Wednesday, November 16, 2022

The Phases of the Moon Mosaic

Setting a marble disk in a pebble mosaic

I've been building stone mosaics for about 30 years now.  My style is very much influenced by the stones that I am working with, integrated with everything I have learned from my travels around the world and my studies of the forces of Nature and design.

My first trip to Asia many years ago was to the island of Bali in Indonesia.  I stayed with a family for a month and participated in the rituals of daily life, which are marked by frequent elaborate ceremonies.  One that takes place monthly is the celebration of the full moon.  For three days prior to this monthly event, preparations are undertaken to make offerings as the moon plays an essential role in the planting of rice and fertility.  The Goddess of rice and fertility related to the moon is Dewi Sri (  Woven offerings using young palm leaves are made in profusion to be placed on altars in the paddy fields.

Balinese women making palm leaf baskets to hold offerings of flowers, rice, and fruit

On returning home I made an effort to pay closer attention to the moon and its phases during the month.  For many years I participated in a chant on the full moon of the Hindu Om Triambakam Yajamahe repeated 108 times, which I found transformative.  One of the earliest mosaic commissions I received was for a couple who wanted to introduce their children to the idea of ritual.  I proposed making a series of spirals representing the full moons of the year so that they could celebrate the lunar cycle of the year, with offerings and prayers.  The moon is one of the essential forces that makes life possible on the planet.  The rising and falling of tides helped to create conditions suitable for the evolution of living organisms.

This spiraling mosaic has 12 outer spirals and one large inner spiral.  The turquoise stones are imported from Indonesia and the black stones are Mexican beach pebbles.  Iridescent marbles reflect moonlight.

I built a large spiral surrounded by 12 smaller spirals representing the 12 monthly moons of the year, with the center spiral symbolizing the 13th "Blue Moon" that occurs every two to three years, being the second of two full moons in a single month.  I incorporated irridescent marbles in to the design that would sparkle brighter as the moon approaches fullness, drawing attention to the mosaic at night.  My hope was that my clients and their children would make an offering on the various spirals going around the circle, creating a ceremonial habit in conjunction with lunar cycles.  

A section of the surrounding patio

When I built the Halls Hill Labyrinth on Bainbridge Island in the Puget Sound region of Washington State, I again used the lunar cycle as an inspiration for the design.  In Native American astrology, the moon rather than the sun is the sign a person is born under.  Each moon has a color, mineral, plant, and animal totem relating to the seasonal character of that time of the year.  I used information acquired from the book The Medicine Wheel by Sun Bear and Wabun ( which I had purchased in the 1980's to aid in the composition of the design, with 12 white quartzite moons in the outer circuit surrounded by the colors associated with each moon.  

The Halls Hill Labyrinth with the 12 full moons of the year in the outer circuit

A thirteenth moon lies in the center of the labyrinth at the center of the sun mosaic representing blue moons and lunar and solar eclipses.

The center of the Labyrinth contains a hole that is the size as the 12 quartzite mosaics in the perimeter 11th circuit

In 2018 I received a commission to build a mosaic meditation area for the garden of a fine Craftsman style house in the Laurelhurst neighborhood of Portland.  The surrounding garden was designed and built by a local contractor working with a highly skilled stone mason named John Dibona, who's work I have admired for years.  The design process was a collaboration with the client involving in depth discussions about various concepts involving cosmic forces.  Building celestial motifs provides a trancendent refuge from the trials of daily life and a means of connecting with the universe.

A photo of a galaxy in one of my client's books

The space for this project is a rather cramped corner of the very small garden over which the house looms.  We would have tea in the kitchen and look down on the garden from above, which became an important consideration in the design.  The most efficient way for me to conceive a design is to do an on site mock up, using the materials I've gathered in order to get a realistic idea of the potential for a project.  After visiting the site and meeting my client and the guys who built the stone patio and pathways for the garden I went to work collecting stone for the project over the summer.  I gave a lecture at Heronswood Nursery in Kingston, Washington in May and collected several buckets of stones from beaches in Puget Sound, and later went on a camping trip on the beautiful Stilaguamish River in the Cascade mountains in Northern Washington, where I dedicated a lot of time to collecting wonderful metamorphic rocks from the river beaches.  These stones are treasure, as they are hand selected for their shape and character.

Beautiful stones along the Stilliguamish River

Once the site was prepared for the mosaic I went to work mocking up a design.  

A compacted gravel base was prepared for me to build the mosaic on.  I later dismantled the beginnings of a circular wall and built a new one more in line with my client's desires.

We discussed doing something relating to the phases of the moon, so I took some marble tile samples I had stored for many years in my basement and cut them on a wet saw to see how they would look.  We loved the result, so I searched for additional tiles that could be cut to make the moon phases, playing on the look of the moon seen through a cloudy sky, when it is at its most beautiful.

A piece of cut marble representing the Dark Moon

I had collected a number of long finger like stones with triangular shapes to make corona like wreaths around each of the moons phases to tie them together stylistically.  The phases are depicted as waxing quarter, half, and three quarter phases of the moon with a full moon on the opposite side, and then waning phases on the right hand side.  

I did a mock up of the design once I had all of the pieces of marble cut for the moon phases.

In the center I cut a rose colored piece of marble to represent lunar eclipses, where the moon appears red, and is often called a Blood Moon.  I used the nicest of the finger stones to create the corona around the eclipsed moon.  The stone mosaic spirals out from the center to emulate a Spiral Galaxy.  I mixed in hundreds of hand sorted small black Mexican Beach Pebbles in to the design to accentuate the spiraling lines

Once I had a good enough concept of the overall look I started to set the perimeter moon phases.  I used steel strips to make the curved outer edge held in place with long steel spikes, creating a level circle to set my grades from.

A half moon and corona mortared over a reinforcing steel grid and bent 10 foot sections of rebar

I had marked the position of the moons in line with the Cardinal points, so the Dark Moon and Half and Full Moons are pointing North, East, South, and West.

5 of the moon phases set in mortar

Once the perimeter was completed I built the center moon and its larger corona and then began to fill in with the spiraling stones to create the galaxy.  My client is very detail oriented and I made adjustments to appease her that refined the overall look.  My work is not without flaws and they did not go unnoticed but eventually were forgiven.

A portion of the spiral galaxy set in mortar. 

I flatten and level the freshly set pebbles by laying a piece of plywood on to and carefully walking on it.  Then I gently hose off the excess mortar the pushes up between the stones and repeat the process until the mosaic is at the desired level.  The center of the circle is slightly higher than the edges so water drains to the outside.

The completed spiral galaxy

After the mortar set for about 10 days I removed the steel form and cleaned the mosaic by pouring Muriatic Acid on it and spraying it with water to spread it out across the surface.  The acid reacts with the base in the mortar to remove the gray residue mortar film, and exposes the sand in the mix so it looks darker.

Muriatic Acid

The stonemason John Dibona lives out in the Columbia River Gorge outside of the town of Corbett, where there is an extraordinary quarry of columnar basalt.  Basalt columns are a desirable material for garden designers.  

Columnar basalt being quarried outside the town of Corbett

We selected a number of smaller pieces that John and a friend cut in to shapes that I could use to construct a perimeter seat height wall around the mosaic.  The same basalt was used around the patio they built and I wanted to integrate my work with what they had done.  The stones were heavy so I used a hand truck dolly to maneuver them around.  I bought and gathered a selection of beautiful river stones to mix in with the basalt pieces.

Some of the basalt blocks used in the wall

The wall I wanted to build has a rustic but tightly fit construction and shape.  I did a mock up using the various stones so my client and I could make decisions about the composition.  By then she was much more trusting and I was able to work more freely.  

A partial mockup of the surrounding wall

The entrance to the patio was oriented to the north with two large columnar stones creating a gateway.  I collected an assortment of smaller stones to integrate in to the work.

An assortment of river stones to be incorporated in to the wall

When I was ready to commit to the composition I started to mortar the first course of stones together.  Some of them are tall and span the base to the cap of the wall, while most of the stones are stacked and fitted together.

Mixing mortar and setting the first course of stone in the wall

I use a 7 inch diameter diamond stone cutting blade on my large angle grinder to shape the stones so that they fit tightly together.  This is very hard work as the material is very hard and heavy.  The wall is free standing on the sides facing the patio so they wall has to look good from both sides.  The large stones helped integrate the new wall in to the existing work the guys had done before.

Scoring lines in the stones so I can remove sections with a small sledge hammer and rock chisel

The details in the wall and pavement integrate the two and make for some wonderful vignettes.  

Filling in the gaps with colorful stones

I left a gap between the bottom of the wall and the mosaic that I later filled with leftover pebbles so that water could drain from the patio in to the ground.  At the three cardinal points in the wall I built arched niches to place candles or offerings in.  These arches connect the wall with the marble moon phases in the pavement.  I used pebbles to mosaic cracks and gaps in the wall and connecting pavement to bring the details of the mosaic up in to the seat wall.

An arched niche made with beautiful river stones over the full moon.

After I finished and cleaned the rock work in the wall I brought in amended soil and planted the narrow beds with plants that would adapt will to the shady and sunny areas, trying to keep the scale of the plants appropriate to the small spaces, so that they won't overwhelm and bury the wall as they mature.  

Plantings around the Phases of the Moon Patio

The completed wall makes for a nice enclosed area to gather for conversations, and for rituals my client arranges on the full moon.  

Lighting and candles for a full moon ritual

The patio the guys had built before I came was well constructed but now looked somewhat monotone so I lifted some of the smaller pieces and did insets with pebbles to bring some more visual interest to it. 

Pebble insets set in fine crushed gravel are permeable so that water can drain in to the ground.

I took over the planting of the other garden beds as well.  I actually like working with plants more than I do building with stone.  The color pallet we chose is meant to compliment the house and fence colors.

Phormium cookianum 'Atropurpureum', Geum 'Mandarine' and Golden Oregano

Mosaic detail and Carex testacea and Black Mondo Grass

My clients are renowned for their Halloween decorations.  This skull fits nicely in one of the niches.

The garden is still fairly young and I am no longer involved with its upkeep, but hopefully it will grow in to a wonderful garden.  Thanks for reading, Jeffrey