Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Braided Rivers Project

An aerial view of braiding in the Dart River I took from a helicopter
Sitting on the completed polished Braided River mosaic in the Greenstone Room
In the Autumn of 2015 and Spring of 2016 I built what I consider to be one of my most meaningful works, the Halls Hill Labyrinth on Bainbridge Island in the State of Washington ( ).  In the middle of that project my clients purchased a foreclosed campground and general store in the town of Glenorchy, north of Queenstown on the South Island of New Zealand near their second home.  Unbeknownst to me they embarked on a major project developing the world's first Zero Net Energy Campground development, with the goal of meeting the stringent standards of the Living Building Challenge (
Construction site at Camp Glenorchy when I first arrived
We were shooting footage up at the labyrinth for an episode about my work as a mosaic artist for Oregon Public Broadcasting's show Oregon Art Beat (, when we ran in to my client in a cafe, and she told me that they wanted to bring me to New Zealand to work on an installation called "The Braided Rivers Project" at Camp Glenorchy.  I had never been to New Zealand and was excited about the prospect of spending time in this mythical country.  So the following November, I flew to Queenstown and was picked up and taken to the town of Glenorchy, at the Head of Lake Wakatipu.  The lake is 80 kilometers (50 miles) long, the longest in New Zealand, and 380 meters (1,250 feet) deep at its deepest point.

Lake Wakatipu looking in the direction of Queenstown, with Pigeon Island in the distance
Lake Wakatipu and the mountainous area surrounding Glenorchy are legendary in this country.  Many films have been shot in the Paradise Valley, including scenes from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hobbit, The Chronicals of Narnia, the lastest episode of the Mission Impossible series, and a wickedly dark miniseries made by the famed Kiwi film maker Jane Campion, Top of the Lake.

The Paradise Valley, Diamond Lake, and the Rees River

When I first came to Glenorchy I gave a presentation to the community on my work, and later participated in a design workshop with a number of locals to broaden community involvement.  I rather candidly asked people to invite me over for dinner since I had been living in a caravan trailer behind the store for several months while I worked on the project.  This enabled me to get to know the amazing local people better and to hear stories about their connection to the surrounding landscape and opinions about what is happening at the camp.  I've since had many delicious meals with people I now consider to be good friends.

A flyer for my first presentation to the community of Glenorchy
On my first trip I didn't have a vehicle so I dragged logs down the street from the town golf course where they had been cutting up fallen trees and built a pair of sand boxes to do mock ups with stone I collected in shopping bags along the river and lake shores.  It was at this point that I was dubbed "the crazy American" by my neighbor, who's son saw me hauling logs at dusk.

A sample mosaic set in sand, experimenting with stone gathered from the area
I studied the rich history of the region, reading a number of books about the pioneers who first came to this wild land.  My grandmother on my mother's side had relatives who arrived in Invercargill on the South Coast in 1860.  They only lasted a couple of generations before moving to Oregon, as life was quite challenging in this wet and wild country at that time.

The Laing family plot in the Wallacetown Cemetery north of Invercargill
I also immersed myself in the region's amazing geology.  The word geology has ancient Greek roots, meaning "the study of the Earth".  I spent a great deal of time collecting stone to use in the mosaics and landscapes that I built to make the camp not only more beautiful, but to establish a direct relationship with the forces of Nature that created this amazing part of the World.

One of my favorite areas for collecting stone along the Dart River
The South Island is a geologic wonderland, an obduction zone where the Pacific Plate is sliding over the Australian Plate, basically scrunching the island and faulting the vast mountain ranges of the Southern Alps in to a rugged landscape.  There is a predominance of metamorphic schists veined with white quartzite in the Glenorchy area.  Its a wild and sparsely developed region and I had access to amazing amounts of beautiful stone spread across broad braided river plains and miles of lake shore.  Massive glaciers covered the region during the last ice ages, scraping and depositing enormous deposits of rock as they receded to the small remnants clinging to the highest mountain slopes today.

A photo I took from the plane flying in over the Dart River in a glacial carved valley in the Southern Alps
I was able to take a few brilliant helicopter flights over the region to photograph the landscape from above and collected over 100 images of braided river patterns, which I studied in detail in order to better understand the complex flowing and everchanging patterns I would be emulating in the mosaics I planned to build.  Braided rivers form when large amounts of sediment are deposited in a river bed, forming shallow river channels separated by gravel bars that frequently change shape as water levels rise and fall.

An epic view of the Dart and Rees Rivers flowing around Mt. Alfred above Lake Wakatipu
The scale of this project was so huge that I decided it would be beneficial to use cut stone rather than trying to find the enormous quantity of naturally flat faced stones that would be required to built the mosaics.  The smooth. cut surfaces would also nicely depict the reflective quality of flowing water that I wanted to achieve.  The camp bought me a beautiful diamond blade rock wet saw with a sliding table and miter saw on which I and a helper cut thousands of stones that would eventually be laid to create the braided rivers.

My Porta-Brickie Rock Saw
I cut so many rocks that a thick layer of rock silt had to be regularly shoveled off the ground and hauled away.  Sometimes a rock would catch in the blade and shoot like a bullet hitting the wall of the warehouse.  It was hard to find people willing to try cutting as it was potentially terrifying, but I was very careful, wearing rubber gloves, head phones, and rain gear to protect myself from the spray of water and noise, always keeping my fingers away from the fast spinning blade.  I became a very proficient stone cutter, buzzing through them like an assembly line.

Add caption
We cut large quantities of green schist that would be used to make the river channels, and white quartzite stones to create the sinuous islands and shorelines of the braided rivers.

The first section of river mosaic that we built happened the day before I left at the end of my first 6 month stay in Glenorchy.  I had been working mainly on landings to the porches and doorways of the seven cabins and round medallions that would be set in the intersection of paths that would be built while I was away.

Dart River mosaic landing on one of the cabins
Stepping stone path made with stones collected from the Dart River
I had proposed that the Dart River mosaic run through the Homestead building, which is the main lodge for the camp.  It would pass through three glass doorways in to the Conservatory sunroom, and then across the Greenstone Room and out the back side of the building across a terrace linking to a curved bridge over a grey water treatment wetland.  The camp treats all of its waste water in a series of three wetlands, which I embellished with stones and logs to mimic the shorelines of the lake.

The foot bridge over a grey water treatment wetland, with the exposed liner along the edge covered in logs and stones
The Conservatory floor was formed up and reinforcing steel placed and then a cement truck arrived and funnel shaped buckets of concrete were lifted in with a huge construction crane and poured.

The braided river design sprayed on the base that the concrete was poured over.

Pouring and spreading the concrete for the Conservatory floor
The Conservatory floor was a single pour of concrete, so logistically we had to lay all of the cut stone for the river mosaics as quickly as possible.  This was not a fun task but I had a crew of of 5 diligent helpers who worked tirelessly for 8 hours from planks spanning the pour.  It was a cold wet day, which gave us more time to work before the concrete set, but it was hard to see what we were doing in an overall sense as we were scooping out handfuls of wet concrete and pressing the stones in as flush and level as possible.

Setting  stones in a single pour of concrete to create a braided river mosaic
All of the stone used for the Dart River mosaics were collected from the Dart itself, so that it is literally from the place it represents.  The floor would later be ground by floor polishers, revealing the river design, like an organic terrazzo.  I flew home and it was a period of months before the grinding commenced, but the work turned out to be pretty exciting, especially for the floor grinders who had only worked on plain concrete floors up to that point.

The polished floor in the Conservatory
When I returned in early November, 2017 I began work on a major path installation running from the Campfire Shelter, down through a breezeway that covers the entrance to the Homestead Building, and out to the entry driveway.  This mosaic represents the Rees River and the way it lies geographically in the valley, superimposed on the layout of the camp.  It flows, in an antigravity way up a slope to a wide space between the stone walled greywater wetland and the shelter.

A crew formed and poured an exposed aggregate concrete path inset with flat stones, leaving a recess which was filled with cut stone mosaic later.
At this point I  created a metaphor for how the rivers flow in to Lake Wakatipu, building with a mix of stones from the lake shore and larger stones flat flagstones I collected from the Earnslaw Burn river.  I had to wade across this small river in rapids and carry back the nice flat stones and then trim the edges to make them perfectly flat.  One day when the weather was hot the river was running high from glacial melt and I fell in the rapids and was swept about 100 meters down stream.  The perils of wild stone collecting!

Starting work on a lake shore mosaic, including an awkwardly placed water tank access hole which I was able to disguise.
The Rees River mosaic flowing from a mosaic depicting Lake Wakatipu (try to find the access lid)
It took about two months to complete this very long mosaic, using thousands of saw cut stones.  It was exciting to see the river take form as it flowed down the slope.  The edges of the river were formed using flexible hardwood boards with exposed aggregate concrete poured with wood expansion joints, leaving a 4 inch depression for me to fill with mosaic.

Form work for the path leading to the entry driveway
Once the mosaic was set, I replanted the narrow beds on either side of the path with Silver Tussock grass (Poa cita), Cabbage Trees (Cordyline australis), and Lancewoods (Pseudopanax crassifolius), which become small, very narrow trees.  I surrounded these with beautiful stones collected from the lake shore and the Buckler Burn and Dart Rivers to give the feel of river banks.

The Rees River mosaic flowing from the Campfire shelter 
My objective was to capture the essense of the rivers that flow in to the lake, mirroring how they lie in their natural setting, superimposed geographically to how they would flow through the camp's landscape.

A detail of the Rees River mosaic

A view of the Rees River mosaic as it flows towards the breezeway connecting the Amenities Building to the Homestead Building
Over the Christmas holiday, while most of the construction crews were on break, I began work on the section of the Dart River mosaic floor of the Greenstone Room.  This is a lounge area between the beautiful camp kitchen and dining area, and the Humboldt Room, which is used for gatherings.  Over a 4 month period I only took two full days off when some friends came to visit and we made a trip to spectacular Milford Sound.  It was an exhausting but productive time that pushed me to my limits.

A blank slate recess ready for me to start laying out the Dart River mosaic in the Greenstone Room

Laying cut stone for the floor in the Greenstone Room
I had to cut thousands of stones collected from the Dart River in to flat slices that I set in a thin bed of mortar, trying to keep the surface as level as possible so that it could later be grouted and ground smooth.  It was a laborious and tedious process that took about a month to complete.  Every morning before I went to work I would look at photos I had taken on helicopter flights to study the patterns found in the Dart River so that as I laid the stones I could organically capture the essence of the river.

Braiding on the Dart River
The individual slices of stone are in themselves very beautiful.  I don't think a floor like this has ever been constructed before.  The cuts reveal a variety of patterns in the stone depending on what type of mineral it is, with many quartzite inclusions.  A few are conglomerates, while most are types of green and epidotic schists.  The white quartzite stones have a lot of character with dark veins running though them, displaying their geologic structure.  The river channels flow through the doorways of the Conservatory and connect to the outdoor terrace.

The completed laying of stone for the Dart River mosaic before grouting
A detail of the set stone in the Greenstone Room
The floor was then grouted with a grey polymer grout with small aggregate added as recommended by a man from the floor grinding company.  I had spent three days cleaning out the gaps between the stone with a masonry drill bit so I could use aggregate I collected from the Dart River, but because this project was managed by opinionated people who didn't trust my theories the grouting didn't approximate the look and spirit that I had intended, and I wasn't happy with the end result.  The grout he mixed and I applied on a Saturday was gooey and thick and coated the entire floor.

Grey polymer grout troweled in to the gaps between the set stones covered the entire mosaic
Two hardworking young men from Queenstown Concrete Grinding Company took on the arduous task of grinding down the covering layer of grout to expose the stone underneath.  Some additional filling was required, and one stone popped out and had to be reset, but after several days of grinding a beautiful floor mosaic was revealed.  They then polished it to a brilliant shine.  Some of the stones I set were lower than others, but grinding down to expose them made a rippling effect in the reflection of light that compliments the watery appearance of the mosaic.

I had hoped that a large print of the photo I took of the Dart and Rees Rivers flowing around Mt. Alfred would be hung on the wall above the floor so that people could see the direct relationship between my muse and the resulting creation, but to my disappointment this never happened.

The completed floor in the Greenstone Room with furnishings for the lounge area
Outside of the Conservatory, a terrace was poured leaving recesses for me to build river channels that flowed from the doors of the room out to the edge of the garden that I later built in front of the Homestead Building.  This terrace has a trellis that will someday be shaded with a grape vine.  The channels rather awkwardly end at the edge of the terrace but I had to stop somewhere.  The original intention was to continue the river through the garden and across the road to phase 2 of the project, which will be built at a later date, but I don't think I'll be taking on this ambitious extension.

The Conservatory Terrace pour with recesses for Braided River mosaics

The official opening of the camp was set for mid March, so I worked long hours to complete the river mosaics, and an incredible Geologic wall in the Conservatory that I will write about in a seperate essay.

Dart River mosaics in the terrace off the Conservatory
The terrace between the Greenstone Room and the Grey Water Wetland was poured leaving a recess for a mosaic that would connect the Dart River mosaic to a double radius curving wooden footbridge over the wetland to the Campfire Shelter.  I pushed myself to complete this fairly large mosaic with a few days of help from a woman who took one of my stepping stone workshops.  She was a natural and quickly mastered the technique of laying stone.

Form work for the Homestead Building Terrace

The completed final section of the Dart River mosaic
I then returned to working on the Rees River mosaic, completing the section from the breezeway to the entry driveway.  The final section was under the breezeway itself, which had been poured so that usable access to the entrance of the Homestead Building was available.  So this section had to be saw cut and removed so that I could install the mosaic.

Formed recesses for the braided river mosaics and the breezeway paving before this section was cut and removed.
Finally this long and arduous project was complete in time for the Camp's opening ceremonies.  I cleaned the stonework with Hydrochloric Acid, which in the trade is called Muriatic Acid in the US and rather strangely titled Spirits of Salt in New Zealand.  The acid reacts to the base in the mortar and disolves the film that remained on the surface of the stones, revealing a beautiful clean finish.

The final section of Braided River mosaic running through the breezeway

The completed Rees River pathway
A female Paradise Duck would sometimes land on the river mosaic, and even came in to the Greenstone Room one day.  I saw it as a blessing by the Spirits who I wanted to appease by building this representation of the spectacular rivers flowing in to the lake.  She would drink water from the shallow gaps between the stones and was unfazed by the closeness of people.  Paradise ducks mate for life and I assume that she at some point lost her life partner, and began to socialize with humans.

A female Paradise Duck on the Rees River mosaic
Because the Rees River mosaic ended at a rather bleak looking expanse of grey concrete blocks laid in a herringbone pattern to pave the entry driveway, I built a multi colored stone mosaic curb to border the edge of the garden that I built in front of the Homestead Building.  This was done distract the eye from the bland paving.  For me it emulated the edge of the lake so that the driveway would read more like a body of water, connecting it to the natural landscape.

A multi colored stone mosaic curb edges the entry driveway and the Homestead Building Garden
I laid large flat schist flagstones to form a generous path through the carefully composed native plant garden.  I laid the stones in a zen arrangement, with each stone relating to the next in a naturalistic way.  The intent is to create a contemplative walk through the garden.  I had large, spectacular boulders collected from the Paradise Valley placed in the garden by skilled heavy equipment operators, which speak to the mountains in the distance.  Once this garden was completed, we were ready for the grand dedication of Camp Glenorchy and its transfer to the Community of Glenorchy.

The Homestead Building Garden
Any profits generated by the camp will now go in to the Community Trust, funding future projects to benefit the town and its citizens.  Camp Glenorchy is a philanthropic venture like no other in New Zealand, a model for environmental technology, innovative architecture, and an inspirational melding of concepts to create an accomodation experience like no other.

My goal for the work I did on this project was to integrate the magnificent power of the surrounding landscape in a way that speaks directly to it, and brings it in to the site in a way that honors the beauty and geology of this incredible place.  I worked on a shamanistic level that was often challenging within the logistical confines of a major construction project.  The levels of understanding that I embued in my work will take time to reveal themselves to the people who work here, visit, and stay as guests.  Intuitive and observant people I've met have expressed deep spiritual feeling illicited by what they see here.  It is my hope that the Braided River mosaics and the Geology Wall and Driftwood Wall I built provide a vehicle for better understanding the forces of nature that make this place so special.

The Dart River, Rees, and Buckler Burn Rivers flowing in to Lake Wakatipu with Glenorchy and the camp at the top 
While I was working on the project, a friend sent me this beautiful poem by Beat poet Gary Snyder.  It speaks beautifully to the experience I had while building the Braided Rivers:
Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf or wall
riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way,
straying planets,
These poems, people,
lost ponies with
Dragging saddles --
and rocky sure-foot trails.
The worlds like an endless 
Game of Go.
ants and pebbles
In the thin loam, each rock a word
a creek-washed stone
Granite: ingrained
with torment of fire and weight
Crystal and sediment linked hot
all change, in thoughts,
As well as things.
Gary Snyder

A friend's beautiful child on the Greenstone Room floor

My lonely little Ute.  Collecting stone on the Dart River in Paradise
Thanks for reading, Jeffrey


  1. So great to read this detailed description of your process in creating this magnificent work.

  2. You have stretched the imagination of many my friend. The resounding success of the project is heavily influenced by your artistic input and immense energy. Keep on trucking dog...

  3. Magic work and great blog, missing you.

  4. Excellent blog Jeffery! Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful work. Makes me want to visit just to see your art.