North Asheville Stone Staircase

We built this project several years ago, in collaboration with Mardi Letson of Gardens By Mardi. This was a radical transformation of a sloping, grassy front yard into a main entryway and thriving garden. The big retaining wall to the back- barely visible now behind plants- was set with an excavator. The retaining wall at the street uses the same materials, Daggett Mountain stone, but in a smaller scale. The steps are slabs of gray sandstone from Tennessee, often called Crab Orchard. The staircase is four feet across. To create the a sweeping opening and a welcoming entrance, we widened the steps at the bottom. The bottom step is six feet across- two three footers butted end to end- and the next step up is five feet across.

This project won an award!

Slabs of gray sandstone make up this set of entry steps

A short wall of Daggett Mountain stone laid dry in North Asheville

A drystone wall turns a corner and frames a set of slab steps

Before and After

Stone Steps

We were recently back in Leicester for a small project and got to visit a couple of older projects we had done. :ast year we built this staircase out of slabs of sandstone. I honestly don’t remember that lovely view from the top. My strongest memory from this project was having to do a lot of grinder work to get the steps to the right thickness so they would be the same height and walk properly.

A very straight shot to an incredible view

Slab steps that lead to the street, and a magnificent view

Top landing of a set of steps we built, Tennessee sandstone

“The Care Takers” Mosaic

“The Care Takers” stone mosaic, laid out facedown, to be prepped for travel

“The Care Takers” mosaic, intended for OceanView Elementary School in Norfolk, Virginia is laid out face down. We will adhere a fiberglas mesh to the back, cut it into manageable sized pieces and load it for travel. WE built this stage for the last mosaic; it makes it easier to work on and is flatter than the floor, which it turns out, really does matter!

Beast Wall

Another view of the staircase emerging from Beast Wall

Last fall we completed this project at a home in Asheville. The house had recently been renovated, but the landscape was incomplete. There was a steep, messy gravel driveway and a weird 18″ drop off from where you parked to where you stepped out of the car. It was treacherous. The design mandate included a new entry and safe ways of accessing the backyard. The biggest issue for the homeowners was raising and enlarging their driveway parking area. So “Beast Wall” was born.

The sloping driveway and awkward entrance that Beast Wall was designed to resolve

Early process shot of Beast Wall going up.

A process shot of Beast Wall nearing completion

We used Tennessee sandstone for all the components of the project. I wanted it for the walls in particular because I can usually find a wide range of sizes, including some massive pieces. We needed some big chunks for Beast Wall. The largest piece we found was a rejected hearth that was seven feet long, 14″ tall and twenty inches front to back. We split it into multiple pieces and used it throughout the wall, including at least one massive corner you’ll might find in the photos. With so many massive stones, we used a small excavator to set the biggest of them. It also helped us to move around the backfill. There’s several tons of scrap stone and gravel behind that wall, supporting the parking area.

Our dump truck parked on Beast Wall

This is a new favorite image! We were bringing in some soil for the yard below the wall. The dump truck is parked right to the edge. The wall did not budge. The fully loaded dump truck probably weighs three times what the owners Prius weighs!

A set of steps emerge from the face of Beast Wall.

To provide access to the backyard, we built a set of steps into the face of Beast Wall. I like this emergent style of steps; it evokes something archaic to me, like you might find in a Mayan temple. The steps act as a buttress to the wall. There will be a hand rail someday!

A semi-circular staircase

A set of stone slab steps wrap a tight corner

Access on the other side of the house required less materials, but proved to be a fairly complex build in its own right. This set of steps wraps around an existing block wall. Walls above and below the steps support the staircase and the bank.

Tennessee sandstone creates a new front walkway at a home in Asheville

By raising the driveway, we were able to elevate the front walkway, removing the treacherous drop off. The path connects to another that leads to the street.

Looking down you can see the top landing of the steps.

The parking area is covered in decorative gravel. I like the wheel stops we installed. They are made from a slab step that we split down. There are two holes in each piece with a long bit of rebar driven down into the gravel below.

An oak leaf mosaic element at the top of a set of stone steps.

I made this oak leaf mosaic for the top landing of the staircase that emerges from the face of Beast Wall. It’s a scrap of salvaged granite.

Kingfisher Mosaic

Kingfisher mosaic made of Blue Pearl granite

This Kingfisher mosaic is done! I just have to wait for the frame shop to reopen once the coronavirus restrictions are eased. The majority of the birds body is made of Blue Pearl granite, quarried in Norway. I used a Mexican beach pebble for the eye, which doesn’t show up great in the photo. The background is the Brazilian marble Blue Macaubas. The mosaic is 12″ by 12″.

On a related bird note, this Carolina Wren is nesting in a corner of my tile stacks. Admittedly, it’s not much of a photo, but she’s really tucked into the back of the shelf and her nest is dark.

Kingfisher Mosaic

Kingfisher mosaic pieces cut, ready for fine tuning

I haven’t had a whole lot to post lately. I have made some progress on this Kingfisher mosaic. It’s ready for fine tuning now. The overall piece will be 12″ by 12″ when it’s done.

Time Lapse Mosaic

This is a time lapse video of the girl featured in our next mosaic for Norfolk, Virginia. This piece is called “The Care Takers” and will be installed at Ocean View Elementary School. Kristin helped me do this rough layout of the stones. The girl is holding an oyster, which she will be putting in the water. I don’t like the way the oyster came out and will redo that. Ocean View has a really strong commitment to the environment and actually has programs that teach kids to be stewards of the ocean and do hands-on work with oysters and aquaculture.

All the pieces laid out and readu to go.

This is the way the finished piece will look.

The girl from the Ocean View mosaic laid out in reverse.

The whole mosaic (except the eyes) laid out in reverse. It’s glued to paper and will have a mesh applied to the back for transport and installation.

Variations on a Theme, Striped Bass Edition

The source photo I used for the striped bass mosaic. Image © Carol Archambault

A large and important element of the current mosaic we’re working on is a striped bass. The piece is called “The Care Takers” and shows Ocean View Elementary School’s stewardship of the natural environment. They are particularly involved in protecting the native marine ecosystem. Striped bass are a big part of the Chesapeake Bay story. And my life story too. My Dad is a devoted striped bass fisherman and though I’ve never had the same zeal for it, I have caught a few bass in my time. On our last trip home, my sons went bass fishing on the Narragansett Bay for the first time. It’s important that I get this right, for a bunch of people! My Dad and step-Mom spend a lot of time on the ocean and take pictures of the amazing array of sea creatures that live in the bay. They sent me this image to guide me.

Striped bass mosaic done tesserae style, haphazardly

I thought that the bass mosaic should be done tesserae style, with lots of little pieces, to echo the idea of scales. I started by breaking pieces with the hardie and hammer. I don’t do this a lot, so I’m not super skilled at it. It involves breaking the stone between a sharp chisel edge, the ‘hardie’ mounted into a block of wood, and a sharp hammer that you swing gently and precisely. Some stones respond well to this, but others do not. The grain of the dark green serpentine and the crystal structure of the gray granite created a lot of very awkward shapes. After I laid this out I decided I didn’t like it and needed to try something else.

The striped bass mosaic testing the cut stone, opus sectile style.

Most of my mosaic work generally falls into an opus sectile style. I cut the pieces into specific shapes to create a desired image. So I tried that. I didn’t get very far before I abandoned this idea too. I didn’t like the look and it was a fussy business cutting these lean pieces with gentle arcs to them. If it was going to take forever, I wanted to get a good result.

The striper mosaic tested with an orderly tesserae.

This was the final test: the tesserae idea, but with tidy pieces. I cut strips on the tile saw then chopped them up into the little squares you see here. Still time consuming to lay out, but as soon as I started I could tell that it was going to be what I imagined it to be.

The striped bass mosaic laid out in reverse, orderly tesserae.

Once I knew that it would work, I laid it out in reverse, adhering the pieces onto the paper with Elmer’s glue, face down. I won’t actually see what it looks like until the day we install it and remove the paper. That’s actually a lot of fun, the first time you see it- often at a point where you can’t do much to change it!

Three Little Birds

I’ve been working on the web site for a while now and keep stumbling on fun things to post. This is how I’m spending my lockdown. These three images are mosaic birds that are part of the Garden Guardian I call “Three Little Birds.” This was before they were grouted in place.

Detail of jay from Three Little Birds Garden Guardian

The Blue Jay is made of Blue Bahia from Brazil.

Detail of finch from Three Little Birds Garden Guardian

Maybe my favorite bird. The stone is a yellow travertine that I think is from Iran.

Detail of cardinal from Three Little Birds Garden Guardian

I make a lot of cardinals. It’s fun to work with red stones.

Garden Guardian

The finished piece.

The Mosaic Home Office

Tools and supplies for the Stay-Home-Stay-Safe mosaic office

As Buncombe County and then the whole state of North Carolina has moved into a Stay-Home, Stay-Safe directive, I have brought some of my mosaic workshop home. It’s not ideal, but it can keep me busy and productive, which is the key to keeping me sane. I will still have access to my shop space, but this seemed like a good way to increase my social distancing (already well developed even before the Covid-19 crisis) and keep on task. I’ll be working on the next Norfolk mosaic, called the Care-Takers as well as some of my smaller pieces. Yup, I’m probably going to make some birds!

Stone and cutting station for the Stay-Home-Stay-Safe mosaic office