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

Mud Season Current Project

I don’t like to share pictures of new projects in winter and spring because the stone work is always surrounded by fields of mud. And it has been very rainy of late. So to enjoy these images, you’ll have to mentally enhance the scenes with your favorite flowers. This is the first part of a large project we are doing in the town of Biltmore Forest. We are doing two large paths with steps and walls to provide access to the expansive backyard.

Stone pathway and steps through a hilly yard

The walls and step risers are made of Hooper’s Creek and the walking surfaces are Pennsylvania stone. The walls and paving pathways are laid dry, but the steps are mortared, which allows us the ability to create overhangs and create a more formal look.

Stone steps adjacent to a retaining wall.

Creepy-eyeless bunny in front of a lovely drystone wall.


The weird creep bunny with no eyes is a dog toy that haunts the job site. He is generally a benevolent, if soggy, presence.

Hand Railing Installed

A new hand rail by Lynda Metcalfe frames a short stack of steps leading up to a patio.


Last year we built this patio and set of steps for a home in West Asheville. The project was designed and overseen by our friend Mardi Letson of Gardens By Mardi. She’s also responsible for the lovely containers. This week our friend Lynda Metcalfe installed this ornate hand rail at the edge of the patio and along the steps. Lynda is the blacksmith responsbile for the beautiful metalwork on the Ironwoods sign.

A new hand rail by Lynda Metcalfe frames a short stack of steps leading up to a patio.

Stone Dragonfly Mosaic Patio

The stone dragonfly mosaic patio installed and surrounded by our traditional stone paving.

The transformational aspects of the dragonfly had great significance for this client, who works as a Sacred Path doula. That means she works with individuals at the end of their lives and their families. The dragonfly, always a meaningful totem in her life, took on even greater significance as she started working with people who were reckoning with death. As she explained to me, the dragonfly and the larva can’t communicate with each other, they don’t know what they once were, or what they might become. The metaphor for the end of life is powerful. My own fascination with dragonflies is more mundane; they are beautiful and I am amazed at how the larva and the mature form are both amazing predators, in two entirely different environments. The larvae live underwater, stalking the bottom of ponds and creeks eating insects, tadpoles and tiny fish. The dragonfly itself catches its prey in midair. In midair!!! What other creature is master of two states of matter like that?

The ring is five across in diameter and the wings extend about six feet across. I like the way the wings break free of the ring, visually and metaphorically. Honestly, I love almost any project where we have to think metaphorically to achieve the greatest outcome.

Ariel view of the dragonfly mosaic in the patio.

Our friend Jason Hanna of B.B. Barns took these drone images of the whole project. It looks like a piece of exercise equipment called a kettlebell. It’s actually an infinity walking loop. The client practices walking meditation and wanted a path that she could follow. As you can see from the images, the space is limited. The loop idea, developed by the client and Jason, was a perfect solution. When walking the loop, you trace a circle around the dragonfly and onto the path. Of course, the dragonfly side can just be used as a regular patio hang-out space too. I hope to have another drone shot when the whole thing grows in.

A drone image of the dragonfly patio.

The dragonfly mosaic patio medallion in the back of my pickup truck.

I love the deconstructed view of a mosaic, loaded into the truck and ready for installation. The wings are a marble from Georgia called Etowah. The red body and eyes are scraps salvaged from a countertop fabricator. I don’t know anything about their origins. Pennsylvania bluestone makes up the background. The surrounding ring is Absolute Black granite, unfinished side up, giving it a grayer appearance and providing more texture than the slick, shiny side. The patio itself is sandstone from Tennessee.

Recent Project: Pennsylvania Stone with Hooper’s Creek

A set of Pennsylvania stone step treads supported by Hooper’s Creek risers in an Asheville front yard.

Earlier this winter we completed this dramatic re-imagining of the front yard of an Asheville home. This project was another collaboration with local landscaping company B.B. Barns. I call this a ‘Public Craft’ project. Located at a busy corner in a prime dog walking neighborhood, everyday we spoke with several passers by about our work. Perhaps some of those contacts will become future projects, but more important to me is the chance to share the craft with people. Since I started Hammerhead, I’ve believed that the best marketing I can do is educating people- customers or not- about the craft. I try to share the values of drystone construction and help people understand what good work is. Even if they don’t hire us, I hope they have some new insights to help make informed decisions. Bad work damages the standing of the craft, good work enhances it.

These step treads are Pennsylvania stone, with risers of Hooper’s Creek, a local granitic gneiss. The lower landing contains an engraved stone that was already on site, hidden in a grassy corner of the yard. This home was once the parsonage for the First Baptist Church, where we built the labyrinth a few years ago.

Native North Carolina stone used as a drystone retaining wall in Asheville.

Dry laid retaining walls flank the steps. Made of Hooper’s Creek, these are my favorite kind of wall, even though they are the most intensive to build. Rare is the stone that arrives to the site ready to go into the wall. We spoend hours sculpting useful blocks out of the material. We mix some of the Pennsylvania into the wall; it adds color and offers some helpful thicknesses that are hard to get from the Hooper’s.

Pennsylvania stone used as a drystone paving surface.

A long walkway extends from the street to the front entrance. This semi-circular landing opens up to the front steps. This is Pennsylvania stone, what they call ‘full-color’- a blend of blues and greens, with some browns and rusty bits in there for good measure.