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Bellingham, Washington

Rock Rings

The cardinal directions, set in stone. 

Western Washington University is about as far northwest as you can go and still be in the United States. The liberal arts college in Bellingham boasts an ever-growing Public Sculpture Collection and currently features over 30 works. In 1978 “Rock Rings” was the 16th piece added to campus after the board of trustees established a policy encouraging public art in 1957.

Unlike land artist Nancy Holt’s previous works, which were designed to align with the sun, “Rock Rings” is mapped according to the celestial layout of the North Star. The 10-foot-tall structure is made up of a 40-foot outer ring wrapped around a 20-foot inner ring and made from local stone. Each ring has two arched entryways and six holes.

When lined up, the four archways run south to north according to Polaris―WWU is a befitting location as it’s the northernmost university in the contiguous U.S. And the holes line up northeast to southwest, east to west, and southeast to northwest. Bellingham is a seaport, and the structure’s precise cardinal directions were calculated the same way navigators in the area set paths for their ships.

The stone Holt used, called schist, is millions of years old. Local masons quarried it by hand, and she remained on site to oversee the project’s construction. Like her other works, the walls of “Rock Rings” offer a private, individual experience. When lined up, its entryways and windows provide new frames for one to view and participate in the surrounding area.