Stone Mosaic in Process

“The Care Takers” mosaic during installation.

This is a picture I took a few weeks ago, while we were installing “The Care Takers” mosaic at Ocean View Elementary School in Norfolk. All the colorful bits of plastic are shims, meant to hold the stones in position while the thinset mortar is curing. We used a version of the paper-face method, where the mosaic is glued to paper and installed in larger sections, while still adhered to the paper. So that’s what all the little bits of white on the mosaic are, paper that hasn’t yet been removed. You might notice that some of the scales- the tesserae- on the bottom part of the striped bass fell off. There were a dozen or more I had to place individually.

Mackerel Mosaic

A relief sculptural element of a mackerel as part of the “The Care Takers” mosaic.


“The Care Takers” is a natural stone mosaic installed at Ocean View Elementary School in Norfolk, Virginia. It is part of my public art commission to create mosaics for the elementary schools there. This mosaic features a strong message on environmental stewardship, inspired by the school’s strong hands-on science programs, including aquaculture and water quality issues.

The Atlantic Mackerel (Scomber scombrus) is commonly found in the North Atlantic. When I was growing up, shoals of them would turn up along the Rhode Island coast during the summer. We called them tinker mackerel, which I think was a reference to their size. Honestly, I can’t say that this particular piece of the mosaic is a great representation of the physiology of the species, but I still like it. In fact, this is one of my favorite things that I’ve ever made out of stone.

I don’t really do much sculptural work. It’s not something my clients need a whole lot of! I wanted this mosaic to have some relief elements and so this idea evolved. I had one scrap of this green stone, which is just so beautiful. I don’t know what it is called or where it came from, either geologically or how this small scrap ended up in my possession. The fish barely fit on the scrap. I did all of the work with the angle grinder, using a variety of blades to cut, shape, and polish the piece. The eye is a tiny black pebble, epoxied in place.

Detail from “The Care Takers” mosaic

The Stone Vault, A Communal Urn

A shop presentation of the Communal Urn, a stone vault in process.

Last Friday, I hosted a client at my shop to discuss an unusual project I am working on. A local church has commissioned me to create a communal urn, a stone vault for the cremated remains of members of their congregation. I am drawn to these types of unusual projects and I’m grateful that such work finds me.

I set up my “presentation“ in the lower shop – the same place I hosted last fall’s studio tour. In fact, in the background of the picture you can see “The Boy With Antlers“ mosaic, which has been hanging there for almost a year now.

To the middle left of the photo is a full-scale print out of the vault. It’s just over 4 feet tall and 42 inches across. I am a big fan of full scale templates, at least when contemplating something new or unusual. It’s easier to critique the design at full size. About halfway up the urn there is an inscription, noted in my drawing with scribbles. While the exact quote has not been completely nailed down yet, the basic concept is that the inscription is in a single piece of stone, which I am calling the donut. I’ve already had that piece fabricated by my friends at Tennessee Marble Company. It’s resting on the pallet just behind the poster. The donut hole has been cut out; the Styrofoam was to prevent it from moving during transit. Originally a scrap piece, I believe the donut hole will now factor into the completed vault, possibly as the cap.

To the right there is a pallet of Tenneessee sandstone. You can’t really tell from this picture, but those pieces have a 21 inch radius on them. Those will make up the body of the vault. We have been making these pieces here and there at the shop, when we have a few idle moments. We’ll need a bunch more, but it’s a good start.

In the background, stretched out on the floor is a poster with the possible inscription laid out in multiple typefaces. It’s 11 feet long! That’s a lot a letter carving. In the foreground are some samples and even a comparison between sandblasting and letter carving. I’m excited that they are going to let me carve the inscription. I am not a super skilled letter carver, but it just seems appropriate in this context for this inscription to be done by hand. This will make me a better letter carver. Or completely insane.

Pufferfish Mosaic

“The Care Takers” mosaic features a channeled whelk and a pufferfish.

“The Care Takers” is a natural stone mosaic installed at Ocean View Elementary School in Norfolk, Virginia. It is part of my public art commission to create mosaics for the elementary schools there. This mosaic features a strong message on environmental stewardship, inspired by the school’s strong hands-on science programs, including aquaculture and water quality issues.

The Northern Pufferfish (Sphoeroides maculatus) is an unusual species that can puff up when threatened, expanding its body which is covered with tiny spines. According to wikipedia, in the Chesapeake Bay area they are known as sugar toads and are eaten as a delicacy. Despite my numerous visits to the area for this mosaic project, this has never turned up on any menus…

Also pictured is a Channeled Whelk (Busycotypus canaliculatus), a common mollusk up and down the East Coast. I was an avid beachcomber when I was a kid and I would find their shells and egg cases washed up on the shore all the time. Under ideal circumstances, the egg cases would be dried out and I would cut them open to find dozens of tiny whelk shells not much larger than grains of sand. Full grown, a whelk can be eight inches long.

Most of the ‘ocean’ material is bluestone from Pennsylvania. I mixed in a few pieces of Blue Macaubas, a ridiculously expensive and gorgeous stone from Brazil. It’s gray with threads of bright blue in it. It’s the rare stone that seems to glow from some kind of internal light. I think of it as a marble, but it is often identified as a quartzite.

An Old Wall

A drystone wall in an Asheville Garden

We built this wall seven or eight years ago in North Asheville, for our friend and colleague, Mardi Letson of Gardens By Mardi. She is designing a new phase of gardens and construction in this yard, so I was there this past week to look at some new stone walls and pathways. I took a couple of pictures of the original work. Stonework is one of the few that get more beautiful as they age.

A weathered drystone wall

A drystone walkway with a heart-shaped stone inlaid.

Here’s a link to the walkway back when we built it.

Green Sea Turtle

A Green Sea Turtle mosaic with a moon jelly.

“The Care Takers” is a natural stone mosaic installed at Ocean View Elementary School in Norfolk, Virginia. It is part of my public art commission to create mosaics for the elementary schools there. This mosaic features a strong message on environmental stewardship, inspired by the school’s strong hands-on science programs, including aquaculture and water quality issues.

While not common in the Chesapeake Bay, the Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) does visit those waters in the summer and fall. There a handful of nesting sites along the Virginia coast as well. Last summer, I got to watch a turtle nest being opened up, while we were vacationing on the South Carolina coast. Once a nest has hatched- on its own accord- it is then dug up by trained volunteers. This is done as a research project- to gather info on things like fertility rates, clutch sizes, and numbers of hatchlings- but it also uncovers baby sea turtles that have failed to launch for whatever reason. My family and I, with dozens of other onlookers, stood on the beach as those tiny turtles were released and made their dash into the waves. It was a remarkable sight, one that evokes memories of the many nature shows I loved as a kid.

My colleague Jonathan Frederick made this sea turtle. He used serpentine for the shell. It has a leathered finish, which gives it an added patina of age and rugged life. The turtle’s head and body is made of a ming green marble called Chartreuse. It featured heavily in the Camp Allen Dragon. I guess this is our reptile color palette.

Below the sea turtle is a Moon Jelly (Aurelia aurita). These are common along the east coast and as it turns out, really kind of weird. For example, the four rings in their body? Gonads. Some of them grow younger, rather than older. These factoids are making me wonder if wikipedia is the best source for biological information…

Hooded Merganser

Hooded merganser, part of “The Care Takers” mosaic.

“The Care Takers” is a natural stone mosaic installed at Ocean View Elementary School in Norfolk, Virginia. It is part of my public art commission to create mosaics for the elementary schools there. This mosaic features a strong message on environmental stewardship, inspired by the school’s strong hands-on science programs, including aquaculture and water quality issues.

The Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) is a diving duck that feeds on fish, crabs and other undersea creatures. This is the male merganser, with his telltale colorful plumage and large crest. This particular piece was cut by former Hammerhead Brian Holda. Interestingly, deforestation has had a significant impact on this seafaring duck. They nest in the cavities in trees and require mature forests to provide suitable sites to raise their young.

Horseshoe Crab Stone Mosaic

Horseshoe crab stone mosaic as part of “The Care Takers”


“The Care Takers” is a natural stone mosaic installed at Ocean View Elementary School in Norfolk, Virginia. It is part of my public art commission to create mosaics for the elementary schools there. This mosaic features a strong message on environmental stewardship, inspired by the school’s strong hands-on science programs, including aquaculture and water quality issues.

The Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus) is a resident of the Chesapeake Bay and an important part of the ecosystem. They are odd looking creatures, more closely related to scorpions and spiders than crabs. They are sometimes called living fossils because they first appeared in the fossil record an astounding 450 million years ago.

These horseshoe crabs are made of travertine. The eyes are made of Petoskey stone, a fossilized coral from Michigan.

There’s also a sand dollar in one of these images, made from a marble from Tennessee called Quaker Gray.

Horseshoe crab & sand dollar stone mosaic

We did another mosaic for a Norfolk School that also featured a sand dollar, amde of the same stone. This one- shown below- was almost three feet in diameter.

This stone sand dollar features relief elements that protrude forward from the wall as part of “The Tiny Kingdom” mosaic. Image ©Dave Chance Photography

“The Care Takers” Stone Mosaic

“The Care Takers” is a large scale natural stone mosaic at Ocean View Elementary School in Norfolk, Virginia.

Called “The Care Takers”, the OceanView mosaic is inspired by the school’s strong connection to the Chesapeake Bay and the surrounding environs. The school runs an amazing hands-on program that engages kids in caring for the maritime ecosystem and developing aquaculture projects. Older students guide younger learners through the life cycle of the oyster and the process of analyzing water quality. Seeing kids who care, and a school that supports them, gives me great hope for the future.

I wanted this mosaic to celebrate the students and their commitment to environmental stewardship and scientific inquiry. It’s inspiring to see young people taking on leadership roles and teaching other students about our responsibility to take better care of our beautiful blue planet. The mosaic features two students, one of whom is seen placing an oyster into the bay. The mosaic includes several different sea creatures, a nod to the importance and grandeur of biodiversity. The Chesapeake Bay plays an integral role as the primary breeding ground of the striped bass, which were decimated by overfishing and pollution in the 70’s and 80’s. Environmental groups and governmental agencies worked together to change water quality and fishing regulations, helping the dwindling populations to slowly recover. A larger striper featured prominently in the mosaic honors that small, but important success in environmental stewardship.

Mosaic Ready!

The next mosaic for my ongoing public art project in Norfolk, Virginia is ready to go. Last week we finished the last details and prepped it for installation. We adhered a fiberglas mesh to the back of the mosaic- which was already laying face down. We then divided it into ‘sensible’ sections. That means smaller pieces that are not too big, not too small, without too many weird edges shapes. The idea being that these smaller sections are easier to manage and apply to the wall.

“The Care Takers” mosaic being separated into pieces for freight and installation.

We track the shape of each piece on a map of the overall design. Each piece is assigned a number- which don’t really correspond to any installation sequence- and that is listed on the map as well, making it easier to find whatever pieces are next to go onto the wall while we are hanging it.

“The Care Takers” mosaic map which tells us what piece goes where for when we start installing.

Once sectioned, the pieces are laid out on styrofoam and stacked onto a pallet. This is how they will make the ride to Norfolk. This time we are leaving the paper on, as a travel precaution and because our fiberglas adhesion system leaves a lot to be desired. Once the pieces are on the wall, we’ll remove the paper. We’ve got a steam cleaner that seems (so far, in small test runs) to take the paper off quickly and with a minimum of water.

“The Care Takers” mosaic being prepped for freighting to Norfolk for installation.