Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Geologic Wall

A pink Piemontite and Green Schist whirlpool twists through the gap between beautiful stones
Geology is a word derived from Ancient Greek; Geo, meaning Earth, and ology meaning the study of.  It is Earth science, the definitions of the solid and liquid masses that form our planet, and the multitude of rock types that are manifested by the forces of Nature.  My father's parents were geologists, rock hounds as they were called in the Western US.  They went out on digs to find minerals that they cut and polished to make cabochons for cowboy belt buckles and bolo ties, and specimens they sold in their small rock shop and at shows.  I loved looking at all the beautiful minerals in cases in the house and collected stones out in the garden.  My grandmother later donated their best specimens to the geology department at Oregon State University.  It is no wonder that I work with stone, and understanding the processes involved in how they came to be is an essential part of that work.

My Grandmother on the Sweet Home Rock and Mineral Society float

A small niche in a narrow wall built on the other side of a pair of double doors from the main wall.

I arrived in New Zealand in early November, 2016 to begin work at Camp Glenorchy, in the town of Glenorchy, north of Queenstown at the Head of Lake Wakatipu.  I was brought here to build a representational braided river, weaving the community and the natural landscape in to a path system in the camp.  As I started to explore the lakeshore and rivers I was entranced by the beauty and variety of minerals to be found in such abundance.

The beach at 25 mile Creek on Lake Wakatipu, where I collected many of the larger stones in the wall
I have an obsessive propensity to collect stone.  I cant walk down a rocky beach without surveying what I am seeing, and always seem to come away with a pocketful, or armloads, or in the case of this project, truckloads of beautiful specimens of metamorphic rock that were deposited by massive glaciers during the last ice age.  The stones I collected piled up around my trailer, with no real idea of what I might do with them.  It was my hope that I would be able to build a wall that showcased the wonderful minerals from this region.  I gathered stones with specific shapes that would lend themselves to building and having exceptional character.  I always do this with a sensitivity to impact so that no noticable trace is left when removing rock from the natural landscape.

One of many truckloads of stone I collected for the Geology Wall
On a road trip around the east and south coasts, I visited the Geology Museum at the University of Otago in Dunedin.  I asked a man setting up an exhibit if there was anyone who taught there who might have knowledge of the minerals found in the Lake Wakatipu region.  I was directed upstairs to the office of a professor named Daphne Lee.  She was very accomodating and gave me a book she had coauthored with a geologist named Jane Forsyth called Central Rocks: a guide to geology and landscapes of Central Otago.  Otago is the name of the province that encompasses Lake Wakatipu.  I had brought my laptop with me and showed her some of the stepping stones I was making at the camp, and explained that they were geologic samplers of minerals I collected from specific locations, including the West Coast.  She told me that she didn't know of anyone who had ever done this before and suggested that I contact Jane Forsyth and her partner Ian Turnbull.  This couple did much of the field work and analysis of the Wakatipu region for the New Zealand Geologic Survey.  They had published a detailed book and beautiful map of the Wakatipu and its exposed formations.  I was surprised when they wrote back right away and came to visit me a few days later.  They spent an entire afternoon going over my collection and identified all but one stone, which I had brought from the US.  You could see that they very much enjoyed doing this.  Their knowledge was spectacular to me.  Finally I had found experts who knew the stories of the materials I've been using for 30 years building mosaics.  While I have some geology background, I find it one of the geekier sciences, and very difficult to understand when you read the textbooks.

4 of about 120 stepping stones I made that were installed in paths while I was home
There are a lot of nice stone walls in this region of the South Island, which is a primary source of some of the finest building stone in the country.  There is a traditional look to the wall work, most commonly being flat laid schist slabs making a horizontal stacked arrangement.  The classic regional freestanding wall has a row of vertically set stones forming the cap.

An old schist wall in the Frankton Cemetery, south of Queenstown
I found a beautiful ruined wall at Bob's Cove on Lake Wakatipu near a historic lime kiln, where the only limestone outcrop in the region occurs.  The limestone was burned to make lime dust for use as the binding material for making mortar and concrete.  This pioneer wall's material was locally collected and has larger stones in a variety of shapes and mineral types, which I loved.  This is more evocative of the work that I like to do.

A ruined stone wall at Bob's Cove
As the Homestead Building, the main lodge at Camp Glenorchy was being built, I worked with a crew to create a braided river mosaic for the Conservatory floor.
The Conservatory is a glass doored room with an innovative glass ceiling that contains solar panels that were manufactured in Dubai.  A stone wall was proposed for the inside wall as a passive solar collector of heat from the sun.  The sun warms the wall and stores heat that disperses through the night.  Another stone mason was scheduled to build this wall but I had loftier hopes for the room, and begged to be allowed to create the wall I had dreamt of.  I was kind of burnt out from making endless braided river mosaics and was excited to do a vertical project that didn't have to be perfectly flat.

The Conservatory doors after installation
Working in the confines of this building had its challenges as there were so many things going on and builders of every trade were jockying for places to set up saws, pile lumber, paint woodwork, install lighting and electronics, and laying floors.  I started bringing in an assortment of stone in to a narrow room.  The project manager had set up his office in here, so I wasn't able to do any indoor cutting.   There was also a small kitchen area set up for workers in the midst of it all.  I kept a path open down the middle of the room so that workers could get through.  I usually do my stonework outside, so that created another set of challenges, in how to mortar stone and clean the work without flooding the room.  I carefully finish my work by spraying the surface with a squeeze handle nozzle on a hose.  They bought me a small wet shopvac for this purpose, which I used to suck up the water and mortar slurry that I washed off the walls after each building session.

Bringing in stone and starting to mock up the first course of the wall
 I started by laying out the first course of stones, large, heavy, and beautiful specimens, who's bases I cut flat so that they would sit flush with the polished floor.  I protected the floor with rolled construction cardboard and sheets of used plywood.  In the beginning it was insinuated by the project manager that I was not qualified to build a properly engineered wall, so I had to prove that I knew what I was doing by example.  Galvanized brick ties were screwed in to the sealed strand board wall I was building against.  I reinforced the wall with ample scraps of rebar and reinforcing mesh I recycled from the storage yard, and drilled and inserted bolts in to stones that stood on end to tie them in to the concrete that I poured behind the courses for back fill.  I don't think this wall will be falling apart any time in the next few thousand years, and should withstand earthquake activity.

A stockpile of a small portion of the stones I collected for the Geology Wall
The arrangement of the stones is decided in advance by placing and fitting them together.  I like a tight fit so the stones have to nest together in a way that feels right.  There is an intuitive sense of spatial recognition that is required, and I often exclaim an affirmation if the marriage of stone is meant to be.  Its important that the individual pieces compliment each other and create a base with the next course in mind.

Mocking up the first course of stone, with brick ties screwed in to the wall

I used large stones near the base to give a solid look to the foundation of this 3 meter (9 1/2 feet) wall.  They project farther out than the top so that there is a slight battening to the face, giving it a gravitational strength.

A side view showing brick ties and bolts in the upright stones
 I mortared the first course of stones in place.  Some of them have shapes like the mountains in the region, miniature snowy peaks.  I don't like to see mortar joints in my work so I sometimes trim the stones with a diamond blade saw to remove bumps and make them fit more tightly together.  I also used thin shingle like stones I find on certain beaches of the lake shore that I stack to make tiny cairns.  The shapes are like long triangles laid flat so that they are well embedded in to the mortar backing them.  These little cairns fill the gaps between the stones in a way that speaks to the forces of Nature that formed the rocks, like super heated chemically laden water that deposited the quartzite minerals in the fractures in the base schist stones, solidifying in to the white and gold striped veins.

The first course of stone mortared to the floor.

I used this detail throughout the wall, which gives a delicate unifying pattern to the design.  Cairn building (stone stacking) is popular on the South Island of New Zealand, probably because there are a lot of water worn flat schist stones along the river banks and beaches of the lakes.

Cairns at Blue Pools in Mt. Aspiring National Park
When the first course of stones was set, I back filled the space behind them with wet concrete and rubble I collected from the construction site, along with rebar for reinforcement.

Then I mocked up and set the second course in mortar.  The tightly fit stones take on a metaphorical look as to how they might appear when moved and wedged together by water in a river.  Each of the stones has some feature that made it special to me.  There are wonderful stripes of quartzite, and a wide range of colors.  Some are dense and smooth and others are layered.  Each has a story to tell of how it came to be what it is today.

The end section of the two courses of stone
The way the room was built made it necessary to finish the ends as the rough beams that I was building up to only projected two inches from the wall I was building against.  The pattern of filling gaps with the thin stacked shingles made it possible to finish the spaces between the beams and the larger stones where they didn't line up perfectly.

The second course all the way across.
The interior window I was supposed to build around, set in the middle of the wall had a frame that didn't work with what I was creating, so a carpenter friend, Matt Hood built me a new rough hewn hardwood frame from beautiful repurposed planks. It became the perfect compliment to the rustic stone work.

Working up to the new window frame
On the other side of the pair of double glass doors leading in to the Greenstone Room is a narrow strip of wall that was designated to be stone as well, so I began to work on that, since vertical stonework is done in layers.  Finding good corner stones is not easy and I was fortunate to have started collecting material over the 8 months before I commenced on the project.  I used a lot of stone!  This section had the same issue of finishing up to the edge of a beam that didn't project far from the base wall.  You can see how I used the small shingles to fill in the gaps.

4 courses of stone on the narrow wall section.  The foreman had his work desk set up right next to this section of wall!
While I was working on the project, an amazing woman I knew who lived in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico passed away, so I built her a memorial niche.  I wanted to create a variety of spaces in the wall on which to place objects, candles, or bouquets.  These are flat ledges with arches, or slabs for roofs.  My dear Aunt passed away shortly before I returned to New Zealand so I also built a niche for her.  And then my best friend's Mother died and I built another.  There are 7 in all, dedicated to the spirit of departed women I've known.

Building Marian's Niche
Auntie Helen's Niche
Margaret's Niche
The wall got higher, and more interesting as it grew, and a regular stream of visitors came to see what was evolving.  The stones in this wall are so beautiful to me as individuals, that it felt like I was making organic jewelry with semi precious minerals.  I would lie awake at night thinking about the collective energy of what I was manifesting in this monumental work of art.

5 courses up.
I had to make regular trips in search of specific shapes to finish the corners on the end of the walls.  Just at the edge of town is the Buckler Burn River, which has some of the prettiest stone in the area.  I could drive a few minutes away and spend an hour on this beautiful river, wading in the current to see what I could find.

The Buckler Burn River
My client brought me the parts of a Tibetan necklace from the store that had been taken apart, to incorporate in to the wall.  At first I thought it would be strange to include these exotic images of Buddhas and Bodhisatvas in to a wall about New Zealand Geology.  So I recessed them in to little niche spaces framed in the flat single stones like miniature shrines.  They are tucked back from the surface so that you come upon them while exploring the wall.  I researched the descriptions of the various figures and brought the conciousness they represented in to the design.

A small hammered brass Buddha sits in a cave like niche

A tiny glass window framed in hammered brass reveals a Bodhisatva inside in a Tibetan votive
A hammered brass image of Manjushri, Bodhisatva of prajñā, transcendent wisdom.
Over two weeks I finished the narrow wall in the far corner, which contains one small niche backed with a beautiful piece of pink Piemontite I found in the Shotover River near Queenstown.  I was about 3/4th of the way finished with the larger wall at this point.

The pressure was on to finish the wall so that the building could be signed off by inspectors.  I worked long days and late in to the night on several occassions.  It was always easier to work when the other contractors were gone, so I labored evenings and weekends for weeks on end.

As I neared the top I had to do a lot of cutting to get stones to fit snugly under the beam at the top.  I worked from planks set on saw horses, and eventually a ladder.  I struggled at times to lift heavy stones in to place.  All of my fat has been burned off on this project and I am as lean and strong as I ever have been.

The finished wall, wet, so you can see the colors
I finished the last of the wall in the dark one evening while a friend illuminated the wall with his cell phone, as the electricity wasn't on.  The last stone was heavy, so he helped me lift it in to place.  I named that last stone, in the upper right hand corner the Emmy Stone after him.

A flash photo of the finished top of the wall so that I could check my work when I got back to my trailer.  The Emmy Stone is in the upper right hand corner.
Once the wall was complete the floor had to be cleaned and reground to restore its polished finish.  I worked with the floor grinders to resolve what kind of finish I would put on the stone to enhance the color, once it was cleaned with hydrochloric acid.  The cleaning took the three of us 8 hours and was not fun.  We wore respirators and eye protection all day.

Cleaning the wall with diluted hydrochloric acid, called Spirit of Salts in New Zealand
I went over every stone with a screw driver to trim excess mortar and then scrubbed every face with stiff brushes, adding more acid to remove stubborn spots.  The acid dyed some of the white quartzite a weird yellow color so those had to be scrubbed out with soap and water later.  In the end I chose a stone hardener rather than a sealer which lightly enhanced the stone but maintained a natural appearance.  I didn't want it to have an artificial plastic sheen.

The finished wall is quite trippy.  Every stone is special in its own way, and the fit and composition of how they are interconnected has a certain zen balance to it.  Close inspection reveals wonderful details and discoveries.  One of my favorite objects in the wall is a weathered spiral cast metal pump part that washed up on a beach near Punakaiki on the West Coast of the South Island.  Spiral shapes form when an object grows outward while turning, or is orbiting and expanding at the same time.  Its a pattern found in Nature from the subatomic to the galactic scale.  Since everything is essentially made of elements dispersed in the dust of stars, we are connected in a cosmic way to the stones in the wall.

A square niche, a brass padlock, and a spiraling cast metal pump part from a boat I found on a beach on the West Coast
Pieces of pink Piemontite, which I collected from the Shotover River just south of Frankton and Queenstown stand out for thier unusual color.  The largest piece in the wall was given to me by friends who used to work at the airport.  There is an area covered in stones where people leave rocks by the entrance before they board their flights because of weight allowances for luggage.  The next time I went to the airport I was surprised to see how many stones there were in a garden bed outside the main entrance.

A large piece of pink Piemontite that was left outside the Queenstown Airport
The arched niche I built for my Aunt with a green stone with a layer of quartzite we call the Platypus on the left
Another niche backed by a beautiful piece of quartzite layered schist.  A part from a boat engine I found on a beach is tucked in to the lower corner
This niche has a base stone with a zig zag edge that I found in the Earnslaw Burn
After the dedication of the building, I contacted Jane and Ian, the geologists I had met the year before, and asked them if they would be interested in giving a talk about the stones in the wall and the floor mosaics.  The lecture Ian gave was a dream come true for me.  I really built the wall for these two amazing people, who understand what it is that I worked with.  The audience got a condensed but throrough 200 million year history of the geology of New Zealand and then a tour of the various stones, with explanations as to how they formed.  It is really the reason I built the wall, to create a bridge between rocks and the science of how they were formed, thier source, and distribution of where they are found.  It is a tool for engaging with stone on a deeper level of understanding.

Ian Turnbull, discussing the various lines of quartzite intrusions formed at different periods in a piece of Greywacke
At one point he told the audience that if a group of geologists from New Zealand were to gather here and get drunk, that they would be rolling all over the floor, which shows the revealed cut open interiors of the stones.

This dark grey line was once a thick layer of shallow sea sediment, perhaps 5 meters thick that was compressed by enormous pressure in to the 5 centimeter vein it is today.
A red edged stone looks like the fire at Rat Point that occured on the Glenorchy road above the lake the previous summer
More beautiful stones.  The lime green stone to the far right is Epidotic Schist, as compared to Green Schist in the upper left side.
Most of the stones in the wall are from the Metamorphic Geologic Group.  There are three types of stone, Igneous, which is of volcanic origin, Sedimentary, which was sediment laid down on sea and lake floors, and Metamorphic, which are the previous two changed under extreme heat and pressure deep in the Earth's crust.  Faulting, and then glaciation and erosion exposes the stone at the surface.  Water carrying the stones in a river or washed up on a beach wears the surface down, shaping, smoothing and polishing it.  This water worn, traveling material is what I collect and work with in my art.

A variety of beautifully striped and colored stones are showcased in the Geology Wall

The Geology Wall
As soon as the room was ready they wanted to furnish it for the opening.  The furniture has been rearranged a number of times and they still haven't gotten it right.  I had to let go of a number of desires during this project, but if you can spend some time exploring this wall and it isn't buried behind chairs, it is well worth while.

The Braided River floor in the Conservatory connects three sets of exterior double doors to two sets inside

The narrow wall in the corner

A trio of Tibetan votives set in the wall amongst niches of various shapes and sizes
The Geology Wall project was followed by more Braided River mosaic construction in preparation for the opening of Camp Glenorchy.  After the ceremonies,  I began an ambitious endeavor to create what is perhaps the World's largest driftwood mosaic of its kind, in collaboration with master carpenter Matt Hood.  In many ways it is like the wooden version of the Geology Wall, telling the story of the forests that grew up the Valleys above the lake, fallen from their moorings in to the rivers and worn to a softer form on their journey downstream to the beaches where we collected it.  There are many species of trees in the forest that make for distinctive pieces of driftwood, each with its own unique character and story.   This will be the subject of my next essay.

The Driftwood Wall in the Humboldt Room
I like it when my work means something, when it changes the way people think and feel about the natural world, and in the process of doing the work I learn to have a greater understanding of what it is that I'm manifesting.  Its always more fun to admire it than it is to build it, but as projects go, this was a fun one.  May it inspire a deeper appreciation for geology in those that spend time with it.

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

Higher States of Being
One of two old padlocks donated by my client


  1. I tear with joy, feeling the love and intention and blessing each stone brought to you... And you to them. Alive and vibrant story of time, travels, connection and beauty, this wall is. A gentle blessing to take our time, in peace. Thank you. Joy to you. I look forward to chatting with you again.

  2. WOW! What an amazing work of art and what a wonderful adventure! Thank you for sharing family history and the context of the project. The stones are so varied with character and individual beauty. But coming together in a way only you can do creates a whole new visual and textural narrative. Congratulations!

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  4. I really love this work- (deleted prior message didnt realize there was more posts! thank you)