Dragonfly Patio

We are working in the Oakley neighborhood of Asheville, building a backyard patio. The flagstone features a dragonfly inlay, made of natural stone. The wings are a type of marble quarried in Georgia. The body of the dragonfly itself is a scrap of countertop material that I found somewhere years ago. I find things like that and keep them around until they find a home. the inly is surrounded by a Pennsylvania background and a ring of Absolute Black granite. I put the granite in backside up, to increase friction. The other polished stones have some grooves cut in them, to increase traction for walkers and to create veins in the wings and segments in the dragonfly’s body.

Dragonfly Patio in Process

A dragonfly mosaic laid into a sandstone patio in Asheville, North Carolina. Photo by Jonathan Frederick

I always like the exploded view of a mosaic once loaded into the truck for travel. It really is a puzzle.

Stone dragonfly mosaic

The dragonfly patio inlay heads off to the project. There will be order of this chaos…

Stone Walls Class at the NC Arboretum

Stone Walls Class at the NC Arboretum

Jonathan and I recently taught a stone walls class at the North Carolina Arboretum. The class was based on understanding the simple rules that bring about the beautiful complexity of a stone wall. I used a big stone wall we once built in Montreat as a principal example. We spent the first half of the day in the classroom and the afternoon in the Arboretum’s outdoor space that we call the sandbox.

One key topic discussed is how no two stone walls can be the same (illustrated in the graphic below). This is one of the many reasons stone I will always prefer stone to concrete blocks.

Stone Walls Class

We will be doing another drystone walls class at the Arboretum in this fall – watch this blog for updates!

Get Good at Failure

Get Good at Failure

In 2013 I was selected as a finalist for a public art project here in Asheville. Myself, a sculptor and a muralist/ceramic artist team were selected from a large pool of applicants to adorn a bare block wall on a new boutique hotel. I saw it as an exciting opportunity to push the boundaries of what I could do with stone.

I proposed a pair of huge stone mosaics, each approximately 25 feet tall and 6 feet wide. They were the faces of spirits. Apu was male, the spirit of the mountains, all jagged lines and rough stones, fierce and unyielding. Rio was female, the spirit of the river, all curves and smooth shapes, the gentle forces that wear those unyielding peaks down to sand. It was a yin-yang design drawn from our landscape.

The process was fraught with challenges, none of which I rose to. Most difficult for me was an event hosted at a prominent local art gallery. Each artist set up a display of their design and showed examples of previous work. My presentation materials were lackluster. My design was limited to fine line drawings of the faces. I didn’t even color them in. To me, a line drawing opens into a limitless world of possibility. To everyone else, it looked like a scratch at an idea with lots of room to grow.

At this point, I had no real practice with the technical side of fabricating and installing a large piece like this. I imagined it could be done. I brought a mosaic with me to the gallery as a demonstration, a proof of concept. It was so tiny! It was literally 1/10 of 1% of the size of the mosaic I was proposing to build. Nothing I presented suggested the scale or impact that the artwork could have. Including me.

The gallery event was this introvert’s version of a nightmare. If felt like being the new kid in school walking into the noisy cafeteria on the first day. I didn’t want to be noticed. I didn’t want to be not noticed. Really, I just wanted to be anywhere else. I’m sure that people could tell.

The folks in attendance perused our portfolios, asked questions about our designs, and then had the opportunity to vote for their favorite. The votes tallied at the event were to be combined with online votes and the opinions of the arts commission to choose the final artist.

The online voting was open for a couple of weeks. During that time each artist was expected to submit a finalized design with a detailed budget. The amount of money available for the project was $25,000. Our budgets were not to exceed that but address how that money would be spent. Because the artwork was going to hang on a vertical exterior wall, the budget had to include engineering costs.

I connected with a local engineer and we had fruitful discussions about how we might do such a thing. I have always enjoyed the technical challenges of my work and this was especially exciting because it was such uncharted territory. The engineer wrestled with the concept of my art and identified ways to make it real. It was to be a complex system of steel fasteners embedded into the concrete wall that could bear the load, resist wind shear, and survive the elements. He sent the specifications off to a fabricator that he knew who could create such a system. The day before the finalized proposals were due, I got the quote from the fabricator. It was going to be just shy of $20,000. My budget would be 80% gone before I purchased a single stone. I was screwed.

Or not.

I did not get the project. It was awarded to the team of muralist Ian Wilkerson and ceramic artist Alex Irvine, a gifted duo also based here in Asheville. I was very, very disappointed. Crushed, really.

Hindsight suggests that I was also very, very lucky. The project would have either bankrupted me or seriously damaged my reputation because there’s no way I could have completed even a fraction of it for the budget available.

I was still very disappointed. I had failed.

“You got your name out there.”

“Being selected is an accomplishment.”

“You learned a lot.”

All the words of encouragement I was offered sounded to me like versions of “You failed.” And though I was busy enough with my work, I am more likely to dwell on disappointment than celebrate successes. Sometimes what-could-have-been seems more real than what-is.

I kept the sketch of Apu up on my wall. He kept watch over me in my office and I would study his face from time to time, imagining how he would look realized in stone. I just had to see it, so a few months later, I started working on a scaled down version of Apu. Instead of covering a whole wall, it would be about the size of a door. I wouldn’t have to worry about engineering or vote tallies or committee feedback. I was making it for myself- to see it and to see if it worked. Nothing else really mattered.

I worked on it at home on weekends, shaping stones in my driveway and then laying the pieces in a specially made sandbox in my yard. I started with Apu’s beard, jagged lightning lines cut from a native gneiss, an unruly stone that speaks to me of these mountains. Each piece I cut and added to the sandbox got me a little more excited about the project. It was beautiful to me.

Get good at failure

Progress was slow. In fact, four years later it’s still not done! I have taken it apart and moved it at least three times since then. I still love it; I just don’t find much time to work on it.

From Apu to GreenMan

In 2015- two years later- another opportunity to put the face of a spirit on a wall appeared. The spirit was the Green Man, intended for the wall of a local craft brewer’s tasting room. During the dance of the design process, I showed my customer Apu, only half finished, laying in the sandbox at my shop. Here was my great failure. Here, too, was proof to my customer- and to myself- that it could be done and that it could look amazing. They saw the potential and hired me to make Green Man. The failure of Apu led directly towards GreenMan, which helped me secure my current public art project in schools in Norfolk, Virginia. The failure was instrumental in teaching me how to do the work and helping others see the idea and believe in it. It was disappointing, yes, but it was an important stepping stone forward.

Get good at failure

Apu is still only half finished, resting regally at the shop, periodically overrun by bamboo grass. Maybe someday someone will want him for their own and I will finish him. Sometimes I think he would make a good grave marker for me. His stern countenance would be a capable guard of my earthly remains, and a good reminder that it’s only failure if you quit.

Get good at failure

Birds of Every Feather Mosaic in the newspaper!

natural stone bird mosaic

Natural stone mosaic completed for Ocean View Elementary School in Norfolk, Virginia.

In mid July, Jonathan and I traveled to Norfolk, Virginia to install the first of the mosaics I’m designing for public schools there. This one was installed on Ocean View Elementary School and features a diverse array of local birds. The area newspaper, the Virginian-Pilot, just ran a story about it.

Drystone Wall Terraces

drystone walls make garden terraces

Terraced drystone walls create planting beds on a steep mountainside.

This spring we did a large drystone wall project on a steep mountainside. The clients were unable to drown anything because the bank was live rock- basically mountain ledges under a couple inches of sliding mulch. In most locations we had to carve away live rock to create a shelf to set the walls. We moved in a lot of soil for the gardeners too. We used Hooper’s Creek, a favorite building stone for walls of this type. The walls are laid dry, with gravel and chips behind and geo-textile fabric wrapping the whole thing.

Using the crane to move pallets of stone up to the work site

Using the crane to move pallets of stone up to the work site


One of the primary challenges of the project was the fact that the work site was behind the house, several feet above the driveway and inaccessible. We ended up using over 50 tons of material. That’s a lot to carry up a narrow set of steps. So we had Jerry and Bodie Rogers help us with their crane. They flew the pallets directly from the delivery truck to the staging area. It was fun to see the huge pallets swinging gracefully through the air.

Making the Benches with the Marble Inlay

In a recent post I mentioned a couple of benches we installed at King Daddy’s Chicken and Waffle that had marbles inlaid into the bluestone bases. Here’s a few pictures from the process.

onyx spheres

Banded onyx spheres for a stone bench


These spheres are made of banded onyx and are slightly larger than the regular glass marbles that made up the majority of the bench inlay. I used them in the corners to help secure all of the other marbles- so they wouldn’t roll away as the epoxy was setting.

glass marbles

Glass marbles


I went to the toy store and bought so many marbles. It was awesome. I decided to avoid grouping them or trying to control the color pattern. During the inlay process, my rule of thumb was generally to not put the same color/style of marble next to each other.

helpers at the shop

My boys helped me lay marbles into the bench bases


My boys came to the shop with me one day and helped me put marbles in. The marbles are set in a groove that was cut into the base stone- a large chunk of bluestone. I used a very heavy duty epoxy as the setting agent. Each marble has a couple of small cut on their backsides to ensure that the epoxy has something to bond to. The boys also helped me figure out how many marbles I needed to buy. It was a practical math problem we solved over dinner one night.

Lifting a big stone

Lifting a bench base with a cherrypicker engine hoist


My friend Wally loaned me his cherrypicker engine hoist. We used it to get the big pieces off the truck. From here we dropped them onto our cart and brought them to the installation site. We used the cherrypicker again to set them onto the mortar bed. Because the bluestone bases were precision cut and had fine corners- and because they were full of marbles- we didn’t want to risk our typical approach of flipping things around and muscling them into place. Sometimes we are capable of finesse! We used Lewis pins to lift the stones. Holes are drilled into the top of the stone and the pins slide in. When you lift it up, the pins ‘grab’ the stone and lock in place. The holes are under the slab and out of sight in the finished installation. The three small pieces on the top are spacers that give the seating slab a lift and help imply a floating feeling. They are epoxied and pinned in place. The holes you can see on the top of those pieces were for pins that slotted into the bottom of the seating slab. These will not be easily undone.

Marbles laid into stone

Marbles inlaid into stone for bench base


A look down one side of one bench during fabrication. I could only do one side at a time and I ended up redoing a lot of parts because my starting point with the epoxy was nervous hopefulness. It was a messy process and it took me a while to figure out how to make it work and look good. And since I was practicing on the finished pieces- not the smartest thing to do I admit- I had to undo a bunch of things. I expect that for the next few years I’ll be finding marbles at the shop that have been flattened top and bottom as I cut them out of these benches. But now I got epoxy swagger!

Boulder Bench

Big stone bench

Twenty inches tall and 60 inches tall, this is one of our biggest boulder stone bench builds

We built this boulder bench in Flat Rock, North Carolina. It’s longer (60″ instead of 48″) and taller (20″ instead of 18″) than most of our stone benches. This was at our client’s request. Having recently undergone surgery on her knee, she wanted something stable and a bit taller, so sitting down and getting back up didn’t require as much effort.
A thick slab of Tennessee sandstone is supported by two fieldstone boulders- also from TN. Both boulders are anchored into a single slab of concrete that is about the same size as the slab. This prevents differential settling- having one leg start moving away from the rest of the bench.

Stone Stoop and Patio with Heron Mosaic

Natural stone stoop and heron mosaic

A stone stoop and patio accented with a mosaic inlay of a great blue heron.

Our client in Mills River sent this photo recently of her new patio and stone stoop. Completed late last year, the area is finally getting landscaped. Decorative grasses surround the Great Blue Heron mosaic inlay I made for her. I call these pieces Garden Guardians. They are fun to build but very complex. I detail the process at this link.

All of the horizontal surfaces- patio, stoop, and step treads- are Pennsylvania stone, with a blend of the full-color and some nice blues. The patio is laid dry while the steps and stoop are mortared. The vertical surfaces are Hooper’s Creek. What’s shown is all mortared, though there is a drystone wall of the same material that holds up the patio. I like this combination of colors and materials quite a lot.

Stone Benches With Glass Marbles

stone bench with glass marbles

Glass marbles inlaid into a groove in the base of this natural stone bench provide a splash of color.


We recently installed two natural stone benches at King Daddy’s, an excellent little chicken and waffles restaurant in West Asheville. The two benches rest on the edge of their covered patio/outdoor seating area. Two large bluestone bases support slabs of Tennessee sandstone. The bases have glass marbles (mostly glass anyway- the ones on the corners are banded onyx!) laid into them. It’s partly inspired by my fascination with benches that are super sturdy but look like they might fall right over (see the Harmony Benches we’ve built or the Floating Bench to see the start of this obsession. It’s also inspired by a tale I’ve heard, but never confirmed, that old school masons would put glass marbles or lead balls between large stones when constructing a building. The marbles acted as spacers and prevented the heavy stones from squeezing out all the mortar between them. And I’ve always had a fascination with marbles in general; we find them all the time digging in people’s yards to install a patio or wall. I had a great deal of fun buying all these marbles. It’s a good time when you can go buy toys with the company credit card! Shout out to Dancing Bear Toys!
stone bench with glass marbles

Glass marbles are inlaid into the base of this stone bench to suggest a delicate balancing act.