Monday, September 26, 2011

Petersen's Rock Garden

A circular pond with a stone mosaic church on a central island

Grandpa's Petunias
There are a number of reasons that I became a person obsessed with the art of crafting with stone.  The earliest influences planted seeds in my psyche that became the focus of my labors for most of my adult life. My Mother grew up in the beautiful Central Oregon town of Bend.  My grandparent's back yard there had a tall lava rock fireplace next to a concrete patio with red painted ornamental metal furniture, some of which I still have.  Grandpa sold Maytag and Gibson appliances and the lawn was lined with washing machine tubs filled with rich soil and cascading with technicolor petunias that smelled of heaven.   I have a couple of those tubs in my garden today...

Up in the fireplace's wall like chimney built of locally collected lava and obsidian was an abalone shell with a colored light bulb set in to it that would shine magically at night.  I for some reason found this mesmerizing.  Strange pieces of native geology were carted home and mortared in to a fantastic structure where you could roast marshmellows on cool desert evenings.  This is childhood fantasy material.
My Grandparents Elmer and Edith and the newly finished fireplace

Building things 10 feet tall out of stone I have learned, requires a certain amount of drive.  Masonry is really about arduous toil.  You need something powerful to motivate you.    Obsessive compulsive disorder is one of the better motivations, and seems to be the drive behind the builders of most of the World's visionary monuments.

A Mountain built of colorful minerals

Thats where Petersen's Rock Garden comes in.  North of Bend and just south of the town of Redmond is a property that was once a potato farm, purchased by a Danish Immigrant named Rasmus Petersen.  The essay I found online at says that he moved to America at the turn of the century at the age of 17.  The relatives on my Mother's side were in the Pendleton area at that time.

My Mother and Grandmother at McKenzie Pass
House of Rock, near Sisters, Oregon
Oregon is all about geology.  A chain of snow capped volcanos runs down the length of the state about a third of the way in from the Pacific Ocean.  It is lush and green to the west and high desert to the east.  Central Oregon is dotted with cinder cones, small eruptions where magma reached the surface on the flanks of the major volcanoes.  There are vast lava fields, and lava tube caves, and some of the Worlds largest flows of obsidian, a material ideal for making arrowheads and points by native peoples for millennium.  What I'm getting at is that if you live in Central Oregon your life is going to be full of rocks.  The land is dotted with pitted lava, and Rasmus Peterson got a property with lots of lava rock on it, like everybody else in the region.

When you drive down the highway from Redmond to Bend you pass some large rock shops, although are becoming fewer by the year.  Huge chunks of obsidian and petrified wood lure people off the road to pick through the boxes of crystals and cut and polished agates and thundereggs (the Oregon State Rock)  collected from the region and beyond.  Some people in the area gathered up huge collections of fantastic minerals during their lifetime.  Rasmus Petersen was one of them.  He first started building a rockery around his home in 1935, with raised beds and miniature buildings that may be memories of his native Denmark.  But he was just getting started.  Over the next 17 years he built 4 acres of gardens that drew thousands of visitors from all around.
Early stone work by Rasmus Petersen

Bridge over a water lily moat

Statue of Liberty showcased in a mount of fantastic multi colored minerals
What he created was a kind of mineral fantasy, with ponds and bridges and villages.  The miniature buildings were wired for lighting to extend the fantasy in to night.  The ponds are filled with waterlilies and fringed in mortared stone borders and surrounded by colorful annual flowers in summer.

My Mother Mary Louise, feeding a peacock
Peacocks stroll the lawns for a touch of the exotic in the high desert, which gets incredibly cold in the winter.  There used to be swan boats on the largest pond but today they are gone.   In essence though, what Rasmus Petersen created here is a fantastic world of tributes to his imagination.  There are feats of engineering, like buildings and planters balanced on a narrow pedastles.  There are monuments to patriotism to the country that offered Mr. Petersen the opportunity to express himself, like a locally carved image of the Statue of Liberty, and a blue glass, white quartzite pebble, and red cinder mosaic American flag that says "God Bless America" over it.  This flag was maybe the first pebble mosaic I had ever seen.

God Bless America
Obsidian encrusted suspension bridge
Lava Mosaic
When I go back to revisit Petersen's Rock Garden as a stone masonry artist I marvel at the spectacular material Mr. Petersen had to work with.  Huge chunks of many colored minerals are collaged in to showcase walls.  There is a wonderful grouping of various kinds of unusual lava as you come up the staircase to the a grand state capitol like building.  The path circles the building and connects to the adjacent mount via an arched bridge over a water lily filled moat.

My cousin's daughter Chayse sees a garter snake in a lily pond
Most amazing of all is the entrance to the Museum and Gift Shop.  Here you climb a pair of curved steps leading over a rise encrusted with stones and then down in to a circular sunken courtyard.  Petrified wood tree trunks flank the steps.  The Museum walls are studded with minerals, and inside is a major collection of stones from around the world.
Museum Courtyard

One of the most unique features inside is a room where black lights illuminate a day glo landscape of  phosphorescent stone mosaic objects.  This stuff borders on cheesy unless you do it for a living.  For me I see a person with vast ambition manifesting the dreams in his head.  And for some of the thousands of visitors who came here, like my grandfather, the dream of making something grand at home rubbed off on them, which in his case resulted in a volcanic fireplace that must have required a few tons of material and a great deal of time to construct.  Seeing these stone wonders of the imagination introduced me to the world of visionary art.

The stone work that I do has been directly influenced by the way Rasmus Petersen and other visionary artists combined minerals to showcase their unique beauty.  Colors and shapes are carefully composed into functional works of geologic art.
Phosphorescent Room

Miniature houses perhaps reminding him of his Danish homeland

A collage of multi colored minerals

God Bless America

One of many bridges

One of the old Swan paddle boats

Rasmus's Cement Mixer

Red Cinder columns

A lava mosaic

Another miniature house

Rasmus Peterson's initials and 1940 date

A bridge to an island in the big pond

A nice piece of Pahoehoe lava

I have since made a point of visiting visionary landscapes in my travels around the globe.   Some of them are famous, like Watts Towers in Los Angeles, and some are more obscure, like the magical Walker Rock Garden in West Seattle.  That property recently sold and its future is unknown.   

Cut Polished Stone Mandala, Walker Rock Garden

By far the largest of this type of landscape is Nek Chand's Rock Garden in Chandigarh, the capitol of the Punjab province of India.  Here a man has spent most of his adult life building a garden from found objects that now covers 18 acres.  Inside are many thousands of sculptures depicting people in every day acts of life, as well as thousands of animals.  The garden was begun in illegally and in secrecy on government land, but was saved from demolition on the merits of its monumental creativity after its discovery.  It was dubbed 'The Rock Garden', but Nek Chand himself said that "Its a child's dream, and not a garden of cold is my poetry with rocks".  An article at has an interesting circle cam showing a panorama of part of the garden.
Mosaic Figures in Nek Chand's Rock Garden
There are so many more places created by obsessive compulsive persons and several interesting books have been published documenting them.  A favorite is the photo packed 'Fantasy Worlds' published by Tauschen Press, and 'Gardens of Revelation' by John Beardsley, which delves in to the psychology behind visionary environments.  Often the people that create these environments don't have a formal history of education in the arts.  They are driven by internal desire and a need to express their visions in material form.  The medium is often stone and found objects, which can be gathered at minimal expense if one is willing to go through the hard work to gather and place them.  I know first hand what is required, a willingness to suffer for one's art.  But the rewards can be very rich indeed.
Garden entry I built in Southeast Portland in 2003


  1. I enjoy your blog posts and the work you do. Another stone visionary (albeit on a smaller scale) is in Silver City, NM. I did a post on him ( ). Hope you will check it out.

  2. Wow, what a great rock garden. Very cool and a place I would love to visit some day. My favorite picture is the bridge over the water lily moat!

    How did they get that giant boulder on the station wagon? Very funny, I love it.

    I admire your work. You are a great inspiration!
    Thank you for sharing your visit to Peterson's Rock Garden.

  3. Is there any chance you can tell me where the "House Of Rock" Place is? The picture with the rock on the car? My dad use to take me there when I was little and he passed away when I was 16...(so I can't ask him :( ) But I would love to take my son there and relive the memories. I have been searching for this place forever with no luck and came across your picture, it gave me hope! I hope you can help! Thanks!

    1. Hi,
      Sadly the House of Rock closed and the car with the rock is no longer there. It was on the Bend to Sisters Highway, not too far from Sisters. It was a fun place that will just have to live on in our memories.

    2. Oh that is really sad :( But thank you for letting me know!

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  5. I was born a rock hound. My mother was forever taking rocks out of pants pockets before putting them in the washer. My first entrepreneurial job was part ownership in a rock shop in Gilpin County, Colorado at the tender age of 18. My boyfriend at the time went on a trip to Nevada to visit a mine and wanted to have fun with dynamite. Blew it up and came back to Colorado with sacks of turquoise. Thus, we started a rock shop and were gold and silversmiths.

  6. Thanks for sharing these photos. I really like Petersen's Rock Garden. Is it still open to the public?

    I've always been attracted to the old rock buildings and walls in my town.