Set in stone

California artist and mountaineer Greg Kinne makes petroglyph-inspired art

“Coyote and Wolf” by Greg Kinne.

“Coyote and Wolf” by Greg Kinne.

As Greg Kinne goes hiking through the mountains of Ecuador, Peru, Columbia and the backcountry around his hometown of Quincy, Calif., he’ll often stumble upon petroglyphs dating back thousands of years. Kinne sees these petroglyphs as more than just art or artifact. It’s in the antediluvian rocks that Kinne finds his muse.

“That contact with the past just fascinates the heck out of me,” he says. “It really fascinates me to see what artists were doing at the time. [Petroglyphs] are a limited means of expression, but they managed to put so much down.”

Perhaps not so limited. Kinne’s concrete-and-acid petroglyphs, which are a nod to the rock etchings of old, are the sort of artworks that can leave you speechless. They offer the viewer a rich sensory experience; with their quiet but powerful simplicity, their evocation of a mysterious prehistoric culture, you walk away from the works feeling a little awed.

Kinne says that viewers will quite often try to understand the works through the lens of modern-day intellectualism. He says that the works, however, are intended for pure appreciation, not interpretation—there are no layers of meaning that one needs to unpack.

“There’s no interpretation for me,” he says. “It’s just the composition—the way the figures look. There’s no symbolism on a deeper level. I just use [the figures] as design elements.”

But while their meaning is simple, the effort that goes into their creation is anything but. Kinne begins with concrete slabs; on a vibrating table, he casts the slabs in a Formica or Plexiglas mold until their surface is smooth. The concrete undergoes a 14- to 30-day rehydrating cure, after which Kinne applies acid stains to the surface of the concrete. This staining process, he says, is largely an experimental one: Since the acid only comes in six different colors, he’s constantly trying new variations on his application method—making the surface wetter or dryer—to produce new shades. It then takes 24 hours for the stain to set.

“I don’t know what I’m going to find in the morning when I come in,” he says, explaining that it may be entirely different from what he hoped to find.

But that’s OK—that’s the beauty of invention.

“I don’t look at that as a negative thing,” he says. “Embrace failure!”

Perhaps Kinne’s artistic sense of adventure, his eagerness to embrace the unknown, connects him in an important way to those rock artists of long ago. Looking at his works, one feels that he has a mystical bond with ancient ways—but also a vision that leads him into a place of experimental artistry to which few have gone before.