Phoenix Rising: Photographs of the Finished Piece

Completed Stone Mosaic: Phoenix Rising

Huge thanks to photographer Dave Chance for getting these excellent photographs of the recently completed stone mosaic in a school in Norfolk, VA. Phoenix Rising is part of a series of six mosaics Hammerhead is making for schools in this area as part of a public art commission. You can peruse Dave’s portfolio here.

© 2018 Dave Chance

 

Completed Phoenix Stone Mosaic

© 2018 Dave Chance

Completed Phoenix Stone Mosaic

Head of the Phoenix © 2018 Dave Chance

Stone pattern © 2018 Dave Chance

Phoenix Stone Mosaic: Coming Soon!

This phoenix stone mosaic is in progress as part of a public art installation in public schools in Norfolk, VA. The Hammerhead crew leaves this week to install it there.

The Phoenix Head

phoenix stone mosaic

The original concept for this artwork was a Great Blue Phoenix. Equally inspired by the rugged beauty of the great blue heron and the strength and persistent lives of the mythical Phoenix, the color theme was to be blue and gray. But I ran into a problem finding blue stone! Always expensive, there are very few types of truly blue stone that are made into tiles and sold in the United States. So I had to pivot…
Now the Phoenix is just a Phoenix. I think you can see the hint of the heron in this image of the Phoenix’s head.

The Workshop

phoenix stone mosaic

This table is my happy place. I have spent many hours here cutting templates and tracing patterns on to stone. Sometimes it’s hard to find a place to work because there’s so many tile choices on the table. A large map of the whole mosaic hangs over the table and is a useful reference. Hanging over the map is the phoenix tail, awaiting stone choices and cutting.

Design Reversal

phoenix stone mosaic

After we finished cutting the piece, we started laying it out. In a manner common to mosaics, we are laying it face down. Once we have established that we like the fits between stones, we are going to glue it to the paper. Then, we’re going to epoxy mesh to the back. Instead of 500 individual stones, we will have approximately 20 panels of stone to install.

Phoenix Detail

phoenix stone mosaic

By the nature of this process, we have never seen the completed mosaic all together in one place. I guess I can see how that would be a liability, but I prefer to think of it as a opportunity. It will be exciting to see it on the wall, for the first time, with the kids who it is for. It will be a surprise for all of us!

Phoenix Stone Mosaic: Feathers

phoenix stone mosaic

We have been calling these shapes scallops. They are a main element of the wing design. I made no effort to arrange the colors, preferring to let randomness take its course.

See some completed stone mosaics in this series in Norfolk, VA here and here.

Montreat Big Wall

 

Montreat Big Wall

Montreat Big Wall almost 20 years after completion

Montreat Big Wall

I helped build this wall when I worked with Fred Lashley at the Unturned Stone. We built it 18 years ago and it remains the tallest drystone wall I have ever worked on. At its tallest, it is 7 feet high. Made mostly fieldstone from Maggie Valley, we supplemented with Hoopers Creek, which shows up as the rusty colored faces in the pictures.
The wall is in Montreat and I like to visit when I make my way out to Black Mountain. It is an impressive structure. It looks largely the same now as it did then, except for the glorious patina of lichen. I don’t think I will ever build another wall so tall.

Codes? What Codes?!

These days there are building codes that limit the height of a retaining wall. In a residential setting, like this, the max is 48 inches tall. Anything taller, must be signed and sealed by a licensed engineer. In general, engineers don’t love stone walls. They like things that are consistent and predictable and more easily quantified than the crazy ecology of a stacked wall. The human elements– care, intention, and experience – that the builders put into the structure cannot be factored into mathematical formulae.
Drystone walls have fallen out of favor in preference for segmented block, prefabricated panels, and poured concrete structures. They are all the same and more easily analyzed. It’s an apt metaphor for the state of modern society, our blind devotion to conformity and standardization.
When building with prefabricated predictable materials, it matters much less if the people building care at all about what they’re doing. And if you can subtract care from the process, you can subtract cost. It’s always cheaper if you don’t give a shit. Until later…

Montreat Big Wall

Montreat Big Wall – a close-up

Whether or not the same codes were in effect 18 years ago, I don’t know; I just worked on the wall and was not much involved in the process that brought the project to be. I know it was subcontract work, for a landscape guy in Black Mountain with a stellar reputation and very organized and disciplined approach to his work. If anyone was likely to get the necessary approval, it would have been him. To my eye, the wall has not moved at all and I see no evidence of it having needed repairs for the last 18 years.

What Makes it Stay Up?

I get a version of this question quite frequently, especially when people discover that we usually work without mortar or concrete. The answer is amazingly complex, but I generally begin with a very simple answer: gravity and skill.
I’ve already mentioned how important care is in the creation of a structure like this. Care plus practice equals skill.
The rules that govern the construction of a drystone wall are simple and robust: two over one and one over two, end them in, maximum contact – minimum movement, batter back, the top must sit over the bottom, weather always wins. From the simple rules emerge an infinite number of possibilities. Bird flocking is often used as the epitome of the principles of emergence – simple rules lead to complex (and beautiful) results. A drystone wall is another stunning example.

Two Over One: One Over Two.

This is a very simple principle that you must cross your joints. Tall vertical lines in masonry construction– often called running joints – weaken the structure significantly. Crossing joints – imagine the traditional running bond of the most common brick wall – creates a network. That web of dynamic forces is fundamental to what holds a wall together.

End Them In

Another simple rule, stones should run deep into the wall. Sometimes, in an effort to conserve their rock pile, people will use the long side of a stone as the face. This is called tracing and it makes for a shallow structure and therefore a weak wall. If you have a stone that shaped like a french fry, run it long into the wall.
In the picture below of the wall being constructed, there’s a guy who’s not me or Fred. I think his name was Brian and he wanted to be a stonemason. After a little while he decided he wanted to be a building inspector or maybe a social worker. It was probably a wise choice.

Montreat Big Wall

Montreat Big Wall under construction

Maximum Contact – Minimum Movement

The next stone you put in should make as much contact as possible with the stones that are already in the wall. And so on and so on.
One of the great attributes of a dry stone wall is its flexibility. It has the capacity to move and therefore respond to environmental factors. The day-to-day expansion and contraction that comes with being heated by sunlight and cooled by frost may cause minuscule movements in a wall but not crack it apart. It is not supposed to be a rigid structure. Inflexibility fails in walls, as in life.
Minimal movement is a great attribute. On the other hand, stones that pivot from side to side on a single point cause trouble. Maximum contact, minimum movement is where practice becomes most important to a wall builder.

Batter Back

A good dry stone wall has a slight backwards slope to its face, called the batter. Imagine the wall leaning into the hillside which it is intended to retain. This strengthens the wall and gives it leverage against the slope behind it.

The Top Must Sit Over The Bottom

Lean back, but not too far. The top of the wall, where your caps rest, must be sitting squarely over the bottom of the wall. It is a common beginners mistake to lean the wall back too steeply. A very steep batter on the face will have the top of the wall sitting over soft soil backfill instead of the hearty structure of the wall. The weight of the cap will compress the soil. The path of least resistance for that soil will be forward; it will blow out the bottom of the wall, collapsing the whole structure. This is where the concept of gravity really comes into play with the construction of the wall. With practice and care, gravity is a great ally.

Montreat Big Wall

Montreat Big Wall almost 20 years after completion

Weather Always Wins

Fundamentally, all construction is an attempt to resist the forces of weather. And while weather is not a singular force, in my experience, water is the prime mover.
Almost all of the structures we build live their lives in the weather. We have to constantly be conscious of what happens when it rains. Where does the water go? Where does it collect? What happens when it freezes? What happens when it builds up or when it moves the earth?

With this particular wall, so tall and at the bottom of such a steep bank, managing water was a primary concern. We lined the cut bank behind the wall with a filter fabric that allows water to pass through, but holds back the soil. In addition to keeping the backfill of the wall from getting silted up, it prevents red clay from washing through the wall and staining the face.
This wall is also very deep or thick, depending on how you want to look at it. Behind the face there is an enormous amount of ugly stone, chips, and gravel. Rain water runs through it and does not linger long enough to build up hydrostatic pressure, the force that pushes over so many rigid, impermeable walls. There are no drain pipes behind the wall, because the whole wall functions as a drain.

Eighteen years and counting.

Black Mountain Stone Wall and Steps

Black Mountain Stone Wall and Steps

Black Mountain Stone Wall and Steps

Crew members from left to right: Jonathan Frederick, Tony Costa, & Michael Sellars


Written by Marc Archambault

We spent about a month this summer building steps around a recently completed modern house in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Designed by architect Scott Huebner of Brickstack Architects, the house has majestic views from its steep lot. Our primary job was to provide access for the homeowners so that they can tend their gardens and landscape. Really it was more like backcountry trail construction than our typical more finessed style of work. However, the real fun was when we got to replace a very sloppily built boulder wall at the driveway.

To hear it described, the wall in question was a last-minute add-on. It certainly looked very thrown together, with large gaps, no attention paid to bonding, and lots of gravel between the stones as if using ball bearings as a substitute for mortar. It was nothing to look at, for sure. Adding insult to injury, other tradespeople had mistreated it. Someone had smeared a lot of polyurethane on a few stones, presumably cleaning their brushes. There were similar concrete stains in other locations. All in all, it was a very ugly wall.

So we took it down and rebuilt it. I would say it’s built in the style of our typical walls, but at an uncommon scale. Some of these pieces weigh over 1000 pounds and it required an excavator – a small one – to help move the material into place. The stones with the stains were either removed or turned around to hide the mess. We used hammer and chisel and- as appropriate- the big saw to sweeten the fits and to ensure good bonding. The previous wall had no attention paid to batter or a clean line to the face of the whole wall. We took care of that and the results are pleasing.

I should have done a before and after post, but the original wall so ugly I never thought to take a picture of it. If I find a picture, I will surely add it.
To me, true craft is about caring. The devil is in the details.

Black Mountain Stone Wall and Steps

Photo by Jonathan Frederick

Black Mountain Stone Wall and Steps

Photo by Jonathan Frederick

Black Mountain Stone Wall and Steps

Crewmember Tony takes a rest on the newly completed wall.


Special thanks to Fred Lashley for operating the excavator on this project.

Natural Stone Mosaic Yellow Wakerobin

Natural Stone Mosaic Yellow Wakerobin

natural stone mosaic yellow

Mosaic Commission

Natural Stone Mosaic Yellow Wakerobin was commissioned as a Mother’s Day gift for a family in Maryville, Tennessee. Named after the species of trillium featured on the piece, it now resides in a niche on a brick fireplace. A conversation with the Mom to be celebrated inspired the design. A heart survivor, she loves the mountains and is devoted to her three kids. The heart shaped leaves of the trillium, which grows wild in these mountains, seemed like a perfect match. And the white dove very much fits the family’s values and aspirations.

natural stone mosaic yellow

Dove and Trillium detail

Mosaic Design

I tried a new technique when I was creating the Trillium Mosaic. Once all the pieces were cut, I flipped them over and placed them on a reversed template. Since I take all of my pencil sketches into a digital space to create my patterns, it’s very easy to reverse the design and have it printed as a mirror image. Working backwards or upside down like this is a very common technique for mosaic artists, but it was the first time that I’d ever tried it.

One immediate advantage is that you can see how well the pieces are actually cut and make quick adjustments. Once I had the fits as I liked them, I applied fiberglass mesh. I used a special epoxy that I trust with stone to adhere the mesh. In the picture you can see tons of little scraps resting on the fiberglass as it sets up. Many mosaic artists will take the piece in that form and bring it for installation. I felt like my pieces of stone were too heavy for that, so I applied it to the backer board right there on the table. The fiberglass mesh was to prevent the stones from moving while I set it.

Mosaic Fabrication

Piecing together the dove

The images below show the two color options for the petals of the trillium. I sent these photos to the customer and they made the call between purple or yellow.

Whoops! I mixed my thinset too wet and then got impatient. As a result some of it used through the joints (pictured below). When I flipped it over, it was well adhered but still green, so I was able to scrape the excess mortar out. It was my penance for impatience.

The mosaic with mortar

natural stone mosaic yellow

All grouted – the dove’s eye is a tiny black stone marble.

Yellow Wakerobin detail

Mosaic Installation

natural stone mosaic yellow

 

Check out some other natural stone mosaics completed by Hammerhead Stoneworks:

Birds of Every Feather

Praying Mantis

The Boy with Antlers

Birds of Every Feather

Natural Stone Mosaic Birds of Every Feather: Fabrication Process

natural stone mosaic birds

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

This collection of images is from the fabrication process of natural stone mosaic Birds of Every Feather, which was designed for Ocean View Elementary School in Norfolk, VA. It is the first in a series of six mosaics I will make for schools in this area as part of a public art commission.

natural stone mosaic birds

American goldfinch, white-breasted nuthatch, American robin

natural stone mosaic birds

American robin, red-bellied woodpecker, mourning dove

As with all of my mosaic work, I fabricated this at my shop before bringing it to the installation site. Making the birds was so much fun! The background, not so much. The eyes of the birds are either glass marbles or small pebbles. In order to save epoxy, I would do several eyes all at once, leading to this weird-looking photograph.

natural stone mosaic birds

The little brown bird is the Carolina wren. While building this at the shop, a Carolina wren built a nest on one of the shop’s storage shelves.

Read more about Birds of Every Feather here and here.

Stone Inlay Process

Stone Inlay Process – Great Blue Heron

I’ve had this piece of stone at the shop for over a year. It was cut from a bench we installed in the Memorial Garden of First Baptist Church Asheville. I really liked the color and surface texture and was waiting for a project to suggest itself – and along came this blue heron stone inlay. I envisioned it becoming a Garden Guardian like Coyote, a piece we recently designed and installed in Atlanta.

Stone Inlay Process

The drawn pattern of the stone inlay

Soapstone is used to create the lines of the general shape, while a Sharpie is used for the exact contour. (Soapstone blows off when the grinder hits the rock, but the Sharpie stays in place.)

The Cutaway

The heron is a challenging shape. The point of the beak as well as the curve of the neck were both difficult to get just right, so I used pretty much every tool at my disposal. In order to use a small radius blade, I even got a little Dremel tile saw, which was a bit helpful, but overall lacked the needed power. I used a hammer and a very sharp lettering chisel to get the points as crisp as possible.

Stone inlay process

The stone cutaway

The Rubbing

Once the design is cut into the stone, I do a rubbing of sorts to get the contours on paper. I can remember doing this with my mom as a kid in the historic cemeteries of Rhode Island where I’m from. While never as exact as I want it to be, it’s usually pretty close. I drop my shapes onto this and then cut them out.

Stone Inlay Process

The shape rubbed on paper

Design Pattern

As you can see from the countless scribbles, I go through a lot of ideas. (And that’s after having drawn to design before I even started.) What looks good on paper and a small scale might not work in large scale. Due to the complex design of this project, after I cut it I had to reassemble it so I could figure out how the pieces fit together.

Stone Inlay Process

The drawn pattern. Note: nails only there to keep it from blowing away

Starting the Inlay

I knew I wanted the body and wings to be blue Bahia. This is a super expensive tile, but the color is astounding!

Stone Inlay Process

Starting the inlay with blue Bahia tile

The Heron’s Gray Neck

I think the scientist in me got a little too interested in biological accuracy. A great blue heron’s is more gray than blue, and I wanted to reflect that in the inlay. (And yes, I understand that even their wings aren’t that blue!) I switched from the blue Bahia tile to a gray stone for the neck. While I like the gray stone, I didn’t really like the effect.

Stone Inlay Process

The heron’s gray neck

The Finished Product

This is a little more like it. The body, neck, and head are all blue, while the beak is a particularly yellow type of travertine. The crest is black, and the legs are a marble from Tennessee.

Stone inlay process

The finished product

I had to cut the legs twice as the first ones were so snugly fit that a few grains of sand made a wedge between the legs and the stone, making it impossible to get them out without breaking them. I ended up cutting several of the stone of this finished stone inlay more than once.

Frog Mosaic at North Carolina Arboretum

Frog Mosaic at NC Arboretum Hammerhead Stoneworks
Frog Mosaic at NC Arboretum

The North Carolina Arboretum commissioned Hammerhead to design and build a stone mosaic in their stream garden. The stream garden is located immediately adjacent to the Arboretum’s signature quilt garden.

Frog Mosaic at North Carolina Arboretum Hammerhead Stoneworks

The frog mosaic lines the bottom of a long, man-made water feature and references to two large bullfrogs living in the water feature. Often times they hang out in the storage tank which houses the water pump. The arboretum staff as well as the many school groups led through the garden know the frogs well. Known as ‘Hamburger’ and ‘French Fry,’ the beloved bullfrogs often made their kerlunking sounds as we worked nearby.

While most of the stone is regional, the tympanic membrane is a scrap of countertop material. The eye is a Mexican beach pebble.

Frog Mosaic North Carolina Arboretum Hammerhead Stoneworks

Sandstone Path with Landings

Sandstone Path with Landings

path with landings hammerhead stoneworks

This path was designed and installed for the entryway of a house of modern design in Alexander, North Carolina. It is 4 feet wide and is comprised of boulders found and selected around the site as well as Tennessee sandstone (also used here and here).

In addition to helping to maintain a comfortable walking rhythm, the steps and landings are spaced to run with the slope. This was essential in order to avoid excessive excavation and/or build up.

sandstone path with landings hammerhead stoneworks