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.


  1. That cistern is absolutely stunning. Do you use the same mortar mix for this kind of project that you do for walkways, Jeff?

  2. Yes, Type S Mortar. It is marketed under different titles in different parts of the country, but it is basically the kind of mortar you would use for brick laying.

  3. I had not thought about your mosaics lasting for centuries - I have only been thinking about my own enjoyment of the beauty. I like pondering other folks doing the same for many, many years. I would think the flat creations may even last longer than the vertical ones - so your labyrinth may be ageless...

  4. Just found your site. I absolutely love this. Just what is a Cistern for please?

    1. A cistern is a tank for storing water, usually collected from roof runoff or pavement, so that it can be used later.