On the rocks along the waters of Ballona Creek near the entrance to the main channel of Marina del Rey, a non-native population has taken ground.
Unlike other creatures that have Ballona as their home, these rocky figures stand motionless where they have set foot but have attracted the awe and interest of passersby like their wildlife counterparts.
Some imagine the people-shaped formations – created with three different sized rocks placed on top of each other – taking the role of warriors or spiritual beings overlooking the creek, just off the South Bay Beach Bicycle Path.
“They feel religious to me,” described Mar Vista resident Susan Weissman, who has noticed the stone sculptures during her rides on the bicycle path. “They’re beautiful and I find them charming.”
Their creator, Dr. John Nielsen, sees his works similar to Native American “kachina” spirit dolls, representing different forms of energy in the area. Like some of the viewers who have been intrigued by the pieces, he too, has attached certain character titles to the figures to give them more of an identity.
But more importantly, Nielsen explains that the creations have offered him a sense of escape from some troubles he has recently faced in his life. Nielsen, who grew up in Denmark and has lived in a condominium along Ballona Creek near Centinela Avenue for 10 years, is an out of work chiropractor and teacher.
He says he was working a “one-man operation” at his massage therapy school in Mar Vista when, about two years ago, the state closed the agency that issues funding approval for such businesses. Nielsen was forced to shut down his business, and unable to receive unemployment pay, he says he has had no stable income to pay his for mortgage and other costs.
One day last spring, while coping with feelings of sadness and uncertainty due to financial struggles, Nielsen said he got off his bicycle on the path and walked down to Ballona Creek to reflect on his circumstances. It was there where he picked up a rock and after noticing its distinct shape, decided to piece it on top of other rocks, forming a three-piece figure.
Pleased with the result, he moved on to another figure and continued the activity for a couple of hours. He remembers how for the first time in quite a while, he felt at ease without stress and concerns about money.
“So the next day I came back and did it again, and it became my daily meditation,” he said. “I started it spontaneously.”
As he has returned over the following months, Nielsen’s rock-creature population has spread into two sections along the creek, one going east from the aquatic center and the other near the bike path bridge into Playa del Rey. The figures have grown into various shapes and sizes, some even holding branches or sticks for an added feature, and they have drawn the praise of many path users who have noticed their appearance among the area wildlife.
Some have commended Nielsen for his artistic expressions, while others, including rowers with local crew clubs, have said the works distract them from trash that collects on the rocks, he noted. Nielsen said he also makes a point to pick up trash particles while working on the rocks.
“Many people have enjoyed his spontaneous art structures as an expression using natural materials in a natural setting. To me, they remind me of a little army of sentries watching over the creek,” said Bobbi Gold, a volunteer with Ballona Creek Renaissance, an organization dedicated to improving the creek environment.
Weissman, who pulled over on her bicycle one recent Friday morning to thank Nielsen for his contributions, said she has brought visitors from out of town to view the Ballona rock inhabitants. Del Rey resident Howard Hackett is another local cyclist who has seen riders become curious at the site, and believes the sculptures have added something unique to the area.
“What he’s doing is adding beauty to the creek,” Hackett said.
The desire to learn more about the strange rock formations and their creator led Pam Leven, president of the Los Angeles Wheelmen, to interview Nielsen for the recreational cycling club’s bulletin. In speaking with some visitors and regular users of the path about Nielsen’s work, Leven said she found that most people were fascinated by what they saw.
“He’s made Ballona Creek more endearing to the people who care about it,” she said.
Nielsen explains that the effort did not begin as an art project but he is pleased with how it’s evolved.
“I had no sense of where it was going or how big it would become; I just had fun with it,” he said.
For Nielsen, the rocks have offered “total therapy,” in addition to a form of exercise and a creative outlet. One of the major benefits is the interactions that have developed with other people, something that has been lacking since the closure of his business, he said.
“The interaction with the people passing by stopping to chat became a very welcome source of simple human social interaction,” he said.
Asked why he has continued with the works after nearly 10 months, Nielsen replied, “because it feels so good. It’s the one thing that keeps me going and it’s satisfying.” But he fears that the project may soon come to an end due to a Los Angeles County permit requirement needed to perform such work.
After some complaints were received, a representative of county Supervisor Don Knabe informed Nielsen that he must apply for a $500 flood permit from the Public Works Department in order to enter land owned by the Flood District, as well as acquire liability insurance with $1 million coverage. Knabe spokeswoman Cheryl Burnett said the permit is required because the project is located in an area that is prohibited to the public and can be dangerous for people, particularly children, to access.
“We can’t turn a blind eye to one person and expect that others won’t follow,” Burnett said.
Given his current economic situation, Nielsen said the $500 application fee and insurance claim is not possible, though he understands that there are certain regulations.
When it was learned that Nielsen might be prevented from continuing his work, several project fans initiated an email campaign and made some phone calls to county representatives expressing their support for the artist. In the meantime, Nielsen said he has received an invitation to exhibit similar rock pieces at an art museum in Norway, which he says officially means that he’s an artist.
While he would love to continue creating his distinctive rock figures at Ballona, Nielsen wishes he could incorporate them into a way to make a living. Still, he is proud that his art has touched the community and he is grateful for their support.
“It feels immensely gratifying; they’re not forced to or obliged to do it but it’s entirely from the goodness of their heart,” he said. “Talk about approval.”