impressive career before pursuing art. “I was the CEO, director, or managing director of a number of public and private educational ventures. My biggest job ever was as deputy superintendent of schools in Boston, for five years. I also had two postgraduate fellowships, one at Harvard in the 1970s and another one at MIT. I ended my career with five years as the executive director of the Massachusetts pre-engineering program, which was about gaining resources and training especially for black and Hispanic young men to think about preparation in the sciences and mathematics, so they could work in the technical field. And that brought me full circle, because I began as a science educator,” he said. Among his other accomplishments, Hayden has made his mark on the Island as the founding president of the Martha’s Vineyard ASALH branch, and held various offices throughout the years.

In addition, before retiring Hayden was also a writer and editor of some 25 African American publications, and authored his book “African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard,” published in 1999 and updated with a new introduction in 2005.

Looking at his large inventory of completed sea stonescapes, Hayden comments, “This art is really something different for me, but it’s fulfilled my dream that one day I wanted to do something artistic. I didn’t know all those years what it would be; I was too busy working plus raising four kids, and I have grandkids now. But beach stone art has given me an enjoyable, satisfying, and creative experience during my senior years. The interpretation belongs to you, and may you gain as much pleasure from these artworks as I had in the making of them.”

Items available at Bob Hayden’s Stone Laboratory, 508-693-8714, and will be on sale July 27 and July 28 at the Cottages Arts Festival in Oak Bluffs.