Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Four Elements Mosaics

The Four Elements Mosaic panels set in front of the Potting Shed

I've just returned to the USA after working for 5 1/2 months on a project on the south island of New Zealand, in the small town of Glenorchy in the Otago Province.  It is a place known for its breathtaking scenery, located at the head of Lake Wakatipu, the longest lake in the country.  I will be building a number of mosaic related projects for the Headwaters Project at Camp Glenorchy over the next few years.  While waiting for the finished grades to be completed in the development, which involves the construction of a number of cabins, a campfire shelter, campground, and lodge commons building, I built a series of precast mosaics that can be used later on the site.  Many of those are stepping stones surrounded by river stones to create water permeable walking paths or for insets to puctuate smooth exposed aggregate concrete paths.

A stepping stone made with stone collected from the Dart River
A path of stepping stones from the Dart River
A wet saw was purchased so that we could cut stones in to slices to create more flat material as many tons of flat stone will be needed to complete the many mosaics proposed for the project.

A Wet Miter Box Stone Cutting Saw with a sliding table is wonderful for cutting stones
I completed 21 Mandalas to inset in to the exposed aggregate path that runs in a loop around the campground to create a ring of energy.  Each mandala is made from stone collected from an area that the intersection is directionally oriented towards in the landscape, in addition to stone collected directly from the site.

A mandala made from stone from the Buckler Burn River inset in to an exposed aggregate path

Stepping stones set in gravel in front of Mrs. Wooley's General Store
I was also asked by my clients to create a carpet like mosaic as a kind of threshhold for a structure.  I have built a number of these carpet mosaics in the past, a few of which have received a lot of attention through publications and the internet.

One of my first patio projects modeled after a Persian Carpet on the cover of a magazine
The concept I decided to realize was to represent the four elements found in Nature, Earth, Fire, Water and Air, as they encompass the forces which created and sculpted the region in to what it is today.  There is a 5th Element, Aether, which I opted out of as it applies more to space than to the planet Earth.  To make these panels I created a square form to cast 32 x 32 inch (81 centimeter) mortar set pavers, a size that is substancial but still managable to move with a hand truck.  I built the form on a recycled pallet with a sheet of plywood attached to it.  I've been using recycled wood from the project so this form didn't turn out to be the most professional looking box but when I am creating mosaics that emulate textiles and weavings, like carpets, I find that some imperfection and undulation gives the impression of some fluidity.

An Islamic Prayer Rug with two Cypress Trees and a Tree of Life in front of my house

On my first exploration of the South Island I drove up the beautiful West Coast and then back across the center to the East Coast.  When I was in the city of Christchurch, I saw a series of paintings inspired by patterns found in Maori Flax weavings.  New Zealand Flax is a common grass like plant of the genus Phormium found all over the country.  Its long fibrous blade like leaves can be split in to durable strips and woven to make mats and clothing.

New Zealand Flax growing along the shores of Lake Matheson on the West Coast of the South Island
Tukutuku is a woven panel used to decorate the walls of buildings.  Because the the nature of the material, patterns naturally form in triangular shapes.  I had originally intended to create naturalistic scenes depicting landforms but I didn't like the way they read so I experimented with abstraction using the influence of these triangular patterns, which I loved.

Maori textile weaving with triangular patterns
One of my primary goals with this project is to incorporate and celebrate the breathtaking landscapes that make this region a popular tourist destination.  Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding mountains have drawn people wanting to experience the profound beauty of the area since the first European settlers arrived in the latter part of the 19th Century.  The first pioneers followed the routes established by the original Maori people who came to this region to collect a type of stone sacred to their culture, called Pounamu.  Pounamu, which is also called Greenstone, is Nephrite Jade, a hard, carvable and durable stone that ranges from pale white to the deepest greens, and is used to make blades, axes, and jewelry.  The Dart River, which flows in to the head of Lake Wakatipu is considered one of the finest sources of this type of stone because of significant veins in the mountains exposed by landslides.  The river and lake reside in a valley carved by once vast ice age glaciers.  The lake bottom at its deepest point is 380 meters (1,250 feet) below the water's surface and the sides are quite steep except where rivers and streams enter it, creating alluvial deposits.  Queenstown is the principal town, once a sheep station, then a center for provisioning regional gold miners, and now a major adventure tourism hub.  A 35 minute drive on one of the most scenic roads in New Zealand takes you north to Glenorchy.

A view of Lake Wakatipu from the Glenorchy Road
The first panel the I constructed represented the Earth element.  The tallest mountain in New Zealand is the highly revered Aoraki, or Mt. Cook, which is surrounded by a National Park of the same name. My time camping there was epic and will always be imbedded in my memory.  The weather was all over the place, still and clear and beautiful one day, and intensely stormy and windy the next.  One evening I hiked up the popular Hooker River Valley trail as the wind howled down the river.  There were only a few people scrambling out as strongs gusts hurried them along, leaving me to be the last one out there.  The last rays of sunlight illuminated the very top of the peak in an orange triangle, which reminded me of the color in the pattern on a weaving I photographed when I was at the Otago Museum in Dunedin.

Aoraki, or Mt. Cook when I visited the park in December, 2016
I recreated this in the mosaic panel, using triangular lines to form the forests at the base of the mountains, the tussock grass alpine regions beyond the treeline, and the snowfields and glaciers soaring to the summit of this magnificent mountain.  The top is red to capture that moment when the last rays of sun struck the top of the peak.  This single triangular design represents the number one in  the series of four panels.  I framed each panel with small even sized pieces of schist.

The Aoraki/Mt. Cook mosaic panel
The orange and yellow stones are small pieces I collect from a gravel spit at the head of Lake Wakatipu where the Glenorchy Lagoons flow in to the lake, fed by the braiding of the Rees River.  The lagoons are filled with vegetation which adds significant organic detritus to the water, creating tannin, or blackwater, the color of tea, which stains the white quarts pebbles commonly found on the shorelines with a distinctive rust color.

Rust colored stones stained by tannin along the shore of Lake Wakatipu fed by water from the Glenorchy Lagoons
The second panel I created depicts the element of Fire.  I was trying to find a landscape that would relate to this concept.  I considered the volcanos found on the North Island, as they are not a prominent feature on the South Island.  Then one morning in January the power went out in Glenorchy.  Campers on the lake shore at Rat Point, 2/3rds of the way towards Queenstown had built a fire that got away from them and swept up the slopes of the hills, burning a significant area.  When I drove through the area a couple of days later it was rank with the smell of a scorched Earth.  Charred brush and Cabbage trees sillouetted against the blackened hills made for an eerie and impressionable landscape.  It was here that I found my inspiration for my next work.  There are two rocky outcrops on the ridge at Rat Point, so in my abstraction, they formed. the number two in my series.

Rat Point after the Fire in January, 2017
In the sand based mock up I made a frame of tiny uniform pieces of dark schist, and then made two interlocking triangles to depict the two peaks.  I used orange and yellow pebbles collected from the lake shore to represent the fire, with the sillouettes of burnt Cabbage Trees (Cordyline australis) centered in each divided triangular section.  The stones in the base of the mosaic were collected from the burned area near the road at Rat Point.  I used mottled veined stones that looked to me like smoke to create the sky.

Mock up in sand of the Fire Element Mosaic
Then I removed the stones, keeping them sorted and filled the form with mortar, first adding a layer that I added reinforcing rebar.  On top of that I've been imbedding various types of non recyclable garbage to keep it out of the landfill, and then another layer of mortar to cover that.  Some day if these stepping stones are excavated, archaeologists will probably be more interested in the debris found inside that the mosaics themselves.

Reinforcing rebar and debris imbedded in the base of mortar
I replaced the stones from the mockup in approximately the same arrangement.  This was allowed to cure for two days before I removed it from the form, which I reused to make the third and fourth panels.

The completed Fire Element mosaic
The third panel depicts the element of Water.  I spend a lot of time collecting stone along the banks of the areas rivers and streams and the lakeshore, so I decided to make a mosaic of the lake, with mountains in the background.

The Humboldt Range reflected in Lake Wakatipu
Once again I filled the form with sand and drew a design concept, with the Tooth Peaks of the Humboldt Range depicted in a stylized form using the number 3 for the order of the sequence, and made a mirrored reflection in the lake.  I trimmed the edge with small even sized schist pieces to make a frame.

Drawing the design on the sand in the form
I filled in the design with a cloudy sky, as I don't have access to blue sky colored stones and it has been an unusually wet summer.  The lake on cloudy days takes on a greenish cast, especially up where the Dart River flows in adding glacial silt to the lake water.    The green shist in the area approximates this color well so I will be using a lot of it as I build braided river and lake mosaics to honor the surrounding landscape throughout the project. I added bits of the color of the mountains to allude to a reflection in the ripples of the water.  The orange stones represent Red Tussock Grass that grows in the alpine areas on the mountain with forests on the ridges and snow on the peaks.

After I completed the mock up I removed the stones in sorted piles and then filled the form with mortar, adding rebar for reinforcing and the garbage I've produced as a consumer to keep it out of the waste stream, along with scraps picked up around the site, like strapping tape from bundles of lumber.

Reinforcing and debris in the Water Element panel
Then I added a layer of wet mortar on top of that and set the mosaic in approximation to the mock up.  This is how it turned out.

The Water Element mosaic depicting the Tooth Peaks reflecting in Lake Wakatipu
The fourth panel is dedicated to the Element of Air.  I decided to use the landscape up on the Paradise area of the Dart River Valley as the scene.  This is an epic region where many films have been set, including parts of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films.  Since air is transparent, I depicted a cloudy sky.  Clouds gather against the mountainds coming from the Tasman Sea to the west and build up against the mountains.  Strong winds whip down the valley with great force.  During storms the Caravan trailer I was living in would rock like a train car rattling down the tracks.  Four peaks frame the narrows through which the Dart River passes before it spreads out in to a classic braided pattern across the broad plain before flowing in to the lake.

I used the same bed of sand, filling the form to create a mockup of the four peaks interlocking in triangles with crossing lines, framing alpine valleys filled with red tussock grass and tree covered ridges forested with the genus of Nothofagus Red and Mountain Beech and Podocarpus Totara forest.  I made the bare flanks of the mountains where the snow had melted with dark schist, with traces of quartz snow near the mountaintops.  I filled the sky with puffy white clouds made from white quartz stones.  Its always interesting to convey concepts with tumbled stone, a material that has been on a unique journey of its own, one that possibly took millions of years to get where it was when I plucked it from its path.

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I set the stones from the completed mock up aside and repeated the filling of the form with mortar and debris before adding a layer of mortar in which to recreate the pebble design.

An array of debris and reinforcing bar in the Air mosaic panel
When I set this mosaic in mortar I made the modification of adding the Dart River passing through the Narrows at the bottom of the scene.

The Air Element Panel
And now the Four Elements panels are complete.  They are quite heavy but I was able to move them by myself, hoisting them up vertically and then rolling them around to the front of the potting shed by the store on a hand truck.  I'm very strong, and have been getting a lot of exercize working on this project.  The Potting Shed is a beautiful rustic structure that can be moved with a heavy duty GCV fork lift that operates onsite.  It was built by a talented Glenorchy based builder named Matt Hood in partnership with a guy named Mike.  Lots of people walk on the panels.  Some don't even notice them but others who are more intuitive are captivated by the stories they might tell.  I did it for them.

The completed Four Elements Mosaics arranged in sequence in front of the Potting Shed at Mrs. Wooley's General Store
Thanks for reading...I haven't written anything for a long time because I have been so busy, but it is alway a pleasure to be able to put the time in to describing the thought that lies behind what I've been up to.  Cheers, Jeffrey