Stone Theory: Art, craft & design

Stone Theory

For the last year or so I have been involved with a local crafts organization called Handmade in America. As I’ve attended meetings, I have had to get accustomed to being called an artist, a label that I previously avoided. The tag has always seemed too precious to me. My preferred title, craftsman, has a gritty, earthy quality that fits me and my work better. Designer is also appropriate because on many projects I take that role or share it with another professional. Designer fits my work well. But I have struggled with the idea of being an artist for years. Recently I’ve thought more and more on the topic, as I seek new ways to work with stone, ideas, and tools. As I’ve pondered this, I’ve developed a stone theory of sorts that compares and contrasts these three titles.

I use the triad illustrations (shown below) to show the fuzzy boundaries between artist, craftsman, and designer. Each discipline is comprised of three circles: concept/idea, technique/technical and customer/critic. The size of the circles shows the relative importance of each element to the others. The largest circle shows the primary focus of that discipline. These are very dynamic elements; they vary from person to person, from project to project and even from moment to moment. But with the triads, I have built a foundation for the conversation, and an easy way to reflect on my role or even to plan how to move ahead with an individual piece of work and my whole stone career.

Stone Theory


Expression of ideas or emotions is the primary force that drives an artist’s work. Sometimes it can be clearly stated, as in some modern conceptual work. Sometimes it’s only hinted at, in the way certain images or forms evoke a feeling or memory. The technique is also important, but generally takes on a lesser role, as it is subordinate to the vision. The critic or the customer is largely- hopefully- not much of the equation at all. Art that worries too much about what people think is dilute and lifeless.

Frank Lloyd Wright was a great artist, with a singular vision. He regarded the technical aspects of architecture as a low priority and as a result, much of his artistic legacy is in an advanced state of disrepair. Depending on who you read, you might discover he placed no emphasis on the customer at all or too much on what people thought.

Every stone project I do has an artistic element, whimsical details that share my love for the craft and attempt to engage people in careful consideration of the work. Most of my portfolio so far though is very practical- retaining walls, patios and steps. I incorporate details yes, but the emphasis is always on stonework that does its job well and will last a long, long time. Craft and design come first.

I experience in my own stone work mostly in photographs; this is the place where I take on more of a artist role. I use the images for my marketing, but I take the photographs as a means of experiencing the work the way I see it and want to remember the feeling it has for me.


Stone TheoryCraftsman

The technique is the primary concern of the craftsman. It must be done this way because this is the right way to do it. There’s a purity in this that is hard to articulate to others, unless they are in the crafts as well. Simple rules create complex products that have a simple beauty. It is the science of emergence manifested in my hands. The design is important as well, as the work must fit the location, the aesthetic, the overall scheme. Likewise, it must solve the client’s problem: access to the home, contain fire, retain a steep hillside, etc.

A well-crafted product is invested with the maker’s heart and energy. It feels different to touch and to experience. In the shoddy world of Wal-Mart and Target disposable plastics and wood pulp furniture, true craft is like an oasis. It connects people: craftsman to owner, generation to generation as family treasures are passed down. True craft is all the better if it’s used. It’s nice to have your work admired, but it’s even better to see your work being used, engaged and appreciated.

This is where I am most comfortable. I am a student of the stonework, always seeking ways to use old school tools and techniques in service of modern problems. I certainly use modern tools as well, but only to obey the basic rules that have been handed down for millennia.

As most craftspeople will attest, this is a hard sell in the modern world. True craft takes more time and attention. With stone, it usually takes significantly more material as well. You can always find something cheaper than what I have on offer. You would be hard-pressed to find anything better.

Stone Theory


For designers, the customer is the main focus. Great design isn’t worth much unless it solves the client’s problem, which can be as diverse as creating shelter, a marketing campaign or a handheld digital music player. The conceptual piece, sometimes called the parti, is also very important. I have looked at more than a few landscapes where there was never a concept, such that multiple styles, materials and qualities of craft rub shoulders together awkwardly. Designers can offer big picture views that find the fine threads that run through the whole work. I often encourage my clients to involve designers and I wish more designers would engage craftspeople earlier in their process; a seamless process creates a beautiful product.

In my practice of design, the technical aspect is an equal partner, as I am primarily a craftsman. I can’t readily separate thinking about it from doing it. One of the challenges craftspeople and builders frequently face is designers that have a limited awareness of how materials and techniques work in real space. This is particularly true of stone, as modern architects have little experience with or education on stone and its application. I hope this changes in the future, as architects realize that pure stone is a more sustainable choice than overly processed materials like concrete and steel.



Stone TheoryThese are not hard and fast rules, as the size of the circles are ever changing. I can imagine a tool, like a floating holograph hovering around my head, that showed the shifting dynamic of the three circles over the course of a project, or even a day. The artist in me would have almost disappeared as I wrestled with the practical concerns of turning a tight circle in big rectangles of stone. The craftsman and designer were hard at work though, debating the structural merits and finished appearance.

The artist came out later, as I choose the stones for their color, pattern and texture, though the craftsman was there too, worrying for hidden cracks and checking the dimensions of each slab. It was all craftsman as I figured out how move the big chunks from my truck, down the driveway and into position. As far as I can tell the artist and designer were on lunch and no help at all. The artist came back in time to tuck a small tower of marbles along the seam between a step and the block wall, inviting people to study how the thing is really made. The craftsman helped execute it and the designer approved. And the artist has been taking pictures, trying to capture the pride of craft and good design and share how it felt to make this beautiful and strong thing.

While subjective, the triads have given me some insight into who I am and what kind of work I do. I invite you to join the conversation by using the comments section below. Comments will remain open for a few days, until the spam starts filling up my inbox.

8 thoughts on “Stone Theory: Art, craft & design

  1. it is good that you observe these parts of yourself when they are present. i think it shows that you are in the moment when you are performing the tasks of the artisan. and that type of working meditation allows for creative energies to move through you as well. the artist part of me comes out in telling stories about the work or imbuing it with a timeless character. mythologizing the work. stone is an elemental medium that facilitates creativity, and just thinking through the cutting of it is very intuitive and organic. stone possesses the art of nature, and the mind inside it, and you are an artist when you endeavor to discover these things and refine them.

    photography is such a great medium to practice when you build. before the work happens you are composing the outcome visually and/or conceptually. when the work is done you return to those mental compositions so they inform the composition of your photographs. often times i find that i return to the little congruences or random light patterns that had pleased my eye while i was working. seeking those images out is truly an emotional experience. it’s also proof that you put them there.

    i think it’s art that balances the use of our resources as well. we are trying to engineer things to be quick and cheap. an artisan is forced to argue against that mentality through the merits and disciplines of art. we don’t spend time carefully embellishing and venerating things that are, in the long-term, useless to us and the Earth. we embellish the things we wish to treasure and with every effort add to the history of art. ideally, anyway.

    btw, love your work!

    • Thanks for the comment.
      I like this idea of craft being an effective way of balancing resources. A future worth living in will be built by hand.

  2. You have clearly put alot of thought into this process of denying the label of artist. As usual your eloquent and well reasoned discourse has completely won me over. I particularly like:
    ‘You can always find something cheaper than what I have on offer. You would be hard-pressed to find anything better.’
    FTR my own walling icon over in the UK, a guy called Steven Allen is always anxious to stress that he does not consider himself to be an ‘artist’, although he probably has not examined the reasons why as profoundly as you have here.
    It is maybe in part a question of humility. The word artist can sometimes indicate an egotistical claim of excellence when used in certain contexts and by a certain type if individual.
    But Marc, at the end of the day, if other people are choosing to refer to you as ‘an artist’, I think it is because of their deep respect of and appreciation for your work, and you could also just choose to graciously accept it at face value as a sincere compliment.

    • T,
      I know I have been denying the label, but I think this post is about coming to terms with it, in some modest way. “Are you an artist or a craftsman?”

  3. I think I’d like to add another circle to your three and title it “Prac-tologist” (if Sarah Palin can invent words so can I).
    Every step in the decision making process (artistic, design or crafting) is dealing with the specter of moola, or in my son’s vernacular – it’s all about the Benjamin’s. That lurking gorilla in every scenario that inhabits the clients cage and ghosts into yours.
    The ‘Practologist’ has to ‘BRING REALITY’ to the drawing/sketch/plan/design (despite gorilla breadth on the neck.) The practologist in effect makes it work, makes the dream – ‘practical.’

    • Karl,
      Interesting you would say; I had wondered if a circle should be devoted to money, but decided against it for now. I realize that your gorilla is the primary struggle most of the craftspeople/artists and even designers I know are facing in their working lives. I miss more bids than I’d care to admit to cheaper, shoddier work. But I don’t know how to compete with cheap crap, other than bringing the best work I can to every job and letting the work stand. And stand and stand and keep standing. So long as a few people care for quality, we should be able to keep on. I love though that’s it’s not always about the money. There are plenty of people of more modest means who choose quality over quantity. They are the best to work for, as they appreciate the work and care that went into it.

  4. Money has a rather vulgar and impolite air to it. I would not give it a circle either. And as for the word I prefer ‘cost’.
    Not just the clients ‘money’ cost but the – do I pick this stone back up again and clean it off and re-cut it for the third time cost. The physical pain cost. The extra time cost. The ‘I already gave them a price’ on this losing proposition cost. Doing it right – finishing the job – and walking away knowing you did, brings a certain satisfaction that makes the money a cheap recompense, and maybe more so on the under bid jobs. Just don’t have too many in a row. 😉

  5. I have always thought that the label of “artist” should be bequeathed by others who critique the work, whether that be contemporaries, or historians. Someone who calls themselves an “artist” is kind of like a person calling himself a martyr. Perhaps that is true of crafts person as well, but designer has a finite quality to the title.

    I disagree with your statement that the technique takes a lesser role than the idea- i have seen plenty of art where the idea was vapid, even pointless, but the technique pretty incredible, but your description of craftsman is dead on. The label has all to do with quality and longevity.

    I think you underestimate the art within your work; yes, you build a set of stairs that go from A to B, but anyone can do that. You build it with a rhythm in the rocks, rhythm of shape, rhythm of pattern. You put it together so it’s not just functional, but has an aesthetic as well. I have never walked your steps, but I imagine there is an art to the spacing, the rise, as well.

Comments are closed.