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

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.

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.

Drystone Pathways Over Bad Concrete

Drystone Pathways Over Bad Concrete

A broken down piece of concrete magically disappears under a stone pathway laid without mortar or cement.

Drystone Pathways

I am frequently asked to remedy concrete walkways. Sometimes these concrete paths are old and broken down, in other cases, they just aren’t the look the homeowner desires. In most situations, the existing walkway, broken down or not, needs to be removed. This can be expensive and bad for the environment, if a good use can’t be found for the broken concrete. Whenever possible, I try to leave the concrete where it lays and place my stone over it. Dry laid flagstone is stronger and more durable than mortared paving, and it doesn’t matter how messed up the concrete is underneath it. (Mortared flagstone should only be applied to solid slab in good condition.) Laying drystone flagstone over ugly concrete saves money, and avoids filling the landfill with concrete waste. There are two main issues that can come up when taking this approach that we’ll explore below: clearance and drainage.

Drystone Pathways

BEFORE: This little used path wrapped around the back of a lovely Asheville home. The homeowners wanted to pretty it up and maintain access to their backyard.

Drystone Pathways

AFTER: A loose stone pathway winds its way through a field of pea gravel. Instead of removing all the concrete, I placed my flagstone over the top. Stucco became a quick fix for this ugly wall. You might see that it’s being pushed over by the bank behind it. Someday we’ll replace it with drystone!

Dealing With Drainage & Your Stone Pathway

Drystone pathways and patios allow water to run over them and percolate through. This prevents pooling and reduces slick spots on the walking surface. It’s important that the top surface of the stone pathway be able to slope gently away from houses, foundations or other areas sensitive to moisture build-up or erosion. It’s equally important that the substrate below the flagstone is also pitched in the proper direction, as some moisture will pass through. This means, when I go over a concrete walkway with stone, I have to be sure the slab is draining in the right direction. This is easily assessed with a level and tape measure. A host of solutions can be considered if the drainage situation isn’t ideal.

Clearance Issues For Flagstone & Steps

Clearance issues are usually the deal breaker for whether a dry stone surface can be laid over concrete. The height of existing thresholds, curbs or steps must be taken into account at all points along the flagstone surface. The risks being that one could create weird little steps, make a trip hazard, or block a door so that it no longer opens! As it happens, so much settling occurs in Asheville homes, old and new, that I can often find the clearance I need, sometimes by replacing awkward and uneven steps with stone stairs that are uniform and solid.

Drystone Pathways

In the image above, the large stone slab that acts as a step was the key to getting the clearance needed to build the path that circled the house. Previously there had been an awkward three inch rise- too tall for a threshold, but not tall enough to be a step. This stone step, at six inches tall, is a real step, consistent with those at the street and that lead into the house.

BEFORE: A broken down set of uneven concrete steps lead to the street. There’s a fourth step hidden in the shadow of the telephone pole. The top step is coming apart and is off center with the steps below it.

Drystone Pathways

AFTER: I had to tear out the bottom three steps, but that was the only concrete removed for the whole project. (Reclaimed by a friend who needs clean fill for another project.) I set the steps further back from the road and gave them a consistent rise over run. I rebuilt the wall, opening the main entryway and making it more welcoming. The steps are now aligned with the path. The steps and wall repairs are mortared; everything else is laid dry.

The homeowners are both craftspeople- he’s a woodworker and she’s a potter. As we stuccoed this old block wall, we embedded ceramic tiles made by the potter. This is a picture of my favorite, a relief print made from a gravestone carving she found at Riverside Cemetery.

At the Home Show 2012

Stonework at the Home Show

Since I founded Hammerhead Stoneworks in 2009, I have been showing my stonework and materials at the Western North Carolina Home and Garden Show at the Civic Center in downtown Asheville, NC. I have shown stone benches and some art pieces. The last couple of years I have shown flagstone patios, including a koi-inspired patio design. Flagstone sections like this are much easier than stone walls to build at my shop and then bring in and install quickly.


This year’s Home Show happened a couple of weekends ago. I drew this sketch of my planned design over the winter and then went to work on it, as time allowed. The plan worked out well, the only major difference being that I had intended a metal table, but built a wooden one myself.


The special stone art piece for this show was “The Sultan”, a mosaic made of highly polished granite and marble scraps and Pennsylvania bluestone with a natural finish. It’s a relatively small piece, at about 11 inches by 17 inches, but it suggests to me the direction I want to take my work.

Landscape Architecture Class


During the installation process in Gainesville, my friend Mary Padua brought a group of students from the University of Florida to the site. She is a professor in the Landscape Architecture program at UF and a gifted designer and photographer. The students are studying implementation and construction drawings. I talked briefly about the project, about the work in general and designing with stone. At the end of the conversation, I ran through my five suggestions for young designers:

Learn the local geology

Just as a designer moving to Colorado would set out quickly to learn the local plants, learning about the local geology can be an invaluable asset. The make up of the Earth varies more dramatically from place to place than many realize. Knowing what types of rock are present, their formation and structure can help a designer choose the best application for each. The finished product is stronger and more durable and it looks like it belongs to the place it built. Also, the more you knows about the local geology, the more you can understand about the forces that will actively try to destroy your work such as erosion and earth movement.

Connect with local craftspeople

Large architecture firms hire large builders. This is cost-effective and helps to ensure compliance with the myriad laws that control construction. But large builders don’t have the vision or the gift of invention that independent craftspeople do. Local craftspeople understand their materials intimately and create distinctive works that celebrate creativity and are meant to last. Employing local craftspeople is the sustainable choice for the economy as well; they spend their wages in their communities and often support other small businesses. Local craftspeople are a fantastic asset to the design process as well, adding a strong practical understanding to the conceptual development of an idea.

Build dry

Dry stonework is the sustainable choice for landscape applications such as retaining walls, paths, patios, and steps. A well-crafted drystone retaining wall will have a smaller carbon footprint and will outlast a similarly sited mortared wall. I offer a more detailed take on this here.

Water always wins

There’s a misconception that modern materials and techniques are so advanced and technologically sophisticated that they can withstand any assault, resist any force. This is patently false. Water always wins. The forces of weather over time should be a central consideration in the design and implementation of every project.

Learn about business and marketing

I expect that most young Landscape Architects will start working in larger firms and over the early years of their design careers get practice at the whole range of design tasks. Many will, at some point, strike out on their own. It’s an amazing journey and incredibly rewarding, but it can be very challenging to start your own business. I encourage everyone to start learning their way around the business side of the design and construction trades now. Project bidding, tax issues and insurance requirements sneak up fast when you set up your own shop. Marketing is often very difficult for the self-employed. Taking classes now and reading books can be helpful. Learning by doing is best, if you can find opportunities to handle the business side earlier

New Panoramas & A Marketing Class


This is a photo montage/panorama of the steps I built this past winter in the Montford district of Asheville. The step treads are made of the full-color variant of Pennsylvania bluestone. The wall, columns and step risers are made of granitic gneiss, mostly from the Hooper’s Creek quarry in Fletcher. The steps and columns are mortared; the wall is completely dry.

Sandstone steps and wall buried in snow. Looks positively comfortable right now.


Last Friday I led an hour long workshop for craftspeople and artisans on how to market their work. It was part of Handmade in America’s Art, Craft and Design Expo at the North Carolina Arboretum. The main push of my talk was that marketing is education and that craft artists should focus their marketing efforts on the 3 P’s: product, process and person. I also talked a bit about setting goals, making a cohesive plan and punk rock.

Bench Class

A couple of weekends ago, I led a workshop at the NC Arboretum on building stone benches. First thing in the morning we studied images of various benches, stone-cutting techniques and ways to move heavy objects safely and with relative ease. Safety was a recurring theme throughout the day. After the classroom presentation, we went outside and built a free-standing bench, a style I call castle-block for the big chunks of stone that make up the supports. The bench we built is now a permanent fixture at the Arboretum, a rest station along one of the trails.


To facilitate ease of movement, we cut the big stone down in the back of my truck. In this image, Ronnie is using a star bit chisel to notch shallow guide holes in the top of the stone. This gives the drill bit a place to sit, reducing the likelihood of the bit bouncing around and scarring the stone.


Everyone got a chance to use the drill and work at cutting stone. Here Judy leans into the drill to get the proper placement.

Since our cut edges were going to be exposed, we took some time to clean up the drill holes. Here Carol is using a handset chisel to knock off the cut edge of the bench stone. We put the cut edge to the back of the bench, less visible to passers-by.

We spent some time doing bench math, designing everything so that it would be the proper height and balanced as a structure and as an aesthetic object. Here Carol measures the thickness of the slab, the starting point for figuring out the math. I handed out the following worksheet to guide the design and layout process.

By cutting it in the back of truck, we made the stone more manageable, but it was still a heavy chunk. Jason uses a rock bar to move the stone from the pallet onto the ramps we have set up. Using 2″ by 12″ pressured treated lumber as ramps, we slid the stone down to waiting blocks and from there into place.

We used mortar to set the bench. This design can be done dry, but the mortar reduces the risk of movement, particularly since the bench is in a public place.

We all felt good as we finished up. The bench looked great and we had built it efficiently and safely. It felt good to be leaving something cool and useful for everyone to enjoy. Tre and Ronnie test drive the bench and pronounce it good.

Grandpa Tony’s Bench: follow up

Memorial stone bench by Hammerhead Stoneworks

Memorial stone bench

My friend Matthew in Chapel Hill sent me this image recently of Grandpa Tony’s memorial bench surrounded by spring time flowers. He mentioned that some neighborhood kids circulated a flyer announcing a lemonade and cookie sale at Grandpa Tony’s bench, suggesting it’s already become part of the character of the place. That’s always gratifying to hear.

On May 15th I’ll be leading a workshop at the Arboretum on making stone benches similar to Tony’s.