Monday, June 27, 2011

The Chilmark Walls, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

The Chilmark Walls, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

Stone Pillars and Gate on Old South Road, Chilmark
Martha’s Vineyard lies off the southern coast of Cape Cod, which extends in an arc like a crooked finger projecting out in to the Atlantic Ocean.  The current form of the island was created by the last ice age, when glaciers deposited thick layers of stone scraped and transported from various geologic formations in New England.  The rest of the island seems to be made up primarily of sand. 

Old Chilmark Wall

I am developing a garden around a newly renovated home in an oak forest in the vicinity of Chilmark.  Chilmark, on the southwest side of the island is known for its stone walls.  Mile upon mile of these walls are inherent to the vernacular of the place, and efforts are being made to encourage their restoration.
Restored walls dividing fields

Nobody knows who built many of the walls, or why.
  Most likely they were a means of using the vast quantity of stone accumulated from clearing fields for agriculture while demarking the boundary lines of land claims.  Massive boulders were often split in to smaller pieces, often by boring holes in a row, and then driving dowels into them to create a crack.  We used this technique to cut old granite curbs to fit and use for steps around the house.
A Wall in the wonderful Polly Hill Arboretum
Old Granite Curb made in to a step in my project
Construction methods vary, but the most common wall is a single thickness of stone, sometimes called ‘Lace Walls’ because the stone is stacked rather loosely with numerous gaps that you can see through.  Some people theorize that the open gaps allowed strong winds to pass through the walls during heavy storms so that the walls wouldn't collapse.  More likely it made the building of the walls faster and easier.  Oxen were used to move the largest of the stones, and it is said that fishermen were sometimes employed when they weren’t at sea as a labor force. 

Restored wall on Old South Road in Chilmark

A passageway for dogs and small animals in a wall on Meeting House Road

Reclining on a boulder we placed at my project
I worked with a crew, with the mechanical advantage of an excavator and forklift rather than oxen for placing many of the field stones, boulders and granite curbs on the site.  I will write about that project later, but I wanted to show the vernacular of the island that so heavily influenced the design of the garden project.
Building new walls in my Martha's Vineyard project

The garden 4 years later.  I've returned to refurbish it from its forlorn condition

The garden after a hard winter, 4 years later

There are a number of skilled stone masons on the island today, including the artist Lew French (, whose artistry takes the work to an entirely different level.  Martha’s Vineyard is a truly inspiring place to visit to see extraordinary stone work.
Contempory Wall in West Tisbury by Lew French
Though the island is forested with beautifully shaped oaks, these forests are not ancient.  The island used to be open and wind swept, so the walls may have acted as wind breaks as well.  Today they are largely an iconic symbol of the island’s character and act as a frame for the many beautiful vistas along the roads threading the island.  Driveways and gates often have stone pillars flanking them to identify the entrance to properties.  Whether they are overgrown or fully restored, their solidity and enduring beauty makes me want to pull over when driving around the island every hundred feet or so to capture yet another lovely view with my camera.  Here are some of those images.
Sassafras grove in Polly Hill Arboretum
Climbing Hydrangea on a wall in the Polly Hill Arboretum

Another wall at Polly Hill Arboretum
Path in Polly Hill Arboretum
Old Chilmark Farm House with new shingles around the front door

Picket Gate in Chilmark

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Artist in Residency at Islandwood Environmental School

                        Islandwood Cistern Project
One of my classes at the Islandwood School
I was approached by Debbi Brainerd to build an artistic covering for the Learning Center Cistern at the Islandwood School in 2007.  In the fall of that year I came up and worked for 3 days gathering stone from various beaches in the Puget Sound region, including Bainbridge Island.  I did a section of the base of the cistern to aid in developing a concept for the piece.  I returned in April of 2008 to complete the project and teach 8 classes to kids attending a 4 day camp at the school.
Building the base

The idea I had was to create a geologic metaphor for the creation of the Puget Sound region, in the form of a sacred mountain.  This was derived from sacred temple pagodas I had seen in Asia that symbolize holy mountains.  Mt. Kailash, in Tibet is considered the home of the Hindu God Shiva.  The River Ganges, the Mother of Life flows from his hair, which are the glaciers on the mountain.  In particular, I was inspired by a stupa, or chedi, a smaller pagoda that I had seen at the Bodhgaya Temple in Bihar in India.  This temple is at the site where the Buddha attained a state of enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi Tree.  The stupa is made of stones that were carved into small temples as offerings, and then mortared together to create a circular abstract mountain, rising to a pinnacle that ascends towards the heavens.  People can circumambulate these pagodas as a form of meditation.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest in Eugene, Oregon, and spent a great deal of my childhood playing with stones in streams on family fishing trips.  My Grandparents on both sides worked with stone, and my Father’s parents were rockhounds, geologists who went on expeditions to dig for minerals, which they would cut and polish to sell at their small rock shop.  I inherited a fascination for stone, along with a passion for gardening.  I graduated from the University of Oregon in 1981 with a degree in Landscape Architecture. 

But it wasn’t until I went to Spain and Portugal and saw marvelous stone mosaics that I became fixated on stone as an artist’s medium.  I developed a technique for building pebble mosaics in a mortar base, and over a period of many years, have built a great many projects which have received a fair amount of media attention.  One of the things that makes my work unique are influences  from things I have seen in my travels.  For over two decades I have left Oregon in the winter for 3 to 5 months to explore warmer parts of the World.  I have traveled extensively in Asia and South America.  I’ve studied the craft of stone carving and building with stone wherever I encounter it and have an extensive library of images.

Niche for climbing or offerings
Those influences, combined with a style natural to the Pacific Northwest, have shaped the work that I do.  For the Islandwood Project, I used local beach stone.  The beaches of Puget Sound have an amazing diversity of types and colors, tumbled into soft forms by wave action.  Glaciers during the last ice age carried stone from many different geologic formations into the Puget Sound, leaving them behind when they retreated over 16,000 years ago.  I used colors and patterns to symbolize volcanic forces, sedimentation, and metamorphic transformation that create rock, and built niches into the face of the work so that they could be used as small altars for placing found objects.  They can also be used as footholds so that children can climb the cistern to see in the top, where water spills from a large gutter, depositing the runoff from the roof the the Learning Center.

In the classes, we discussed the geologic forces that created the region and the various types of minerals being used in the cistern.  The kids were able to select and place stones which I then mortared in to place.  There are two small holes at the top of the cistern walls where water can drain when it is full.  I made mosaics with green pebbles to symbolize the flow of water cascading down the mountain from the white stone ‘Glaciers’ that crown the top of the piece.  We talked about the meaning of what is sacred and how an object can be imbued with divine power by symbolism that triggers consciousness.  The American urban landscape often lacks carefully derived elements that draw one’s attention, so that we stop noticing the world around us because it doesn’t inspire us.  By creating objects imbued with meaning and beauty, a person can slow down and admire them and contemplate the stories they tell. 
The finished Cistern

It was exciting to execute this project and to work with the kids, who really seemed to enjoy seeing the work evolve during the week.  I came back a couple of weeks later to do a final cleaning and decorated the niches with Cedar and native flowers, shells, and candles in recycled jars for the Dinner in the Woods fundraiser.
Niche with the doner's plaque

Stone monuments are the most enduring of Man’s creations.  This cistern should last for many centuries, telling a tale of the forces of nature that shape our world.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Miro Mosaics

Cyphers and Constellations in Love with a Woman
In 2005 I was asked to create a parking strip mosaic for clients in the historic Irvington neighborhood of Portland.  I  discussed this mosaic in my last post about meaning in my work.  The couple had spent time and fallen in love with the city of Barcelona, Spain, and that city's famed artist, Joan Miro.

We decided to create a mosaic based on Miro's style.  After reading a large book on his work I learned that the symbols used in Miro's artwork are something like an alphabet that tells stories about his life.  So I used the essence of various paintings to draw up various concepts for a mosaic about 6 by 8 feet (2 by 2.5 meters) in size.  The design we opted for was an abstract rendering of Kathleen giving birth to their daughters, and the relationship of that event to the Earth and the cosmos.

The womb
The pebbles and stones I used for the mosaic were sorted in a stone supply yard, the black being Mexican beach pebbles, and the colors sorted from a large pile of rainbow mix pebbles from the state of Montana.  Because there are a variety of colors in that mix I was able to separate a number of different colors.  The pebble colors that were left over became the back ground because the background in Miro's paintings is one of the most interesting parts of his work, with many layers of color overlaying each other.  Sweeping lines and loops create the body of the woman, curving down and out to an the formation of a child in the womb.  A line crossing her leg is a bird, a symbol often seen in Miro's work to allude to transcendence or flight.
Parking Strip mosaic; Mother giving birth with the moon in her hair
This dramatic mosaic creates a threshold to the garden from the street and is a landmark to help people find the house.

Detail in the parking strip mosaic
Behind the house the couple built an inexpensive patio using recycled concrete from the demolition at another of my projects.  Because there were large gaps between the pieces, somebody fell and sprained thier ankle stepping in one of the holes, so they asked me to come back and fill the larger gaps with pebble mosaic.  We pulled some of the pieces and composed a filler mosaic that related to the Miro inspired mosaic in front of the house.  A couple of years later they removed an handsome but imposing garage from the south side of the back garden to create more space in the tiny yard, which opened up the opportunity to expand the patio and build a curving  seat height retaining wall for a new planting bed.

We ordered pallets of large river rock to compliment the river rock used in the foundation, columns, and fireplace on the historic house.  The wall form became that of a snake, remeniscent of the work of Antonio Gaudi in Barcelona, with a sensuous curve that looks good from every direction.  The new patio mosaic connects to the less appealing (for me) work I did earlier around the broken pieces of concrete.
Joan Miro's painting 

After looking at a number of paintings we decided on one called 'Ciphers and Constellations in Love with a Woman'.  Miro's Constellation paintings are a scattering of cosmic symbols with lines curving through them.  Where lines intersect, creating framed spaces, he filled them with blocks of color.  The woman, interspersed in a somewhat cubist way in to the cosmos represents a trancendence of the Spanish Civil War, when Franco's fascist troupes were overrunning the country of Spain.  This was a very dark period for the culture of Spain, and Miro looked to the greater universe for solice.  At the center of the mosaic is an abstract vulva, representing sex and desire and fertility.  The eyes are on opposite ends of the patio along with a very abstract foot.
Eye mosaic

I ran lines of Mexican beach pebbles throughout the mosaic that the eye can follow.  They run up and down the wall as well to connect it to the patio.  Making these reminded me of when I was a child playing with Matchbox cars, the lines being roads that you would drive down.  Little symbols of a line with two balls on either end I call 'barbells', and there are some literal stars worked in to the design.

The end result is something you can sit for hours and stare at, resulting in a contemplation of the universe and our relationship with it.  The view from the upstairs rooms is fantastic as from a distance it reads like a painting.

A star and spiraling meteorite flying across the Universe
Ciphers and Constellations in love with a Woman

In 2010 I was asked to come back and remove a large section of the drive way, which we opened up and graveled to improve its permeability and make a more pleasing link down the side of the house to the patio.  I also removed the old concrete front walk and created a new entryway, with paths leading to the driveway and the other side of the house.

Recyled concrete and gravel driveway

This time I used a local stone from a quarry in the Molalla area south of Portland to create stepping pads, with pebble mosaic in composed gaps.  This design connects to the mosaic work in the back around the broken concrete pieces, and to the original concrete steps, the driveway, and the sidewalk in front of the house.

Original front walk
I arranged the stone and cut and tightly fitted it together in 3 rectangular pads leading to a landing at the base of the front steps of the house, and filled the gaps with pebble mosaic that connects to the other Miro inspired mosaics in the garden.  The gaps between the rectangles allows for permeability in the pavement, and for the garden to flow through the work in planted lines.

Laying out the new entry walk

The completed entry walk with established plantings
The two side paths leading off the main entry path are more free form in shape because they are curved and the plantings are naturalistic.  A set of curved steps leads down to the sloped part of the driveway.  It was a great deal of work to shape the thick stones used in the steps to fit tightly together.

Building steps
Completed Steps

Lastly I built a small mosaic at the base of the stairs by the sidewalk where the original concrete pavement had been heaved by a large tree, causing a tripping hazard.  This little mosaic bridges the first mosaic in the parking strip to the walkway above.

Landing mosaic
Eventually my clients decided to remove the driveway ramp leading up to where the new steps connected it.  It was too narrow to use as a driveway and was in poor condition.  They planned a trip to Kyoto, Japan, so we decided to create a stone stair that would take you up the slope with some influence from Japanese stonework, which I have studied over the years.

Two terraces were added where the walkway from the front entryway connects to where the driveway was.  The Miro inspired mosaic inserts allude to a spring emerging from a hillside, which flows down the steps like a small cascade.
The mosaic work alludes to a stream swirling through small pools as it spills down the hillside

A view looking down the former driveway
To connect the new terraces, which provide space for a potting bench on the upper terrace or a place to park bicycles, is an altar centered on the steps leading down from the front garden.  This is built in to the existing river rock retaining wall to integrate the two together and create a small ceremonial space for contemplation.

A small stepped altar connects to the existing historic river rock retaining wall
Arranging stones to create a meandering zen stepped path remeniscent of a cascading stream

Camellia blossoms decorate the stream mosaic in Spring
The completed steps flowing down the hillside
 The curb cut apron where the driveway entered the street was removed and a new curb poured, which made it possible to build stone pads in the final phase of the gardens development.  I built two rectangular pads, one the width of the original driveway to make it easy to get out of a parked car, and a smaller one connecting to the sidewalk to form an assymetrical balance, with gaps between them for permeability.  I filled the gaps in the stone work with mosaic that visually ties in with the rest of the flowing Miro inspired forms running throughout the garden.  It is the connecting thread that ties all of the garden's structure together.

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Large river stones were placed along the edges of the new steps and around the parking strip landing to add to the feel of a stream cascading down the hill and flowing in to the street.

The new parking strip landing and the steps where the driveway used to be
Each of the areas built at different times has an individual treatment based on where it is in relationship to the house, but all of them are interconnected by the design running through them.  It is not easy to hurry through this garden as the pavements are something worth stopping to admire.  You can sit on the front steps and gaze at the composition of the entry walk.  The back garden is mezmerizing.  The structure of the garden is a work of art inspired by the couple's desire to have something rich and meaningful surrounding their beautiful home.  It is a pleasure to work on projects like these.  They are very hard work but the work so worthwhile!  As I get older I see my years as a builder with stone are numbered, and I hope that any work that I do until then has the depth and richness that the Miro mosaics embody.

Autumn leaves on the new landing
Thanks for reading, Jeffrey