With Big, Heavy Rocks, a Man Turns a Nuisance Into a Niche

Adam Distenfeld was driving by a construction pit on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn a few weeks ago and couldn’t resist. Mr. Distenfeld, 48, is a sculptor who prefers granite gneiss -– the banded metamorphic rock found beneath swaths of New York City -– and in the Nostrand pit he saw a boulder of it. He had never seen one larger. He needed it. But you try convincing your girlfriend that your studio –- which already looks like the Flintstones’ prop room — just needs one more boulder.

“I was like, ‘The whole point about me growing as an artist is I have to grow in all of these different directions,’ ” Mr. Distenfeld recalled saying.

On the boulder, the girlfriend didn’t budge. But she did let him collect a few of the smaller rocks, which the site’s foreman dropped off at Mr. Distenfeld’s Brooklyn Rockwerks, a 2,800-square-foot garage studio in Bushwick.

Mr. Distenfeld, a slight, over-eager eccentric who wears rock dust in his hair, has become a friend to foremen on excavation and construction sites because he saves big bucks and long hauls. Demolition recycling centers charge per pound. “If I say, ‘I want that rock’ and you can kind of tell it weighs almost nine hundred pounds,” Mr. Distenfeld explained, “it’s a no brainer.”

And the rocks have been very good indeed to Mr. Distenfeld, who has mined a recycle-happy, all-natural friendly cultural moment to build his commercial career. American University recently awarded him with a commission to create a piece out of rocks it dug out of the foundation of a new building. A co-op in Elmhurst, Queens, that commissioned a rock garden by Mr. Distenfeld chose him in part because the work would be made of recycled materials.

“We needed someone who could make a fountain which was not like the old Italian style or whatever,” said Cita Sutnar, who sits on the board of directors of the co-op, Grandview Towers. “Something contemporary. And it’s feng shui.”

As his end of Brooklyn has gentrified over the past decade, Mr. Distenfeld has had a field day. He recalls when the lot across the street was up for grabs before it was renovated to a solid wall of town homes. Luckily, he collected the rocks before they were hauled off. One ended up as a fountain for a summer home on Shelter Island. A Fort Greene rock ended up in a Carroll Gardens fountain, and other boulders found their way to East River condos and Park Slope restaurants.

Through the center of Mr. Distenfeld’s studio there is a slim path through a wilderness of stones, coated in uniform gray dust. “These things are considered obstacles,” he said, resting on one he named for the ancient Semitic god B’aal. “ ‘No! This is what you pray to!”

Mr. Distenfeld, who spent much of his childhood on the Lower East Side making sculptures out of tape and coat hangers, fell in love with rocks where most people learn to hate them — digging up the backyard of a home he bought in Greenpoint some years back. “I am pulling out all these rocks, and I was like, ‘Rocks, huh!’ ”

Mr. Distenfeld likes to spend slow days wandering around and looking at his rocks. He stares at them to figure out what they “need.” To achieve a finished sculpture, he’ll score the surface or core through, so that one can have the feeling of peeking inside an ancient stone. When he feels like it’s done, it’s done — a process that can take anywhere from three days, his fastest, to 10 years. “What I really want is to get to the heart of the rock.”

Interested in archaeology and early religion, he sees his work in the context of ancient stone altars on which sacrifices were given, but also in the context of Brooklyn in the year 402,011 A.D.

“I know that there might not be any humans in 400,000 years,” Mr. Distenfeld said, smiling. “Because the sun’s going to go nova and the entire solar system will become a black hole, so at some point the planet’s going to explode and be blown up by the sun explosion. But maybe – maybe — pieces of these,” he said – gesturing out to the flock of rocks spread before him — “will be in space and some alien race is looking at it and going, ‘What do you think that is?’ And the other one is saying, ‘I don’t know.’”

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