Monday, February 1, 2016

A Pebble Mosaic at La Calera, Oaxaca, Mexico

An opportunity to create a sand set pebble mosaic in Oaxaca, Mexico
I've been traveling in Mexico this winter (2015-16) for 3 wonderful months, rediscovering the beauty of this amazing country.  I first came to Oaxaca 31 years ago when I was 26 years old, honing my skills as a traveler.  This is my 33rd winter away and I've learned a lot along the way.  I would expect myself to be jaded by now, returning to the country where the international adventures began for me, but I am continuously blown away daily by how incredible this country south of the border to the United States really is.  The landscapes are biologically rich and diverse, and the culture of the people is equally impressive.  There is far more to Mexico than Puerta Vallarta and Cancun.

A beautifully turquoise mosaiced Mexica skull from the 14th Century
Mexico's history makes the United States look comparitively modern.  There are more UNESCO World Heritage Sites here than in any other country in the Americas, and Mexico ranks 6th in the world for the number of sites as well.  You can see a list of the sites at

A cobble mosaic courtyard in the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo, Oaxaca
One of the most significant of the World Heritage listings is the Valley of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.    The region is inhabited by a large number of distinct indiginous cultures who still speak their native languages and dress indicitively.  Squash seeds radiocarbon dated to be 10,000 years old were found in the valley, the oldest known cultivated agricultural plants in the Americas.  Major archeological sites such as Monte Alban, Mitla, and Yagul show how impressive pre Hispanic civilizations in the valley became.

Monte Alban
With the conquest of the New World, the Spanish laid out the new town of Oaxaca around the city's Zocalo, or main town plaza in 1529 and it rapidly grew to be the most important town in southern Mexico.  Today Oaxaca is one of the most appealing historic cities in Mexico and is a major center for tourism.  It is known for its beautiful architecture, diverse culture, artisanal crafts, and delicious cuisine.

The Cathedral on the Zocalo of Oaxaca on a Sunday afternoon
When I came here 31 years ago I was intoxicated by the writings of Carlos Castaneda, a controversial apprentice to a Yaqui shaman named Don Juan.  Much of his writings took place in Oaxaca and I was entranced by the idea of being in the Zocalo wondering where he might have sat while struggling with the challenges of becoming a sorcerer.  Whether or not the writings are technically true, I found thier substance to be profound and their influence has been something of a guide in my life and work.

The bandstand in Oaxaca's Zocalo
When I was planning the loose structure of where I might go on this trip, I went to the Airbnb site and found a beautiful modern studio apartment located in a refurbished limestone kiln factory outside the city center and booked it for two weeks without really knowing anything about the place.  When I arrived in the city I hired a taxi driver to take me there, even though he had no idea where it was.  Fortunately for us I had seen a small sign from the highway coming in to town for La Calera, the name of the complex, and we were able to stop and ask people along the way for directions.  I was dropped in a rather unimpressive location, at a yellow metal gate next to a weedy hill with a rough dirt road crossing it.  I was tired from the long bus ride and had to drag my bags past a few rather disconcerting shallow graves lined with rocks to another gate a quarter of a mile away.  It turns out there is a cemetery on the other side of the wall and apparently people who couldnt afford a plot just dug graves in the field.  I walk past these graves every day coming and going, which causes a feeling of introspection and humility.

Simple burials in a field by La Calera, ringed with stones
I wasn't in the best of moods when I passed in to the compound that would be my home for the next two weeks.  Travel is not always that glamorous.  But as fate would have it I had landed in a very special place.

The studio where I stayed sits on top of the white building
The apartment is a simple cube with a wall of glass facing a sleek modern mahogany deck screened in for privacy by rust colored steel containers planted with New Zealand Flax and a steel screen wall.

The Studio apartment I've been staying in at La Calera.  The planters are recycled molds for freezing blocks at an ice factory
The flight of metal stairs leading to the studio
 Luis, the owner told me that the design to support these stairs was inspired by the dried exoskeleton of a crab that his grandson found on the beach at Huatulco when his family was on vacation.  The man who does his welding projects took the concept and created the structure for the stairs in square tubular steel.

The sun deck 
The awning overhead is an ingenious canopy of panels that can be opened and closed by pulling on rope levers.  Once I got settled in and adjusted to the place, which is in a fairly unattractive part of town, it started to grow on me.  La Calera is a facinating institution with a number or residences inhabited mostly by Americans working on a variety of projects in Mexico.

One of a diverse variety of residences at La Calera with the smoke stack on the left
A plan of La Calera
Cal means lime in Spanish.  Lime is an essential ingredient in making cement for construction.  It has been used since ancient times and there are lime kilns all over the world.  The process of making lime requires crushing the rock and a kiln for heating the crushed limestone.  You can read about the process at

A 16th Century Lime Kiln excavated at Santo Domingo in Oaxaca

A hanging melted bottle installation and limestone kiln equipment
 The owner and visionary man behind the project at La Calera is Luis Jesus, a residential developer interested in sustainability, environmental causes and the arts.  He inherited the factory in 2002 from his father, which had been built by his grandfather.  He began to develop what is an ongoing project with no clear plan in the beginning as to what it would become.  A few artists set up workshops in parts of the the compound.

Meeting space

Massive equipment at La Calera
Later his son built a house in one corner of the property, and eventually other bungalows were added.  I was soon meeting an interesting mix of people as I came and went from the complex on my excursions in to the historic center of Oaxaca and out to villages and archeological sites around the valley.   I joined a symposium one day on the preservation of native bee habitats, met a man building Mezcal distilleries, a woman working with a renowned Mexican singer, and a renewable energy consultant.

An artist's installation of a flower bed made of dried marigolds hangs in the kiln building
The industrial site has been ingeniously converted in to a residential and educational compound with a number of well integrated art installations enhancing the massive limestone kiln machinery in the warehouse.

One of a variety of attractive gathering areas
Industrial materials from the factory have been retrofitted in to art and furnishings
Another seating area built inside a huge steel vessel salvaged from another lime factory
The same seating area illuminated at night
A large sprocket as a window
A beautifully composed log round mosaic patio surrounded by an Organ Pipe Cactus fence
There is a nice library for research with a great collection of Luis's books displayed on unusual shelves.  Although the design is whimsical, the shelves will be rebuilt because the angles are not good for the spines of the books.  The hanging installation was created by an artist in residence.

The library at La Calera
Groups of school children regularly come to La Calera on educational field trips
A flatbed trailer is converted in to a deck edged with ice mold planters filled with Organ Pipe Cacti

A variety of spaces in the facility are set up to feature environmental campaigns such as a project for the preservation of native bees.  The stacked boxes were once used to freeze blocks at an ice factory
A collage of scrap metal forms a screen
There are areas mulched in river pebbles, which I habitually checked out to see if they had potential for use to create pebble mosaics.  I had a copy of my self published book, The Gardens of Jeffrey Bale, which I carry as a kind of portfolio, which I showed to Luis.  A couple of days later after finding the shapes of many of the pebbles there to be remarkably flat and perfect for pebble mosaic, I approached Luis with the idea of making a demonstration mosaic inside a round concrete bench around a tree at the base of the stairs to my apartment.  He loved the idea and called two of his workmen who specialize in concrete work, knowing that they would be interested in what I do.  They responded with enthusiasm and within an hour were preparing the site to my specifications.  He is ordering a copy of my book for them to use as a reference.

The pebble mulch area where I collected most of the stones for the mosaic
Since the area I wanted to mosaic was inside a low circular wall, it wouldn't be subject to foot traffic.  To maintain the health of the tree, I wanted to set the pebbles in sand rather than mortar so that the mosaic would be permeable and not affect the health of the root system of the tree.  There are openings at the base of the round wall where the shallow tree roots pass underneath and allow water to drain out. The workers mortared low bricks to the bottom of the holes so that a 4 inch layer of sand could be contained in the tree well.  When I returned from a day trip that evening the site was prepared and I started collecting stones and setting them in the dark, working on the only area illuminated by lighting.

Starting the layout of the stones around the edge
I mix larger stones with narrow ones around the outer edge to create a balanced composition
The stones that I choose are flat on the top and sides so that they fit tightly together, so that there is no horizontal movement.  They are usually at least 2 or more inches (4 1/2 cm) thick so that they can be well imbedded in the sand.

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One of the reasons I offered to build this mosaic is because there were plenty of nicely shaped stones available to create a beautiful and varied composition.  I like the way the long thin pieces look interspersed with the larger stones.  I left for the day after working for a couple of hours in the morning.  When I returned, the workers at La Calera had gathered stones on their own according to the instructions I had given them.  They did a great job and I was able to use about 3/4ths of what they collected.

Pebbles gathered for me by the workers at La Calera
It can be fun for me to lay the stones when I have nice material to work with.  I've been doing this kind of work for about 25 years and have a good sense of where each stone might fit by quickly analizing its shape and then seeking out the best possible spot for it.  This is a great way to learn how to fit stones together because if it doesn't fit you can always move it.  Unlike mortar, which you have a limited amount of time to work with before it dries, there is no rush working in sand.  But if the stones are not fit tightly together this kind of mosaic will not hold together well over time because they can shift around if disturbed.  I was able to stand on the mosaic without having any of the pebbles move.  This kind of work can also be accomplished by adding some cement to the sand mix, and wetted later to harden it, but then it wouldn't be permeable.  Weeds may also sprout between the rocks, but this is a desert climate so that is less likely to be a problem.

Making progress
I imagine it took about 10 hours to assemble the entire mosaic.  I set the stones all the way up to the edge of the tree, which will over time push or grow over the ones around the trunk.  I used tiny pebbles to fill the smallest holes between the larger stones to give it extra tightness.  This also gives the mosaic a level of detail I find pleasing. Water will be able to drain in to the ground and the tree roots will be able to breathe, which keeps the tree from heaving the work.  I am not invested in permanence with this project.  My main objective was to create an example of how I work so that the guys here can create their own pebble mosaics around the La Calera property for future projects.  It is a great way to create finely finished details in places that need something special.

The completed mosaic
A closer detail showing the small pebbles tucked in to holes
I could easily spend another hour filling the tiniest holes with small thin pebbles.

Another view of the mosaic
I then swept sifted brown sand in to the gaps between the stones to bond them together, and give the mosaic more strength.

Sand swept in between the pebbles finishes the mosaic
A tile I found in the field contrasts with a variety of pebbles selected for their flat tops and square sides
 The mosaic reminds me of cobbles streets that you see in old Mexican cities.

A cobblestone street in Patzcuaro, Mexico
I enjoyed fitting all of the different shapes together on this project
 When I do these long winter trips it is nice to be able to create something in response to all of the inspiring places I have visited.  Hopefully this will in turn inspire the masons at La Calera to create their own pebble mosaics on the property.

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

The colors of the pebbles darken when wet

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Las Pozas (The Pools)

Surrealist mushroom and Bird of Paradise sculptures near the entrance to Las Pozas
I have a generous list of places that I want to visit in my lifetime that I consider to be pilgrimages.  These are magical environments that inspire wonder and awe for me.  Many are natural, and some are man made.  Las Pozas is a combination of both.

Las Pozas (The Pools)

Inspired and financed by the British millionaire Edward James, Las Pozas is an extravagant surrealist architectural landscape blended in to a tropical paradise in the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains of southern San Luis Potosi State in Mexico.  James inherited an enormous fortune from his father at the age of 25.  He claims to have been attracted to the world of surrealism because of the severity of his British upbringing, escaping the confines of society by imagining alternative realities.  He studied at Eton and Oxford, published volumes of poetry, and became a patron of surrealist artists, including Salvador Dali and Magritte.  Over time he amassed what was considered the largest private collection of surrealist art in the world.

Being somewhat disillusioned with British society, James came to the United States and then moved to Los Angeles, which in my experience is not the best place to escape such a predicament.  While there he found a guru who chastised his wealth as a barrier to spirituality.  Under the encouragement of his cousin, the artist Briget Bate Tichenor and psychiatrist Eric Fromm, he came to Mexico in 1941 in part to search for a place reminiscent of the Garden of Eden.  After arriving in Cuernavaca, which had a substancial well to do American community, he hired as his guide Plutarco Gastélum, a man who worked in the telegraph office.  He bought two sleeping bags, and they set out in a car to explore the country.  In November of 1945 they came upon the town of Xilitla, a mountain village at 2,000 feet in elevation surrounded by lush jungle, southwest of the Gulf coast city of Tampico in the Sierra Madre Oriental.

A view of Xilitla from the road to Las Pozas
Gastélum later met a local woman, married, had four children, and built a a surrealist Gothic home in Xilitla.  The house is now a hotel, La Posada El Castillo.  One would think the name refers to a castle, but it actually derives its name from being built on the site of the home of Colonel José Castillo, an officer in during the Mexican Revolution.  
La Posada El Castillo

Edward James would come to Mexico for two months every summer and stay with Gastélum's family, whom he adopted.  The house had the town's only swimming pool, lush gardens, and fantastic architectural details that were expanded at the same time as Las Pozas.  James sent Gastélum and his wife Marina on a tour of Europe that inspired the Gothic elements in the house.

The entrance path to La Posada El Castillo
A couple of miles down in the valley from Xilitla lies a verdant paradise where streams cascade over cliffs in to pools.  Pozas means pools in Spanish, hence the name of the garden.  James frequently went to the pools to bathe and was known to pay the locals to allow him to enjoy the place in solitude, but as he developed the gardens, the local people to my knowledge were never excluded.  The property was a coffee farm called Rancho La Concita.  At first he collected orchids and animals, and amassed as many as 29,000 orchids, most of which were killed in a freak snow storm in 1962 while James was in New York.  People in the area had never seen snow before and called it 'white ash'.

The death of so many plants triggered the decision to build concrete sculpture in the garden for its permanence, something that couldn't be killed.  In the end the garden covered an expansive 80 acres of steeply sloping land.

This gate guards the valley leading to the above waterfall
As I began to do more research on the gardens in order to write this photographic essay, I found that there has been a fair amount written about Las Pozas.  There are also two documentaries, one of which I have linked here.  The film covers the very interesting life of Edward James, from his childhood, education, inheritance, and career as a collector of surrealist art, to the manifestation of Las Pozas.   The film is nearly an hour long so you may want to watch it first and then begin the photographic journey through the gardens.

I also found a wonderful BBC podcast which I recommend you listen two while you scroll down through the photos.

A plan of the garden
When you first enter the gardens, passing the restaurant, a path winds above the stream to a series of bathing pools.  The path becomes restricted by two walls and then opens up to marvelous terraced pools and diversion channels puctuated by towering columns and undulating arches.

Pathway to the lower pools
Trellis like projections between the walls

While I opted not to do a guided tour, I passed and listened in on some of them over the 3 days that I spent in the gardens, and overheard one in Spanish saying that there was once a trampoline you could jump on to plunge in to one of the pools.  There are remnants of diving platforms jutting from the cliff as well.  The pools must have silted up as they seem too shallow for diving now.

Columns capped with lush epiphytic vegetation
It is no longer possible to reach the upper parts of the garden from this area, so we backtracked to the entrance and entered what is an amazing endeavor of decades of work and millions of dollars in investment, a world unto itself.

Entrance to the Cinematografo
Nothing was ever really completed at las Pozas.  Like many Mexican constructions, rebar protrudes from the tops of columns and platforms for the purpose of adding new layers.  There is a structure called "The House on three floors which will in fact have five or four or six."  One of the largest structures here is called the Cinematografo.  Because of some deterioration and the dizzying heights achieved climbing ever higher without hand rails it is unfortunately no longer open to the public.  It was meant to be used for projections of  film, light and color.  Las Pozas had electricity run to the garden in 1979 and was lavishly illuminated.

Path leading to the Cinematografo
Escalera al Cielo, the Stairway to the Sky on top of the Cinemagrafo
Passing the Cinemagrafo, a verdant cobbled path leads to a circular gate called Reja Circular Anillo de la Riena, or the Queen's Ring Gate.   The bold color and form of the tropical foliage plants along the paths are wonderful.

A cobbled path leading to the Queen's Ring Gate
A traditional cobbled path lined with Maranta and Aluminum Plant, Pilea cadierei 
Looking back after passing through the Queen's Ring Gate, a line of stone mosaic serpents rise along the path called 'The way of the seven deadly sins'
There is no real sequential progression to moving through the garden.  It is possible to turn in to a narrow passage or doorway at many points and enter a labyrinth of optional paths.  Twisting stairways lead to unknown destinations, sometimes bringing you back from where you just came.  Such is the nature of the intended surrealism here, to disorient and confuse and delight the mind.

Avenida de Serpientes, bird of paradise, pillars, and mushrooms
Sculpted concrete leaves at the base of a stylized mushroom
A series of delicate arches emulates a flock of birds
Steps leading to new vantage points
Edward James would do sketches of his ideas, working directly with carpenters who would build wooden forms in a woodshop beneath open cabanas and platforms.  Because of a lack of engineering skill, extra rebar reinforcements were used to increase the integrity of the structures.  Concrete was poured in to the molds by masons and compacted and then the forms removed after the concrete had cured.  The surfaces would be finished and sometimes painted vivid colors.  The majority of the installations remain solid after half a century in the jungle.

La Tienda, The Store

The Cornucopia, Vegetal forms taken to a surreal level
Looking down on stylized mushrooms with Bird of Paradise buttresses
Flying arches connected to tendril like 'S' curves
Twists and turns and narrow gaps open to small patios punctuated by pillars and platforms.  The slopes and multilevel structures are linked by a wide variety of steps, often suspended in space.

Steps leading down to the Plaza San Isidro
Giant leaved plants play dramatically off the sculpted forms they surround.  The forms of many of the sculptures play on the botanical patterns of the jungle.

At the base of a cabana are a pair of sculpted hands by which the garden was created.  I've also made mosaics of my hands to honor the hard work they have endured to build what my mind imagines, so I was particularly taken by these sculptures.

Sculpture of Plutarco Gastelum's hands
Bird like buttresses support the wall of a small cabana with slender doors forming a fleur de lis
Green stones from the streams were used to create this simple flower mosaic
Formed concrete and traditional stone work are artfully combined to create a fountain and round window 
Looking back through the jungle at the Escalera al Cielo
A cat lounges on a wall above the Parrot House

The Parrot House
The Parrot House
The Store

Protruding steps connect four intersecting paths

The Plaza San Isidro was the daily gathering place where Edward James would meet with the workers  to discuss each day's projects
Steps as sculpture in the Plaza San Isidro
Structures blend beautifully with the jungle.  One of the inspirations at Las Pozas were the ruins at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, where magnificent architecture is wrapped in the roots of trees and vines.
The purple undersides of Heliconia leaves makes for marvelous patterns
Trees are laden with epiphytic plants
Looking down in to one of the clear bathing pools
The intricate network of paths and stairs make it possible to explore the steep slopes of the jungle with relative ease.  Maneuvering the difficult terrain carrying tons of building material was a major task for the many workers who built the garden.

Puente de Fleur de Lis
Edward James was a lover of animals.  Being a wealthy eccentric put him in an awkward position socially.  He found the company of animals to be easier to navigate and collected a large variety of creatures which he housed in a sculptural zoo.  Here he could come and feed and talk to his white tailed deer, the ocelots, snakes, and many parrots and macaws.  There were pools for crocodiles and flamingos, and plans for an aviary that never came to fruition.

The Flamingo House

Fluted Columns by the Deer Pens
Fleur de Lis
There are a number of cabanas where people could stay, and a significant building in the center of the garden that looks more prominent than the others.

Two staircases lead to the Saint Peter and Saint Paul gate of the House on three floors which will in fact have five or four or six
I overheard a guide (the son of Plutarco Gastélum) saying that James had hoped to be buried there and that for this reason the pillars under the first level are painted white, although the levels step up in half stories.  There was a bedroom, living room, and terraces for him to stay in and oversee his creations.

The House on three floors which will in fact have five or four or six
James wanted to bring his friends Alfred Guinness of Brewery fame and fashion icon Coco Chanel to visit his creation and had various dwellings built although their surrealist nature made them rather strange to inhabit.

Gothic Screen
The ravine above the House on three floors has a number of folly like structures including the delicately soaring Palacio de Bamboo, The House with a roof like a whale, and the Bathtub shaped like an eye.  Above these is a bridge that arches out to nowhere, and a lovely double bamboo screen.

The Bamboo Palace
The Bamboo Palace
Stairs in the Bamboo Palace

The House with a roof like a whale and the Bathtub shaped like an eye
Inside the House with a roof like a whale
The Double Bamboo Screen
Stegosaurus Column
The Bridge
The Bridge
Bamboo gracefully arches over the ravine
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A path leads back down to the stream, where a series of terraced pools are connected by small cascades.

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A glimpse of the highest waterfall through trees draped in bromeliads
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Fleur de Lis built in to a wall
A concrete garland connects two vase like columns about the stream
Looking down to the lower pools I went to when I first entered the garden
Sitting on a beautiful teardrop shaped bath with the Temple of the Ducks behind
Oval spoked wheel set in a wall
The outlet for a dam
A butterfly rests on a wall by the stream
Cascades dropping in to the pool by the Temple of the Ducks

Columns and a vase at the base of waterfalls
There are trails higher up on the hill above the double bamboo screen that I wanted to explore, as I was sure you could climb up to the top of the highest waterfalls.  On the third day I was there it was warm enough to swim so I climbed the stairs to a place where they had collapsed, but I was able to work my way up.
Stone stairs and the double bamboo screen
Even up here there are walls and arches and sculptures in the dense jungle.

A narrow arch over a path in the jungle
I came to another wall with a round gate and then the path became a tiny track leading down the bank to the stream again.  I came upon an overgrown stone table, and stairs leading up the opposite bank.  Few people come up here and it feels wild and undiscovered.

A round gate draped in Bird Nest Ferns
A set of overgrown steps climbs the steep bank on the other side of the stream, possibly leading to somewhere or nowhere
Looking down the tall waterfall to the pools below
I had found paradise.  It was wonderful to bathe in the clear pools after two days with cool weather.

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There were pebbles up here, so I couldn't help but make a small mosaic in the water, as I didn't want to leave.  So I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the upper parts of the stream.

A small mosaic I built in the stream
More beautiful bathing pools
The Garden of Eden
Marvelous foliage along the banks of the stream
Another waterfall you can crawl behind
I didn't want to get lost in the dark so I made my way back down.  Transport back to town is hard to come by and I ended up having to walk back to town.  I always feel some kind of hesitance when I am leaving a very special place that I may never return to.  Xilitla is an eight hour bus ride from Mexico City on winding roads over many mountains.  If you cant make it then I hope this photographic essay is the next best thing.

Bamboo screens along the road
Edward James died in San Remo, Italy in December of 1984.  As were his wishes, the garden was left to the family of Plutarco Gastélum.  They continued to maintain it and made it available for the public to visit.   The Pedro and Elena Hernández Foundation acquired the gardens in partnership with the State government of San Luis Potosi for the purpose of preserving them.  This prohibits building new structures in the garden or adjacent properties.  It has been designated a State Cultural Heritage Site and is currently being reviewed by UNESCO for listing as a World Heritage Site.

A statue of Edward James with one of his beloved parrots
Since much of the work at Las Pozas is unprecedented, symposiums have been held in creative concete work and some interesting constructions have occured along the road where simple lodging and cafes are located.

A symposium held last year

A new stone wall with an eye shaped windo
Such a pleasure to be able to make the journey to Las Pozas and experience its wonders with plenty of time to savor marvelous ambience.  I feel blessed.

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

I have seen such beauty as one man has seldom seen;
therefore will I be grateful to die in this little room,
surrounded by the forests, the great green gloom
of trees my only gloom – and the sound, the sound of green.
Here amid the warmth of the rain, what might have been
is resolved into the tenderness of a tall doom
who says: 'You did your best, rest' – and after you the bloom
of what you loved and planted still will whisper what you mean.
And the ghosts of the birds I loved, will attend me each a friend;
like them shall I have flown beyond the realm of words.
You, through the trees, shall hear them, long after the end
calling me beyond the river. For the cries of birds
continue, as – defended by the cortege of their wings –
my soul among strange silences yet sings.

—Edward James, Poet 1907 – 1984