Top Ten Stonework Photos

Top Ten Stonework Photos

Photographs are an important part of my stonework. They are essential tools in sharing my work with others. A strong portfolio drives business.

Photographs are part of my process as well. I take pictures throughout a project. Studying them later- that same day, or months on- helps me troubleshoot problems and see where potential lies. They show flaws and places to grow as well as the tiny little details that make all the difference.

Photographs act as my memory. I don’t have any stonework of my own. Much of my work is hidden in backyards and hard to get to. My archives- a disorganized mess of over 20,000 images- help me see what I’ve done. This helps me keep things in perspective; in the depths of winter it’s a nice reminder that the weather will someday break and we can get back to making things.

What follows are my favorite ten images from the first ten years of Hammerhead Stoneworks. These are not the best pictures or the ones that make up the strongest portfolio. These are the photographs that speak to me of the process and the materials and why I love what I do. Click on the titles to read the story behind each of the top ten stonework photos.

John’s Exploded Mosaic

Top Ten Stonework Photos

This might be my favorite image of the last ten years. It’s a memorial mosaic I made, resting in the back of my truck ready to be brought to Riverside Cemetery for installation. There’s something about the exploded, expanded view that I really enjoy. It doesn’t hurt that it’s in the back of my favorite old truck, which now rests dead in the driveway. Residual bright blue spray paint pokes through seams. The name plate at the bottom was carved by me. It’s not at all expertly done done but I was proud of the accomplishment. The family decided to add the dates of John’s birth and death, which wouldn’t fit on this piece. I cut a new stone and had it engraved. I may still have that nameplate somewhere at the shop.

Feathers & Floors

Top Ten Stonework Photos

Twenty years ago Kristin I took an off-season trip to Italy. I had just started stone work and was mesmerized by the craft on display throughout the country. The floors in Venice, especially at Basilica San Marco, were breathtaking and completely changed the way I thought about stone. Their color palettes were bold and clashing, their patterns chaotic and busy, and yet the end result was endlessly fascinating and beautiful. My pursuit of mosaic goes back to the moment I first saw those floors. This small section of the Phoenix Rising mosaic reminds me of those floors. It is a thread- however modest it might be–that connects my humble pursuits to the master craftsman of that bygone age.

Textures

Top Ten Stonework Photos

When I take pictures of my work for my portfolio, I always have to be reminded to show the contacts surrounding the finished piece. Future customers want to see how the wall interacts with the landscape. They want to see how the patio looks with tables and chairs. But I am always drawn to the close-ups, to the images that explore the stone and the stone alone.

This particular image is from my first public art commission”The Blue Spiral” in Gainesville Florida. This shot was taken in the shop during the fabrication process. I love the textures in the tight lines. In this image I saw the potential of the idea being realized.

Frogger

I made a mosaic for the North Carolina Arboretum. It lines the floor of a water feature and includes native species like this bullfrog. As is often the case, my favorite photograph is early in the process, when I recognize that the idea will work. I love the colors here. Most of the stone is regional and in its natural state. The tympanic membrane is a highly polished scrap of marble salvaged from a company that makes countertops.

GreenMan at Rest
Top Ten Stonework Photos

There are so many better pictures of the GreenMan mosaic, Hammerhead’s first large scale wall piece, but this is a favorite. I took this picture at the shop, while we were fabricating. The whole face is there except the eyes, which went through several iterations before I got them right. Even without the eyes, I could tell that this was going to work. This was a crazy time for Hammerhead; GreenMan was built on top of the labyrinth at our shop.

Little Men

Top Ten Stonework Photos

This is a sentimental choice. I don’t love this wall- one of my first- but I do love those little dudes, who are not so little anymore.

Marbles Inlaid

Another shop shot, another moment when a weird idea came together. I had tried prototypes of this idea before, with limited success. Prototypes aren’t supposed to work, I guess. They’re give you the info you need for when you convince a customer to let you build something crazy, like a bench that’s supposed to look like it’s balanced on a bed of marbles.

Alien Landing Pad

Top Ten Stonework Photos

There’s not even any stone in this picture, but I still love it and wanted to include it in the top ten stonework photos. It’s the layout of a hexagonal folly that we built for clients in Biltmore Forest. When we were done, they were married there. I like the vivid colors. I discovered the secret to laying out a hexagon on Wikipedia. It involved aligning the centers of three circles with identical radii. The points where the circles kiss each other become the corners of the hexagon- whose sides will be the same as the radius used. This very simple and practical approach to geometry spurred an ongoing fascination with old school Islamic tile mosaics which are incredibly complex and are designed with only a compass and a straight line.

Labyrinth With Red Leaves

This one soothes me. It’s really the only portfolio-ish shot amongst the top ten stonework photos. It’s been my desktop wallpaper for months now.

Worshop Pegboard

Order is fleeting; chaos always wins. This was taken the day we hung pegboard in the shop. It’s been a mess ever since.

Bonus Image: Hovering Stone

Jonathan Frederick took this shot of me as we were installing 3000 pound chunks of granite at the entrance to the labyrinth. Bodie is running the crane as I escort the big guy to its new home.

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

Stone Mosaic “Life Drawing: The Tiny Kingdom”

Stone Mosaic “Life Drawing: The Tiny Kingdom”

Stone Mosaic Life Drawing: The Tiny Kingdom

This piece is called Life Drawing: The Tiny Kingdom. It is a natural stone mosaic that is over 37 feet long and 4 feet tall. Commissioned by the public art department of Norfolk, Virginia, the mosaic is located in the atrium of a new public school, Southside STEM Academy at Campostella.
Part of the design brief was to reflect the school’s status as a STEM environment. I was concerned that any technology I depicted in stone would likely be antiquated in a short time. So I went old school with a magnifying glass and pencil and paper.

Stone Mosaic Life Drawing: The Tiny Kingdom

Stone Mosaic Life Drawing: The Tiny Kingdom
The girl is holding a magnifying glass and studying a moon snail. Immediately behind her there’s a close-up of the spire of the same snail, contained in a circle, as if observed through the magnifying glass. Opposite her, a boy is drawing a cicada wing. Immediately behind him, in another circle, is a cicada. There are eight circles in total, each with a natural element that one might observe and draw exploring nature.

 

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

Phoenix Stone Mosaic

Phoenix Stone Mosaic

“Life Drawing: Phoenix Rising” is a 9.5 feet by 17.5 feet natural stone mosaic. It was completed in late October after four long, long days. It is installed at Richard Bowling Elementary School in Norfolk, Virginia. The mosaic is located in the main hallway of the school, near the entrance to the cafeteria and the gym and not far from the main office. It is part of a series of mosaics we are making as part of a public art project for the city of Norfolk. I have so much appreciation and respect for my crew whose commitment and craftsmanship made this possible. Thanks be to Fred Lashley, Jonathan Frederick and Tony Costa.

Click here for other mosaics in this series. Enjoy the details of this piece in the photos below.

phoenix stone mosaic

Phoenix Stone Mosaic

 

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.

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.

Water Feature, Stone Paths, Steps & Bench

Asheville stone masons Hammerhead Stoneworks recently completed this water feature with a natural stone bench, paths, drystone walls and steps.

Dry Stone Paths & Steps

This dry stone pathway connects the homeowner’s driveway with their favorite hangout spot, on their back deck. A single slab of sandstone provides an easy step up to the deck. The regular shape of the slab lends an air of formality to the entrance, sometimes used by guests. This serves as a counterpoint to the more natural looking stones that make up the adjacent steps, walls, water feature and bench.


The bench is found at the bottom of the water feature. It is very organic, a natural slab with a patina of lichen. The area is fairly shady and so I am hopeful that the lichen will survive. Two rugged boulders were topped and anchored in concrete to provide the bench supports.

Water Feature Before and After

 

This pair of images shows how we transformed this unused space. The drystone retaining wall at the bottom raised the overall grade. This allowed us to hide drainage pipes running from the house’s many downspouts. We used heavy duty solid white PVC pipe to extend the drain pipes. Though more expensive, these pipes have never failed me. Everytime I have dug up a black corrugated drain pipe it is either collapsed, perforated or clogged. Or all three. Next spring, once the plants have been chosen and given time to establish themselves, this will be a lovely view.
Click on the image above for a larger view of the water view and overall design.

Coming soon: more pictures of the water feature itself.