The Rock That Became Art Before "Levitated Mass"

Thirty years ago, a different megalith was making the news

By Patrick Healy
|  Thursday, Mar 8, 2012  |  Updated 6:49 AM PDT
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In the 1970s a chunk of a 116-ton boulder from Malibu was turned into a sculpture of John Wayne. Patrick Healy talks with artist Brett-Livingstone Strong about the original rock star and LACMA's modern version.

Patrick Healy, Fabian Rodriguez

In the 1970s a chunk of a 116-ton boulder from Malibu was turned into a sculpture of John Wayne. Patrick Healy talks with artist Brett-Livingstone Strong about the original rock star and LACMA's modern version.

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The giant boulder bound for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art may be the most massive "rock art" ever, but it's not the first.

Above the speeding autos on Pacific Coast Highway rises the Malibu hillside once home to Southern California's original "rock" star.

The 116-ton boulder was exposed by winter erosion 33 years ago as a menacing megalithic rock, threatening to roll down the slope and pulverize whatever pedestrians, beach-goers or beachfront homes happened to be in the way.

Efforts by Caltrans to bring it down safely provided fodder for lead stories on the news night after night in Feb. 1979.

Crews prepared a landing pad of soft, cushioning dirt in the highway, and, at long last, the Malibu rock rolled down and landed with a thud that drew cheers from the assembled crowd.

But the story did not end there. An artist had plans.

"I just had this vision of getting that boulder when they got it down, and carving it," said Brett-Livingstone Strong, now world-renowned for his portraits and statues of presidents, royalty and entertainment icons.

But back then, he was still in his twenties and newly-arrived in the states from his native Australia, where he had worked as a stone mason.

As Strong tells the tale, he approached the Malibu crew and expressed his interest in buying the rock. Nobody else wanted it, so they accepted the hundred dollars he had in his pocket and Strong had himself a jackhammer-ready sandstone megalith.

Strong worked out a deal with the operators of the shopping mall in Century City. He would do his sculpting in public view, providing entertainment for shoppers.

Though the Malibu rock was one-third the mass of LACMA's new megalith, it was still way too big to transport without extraordinary arrangements – so tons of material was blasted away with plastic explosives, leaving a more manageable boulder.

But whom to sculpt?

Then (and now) Governor Jerry Brown was suggested. But Strong had another idea.

"I had in the back of my mind that maybe I should do a tribute to 'the Duke,'" Strong said, using the nickname for the beloved actor John Wayne, a personal hero in more ways than one.

Strong's family had become friendly with Wayne when he traveled to Australia. When it came time for the artist to move to the states, Wayne volunteered to sponsor him for his green card, Strong said.

Strong envisioned a giant theatrical mask of Wayne's chiseled visage, and went to work chiseling it in stone.

It took three months, and when it was done, Strong fielded an offer of more than $1 million, he said.

He made the rounds of the talk shows and remembers being teased about the mark-up: from $100 to a million bucks. Not a bad profit margin.

Ultimately, the buyer donated the Wayne sculpture to Lubbock Christian University in Texas, where it remains on display in the library today.

Strong has never since worked with so massive a stone, though he continues to enjoy monumental projects in other media and is progressing with the work he calls the "Statue of Freedom," a bronze work to be on the scale of the Statue of Liberty.

As he discussed art in the garden outside the Montage in Bevely Hills, Strong was asked his thoughts on the giant boulder nearing the county art museum, where artist Michael Heizer will display it as "Levitated Mass."

"I think this artist, in his effort to move it -- that is art," Strong said. "It's great."

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