Landscape and Lasting Friendships

When they bought the old farmhouse in the early eighties the town road passed within eight feet of the front door. Robin and David Key were willing to overlook that serious drawback because they were in love with the ancient apple trees, the gurgling brook and the wealth of wildlife on the property. All of that was outside the back door just beyond a precipitous drop in the landscape. The retaining wall I would soon build to create a level backyard was the first in a series of dry stone projects we took on together over the following thirty years.

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TCLF Garden Dialogues: Artists in Residence: Vermont

A fourth generation of the Key family has begun to ramble Winhall Hollow. Pond and stream, woods and fields, are the wider setting for their active home and garden life. Into the mix comes long-time friend and dry stone specialist, Dan Snow. He has constructed numerous stone features on the grounds around their house and barns. Stone from the property has been used to fashion steps, patios, retaining walls and fences. Robin Key’s landscape design has seamlessly woven a contemporary aesthetic into the historic fabric of the Hollow.

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The Isosceles Stone Wall

Even without the silhouette of a crosswalking pedestrian or leaping deer, road signs with a triangular outline convey a message of caution; warning the traveler to be aware of what lies ahead. The sharp angles draw attention because they represent sudden change. Survival of the human species has depended on the ability of individuals to recognize signs of change and to adapt quickly to new situations.

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The Stone Hollow

Environmental art serves a wider community. It can prosper plants and animals as well as humans. Art making in nature stirs the pot of local ingredients, recombining elements in ways previously untested. Wild things are opportunists; it’s programed into their DNA for survival. When something new appears in the landscape, ecologies respond. An environmental art work is breeding ground for creative adaptation. Its ultimate use is left up to the invention of its inhabitants.

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Art of the Outdoors

My classmate, Hass, and I were standing on a rooftop on the lower west side of Manhattan watching a dance performance taking place in a vacant lot across the street when he nudged me and whispered, “That’s Robert Smithson.” The tall guy to my left at the parapet, in a cowboy hat and black trench coat, was solemnly staring down at the ground, along with a couple dozen other bohemes of the downtown art scene who had climbed four flights of rickety stairs in a derelict, cheese warehouse to view the show.

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The Holy Well

Excavation of the hillside spring revealed layers of geologic stratification. Top soil lay on coarse gravel over pure sand on top of clay hardpan. The design called for ground water that trickled out of the sand layer to be trapped in a hollow under a half-shell overhang. Recycled slate from building foundation ruins and cobbles from a gravel pit were combined to shape the dry stone installation.

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Action in a Resting Place

Understandably, the present strives toward the future, but there’s nothing to say we can’t, from time to time, turn around and walk backwards into it. In that way, momentum can be maintained while gazing back, with love and affection, on those who have come before. They might appreciate it, and our steps may be lightened by the expanded outlook on our place in time.

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Fire Circle Square

The design and layout of Fire Circle Square highlights quartz boulders by turning a collection of them into a fireplace and four adjacent perches. After positioning the stones, I carved depressions into them to create smooth sitting places. The fireplace stones were also cut, ground and polished, and then assembled into a plinth to hold a steel fire bowl. Between the plinth and seats I laid a floor with flagstone from a local quarry. The location of the piece was chosen to take advantage of a preexisting wall corner and a western overlook facing the mountain-ridged horizon.

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Stone Well Cover

I can only imagine the pride a 19th century homesteader might have had, on the completion of a hand-dug, stone-lined water well. The clear, cold water contained in it would have been an essential ingredient for any hill farm’s success. Some old wells are still in use today at venerable New England homes, while other 30 foot deep examples of the well digger’s art may be found next to abandoned cellar holes in the backwoods. Although underground and out of sight, such a towering achievement deserved to be crowned, and many were, with a beautiful stone well cover. The cover helped keep the well from contamination, and children and livestock safe from falling in.

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Lucy's Place

Just as the removal of one letter from the word ”whole” creates a “hole”, the loss of a family member leaves a void for those left behind. One way to help heal the rift is to remember the departed with a permanent marker on the landscape. A stone memorial can fuse the acknowledgment of their passing with the memory of their life on earth.

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A Ripple Effect in Stone and Steel

As part of its 40th anniversary, the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, Vermont commissioned me to create a permanent, interactive, environmental art piece. The result is a 1,000 sq. ft. dry stone and stainless steel sculpture that rises like a geologic upthrust from the open space alongside the museum entryway. Visitors can walk, climb and sit on the undulant surfaces of the work, or, simply view it on their way to, and from, the building.

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Finn Island at Landmark College

During the month of May, a 22 meter long sculpture surfaced on the quad at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont. The dorsal fin of the granite and earth construction rises 2 meters above the MacFarlane Science, Technology & Innovation Center lawn. Once the cover plants are established on the earthen swells of the shark body, the piece will become an inviting land feature for students and faculty to congregate for outdoor classes and conversation.

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Snow Fence

The past few weeks I’ve tossed my lot in making changes on a New Hampshire hilltop. It wasn’t the first time a collection of stones there was strung across the high mowing. Someone came in the 19th century and flung up a wall, divining meaning from the random arrangement of stones as they fell into place. And then it was my turn to interpret the stones. The old, sunken wall line coughed up bucketful after excavator bucketful of fieldstone. After spreading the stones out on the frozen ground so I could get a good look at the variety of shapes and sizes, I chose a fair form for re-assemblage.

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The Shadow Hill Concept

With a strong northwesterly wind whipping “snownados” up from the frosty ground outside, I’m in the studio devising hypotheticals for an unfrozen future. There’s time enough for a wonderland of “what ifs” to decorate the internal landscape when the porch thermometer reads 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Most are just a smokeless pipe dream, but sometimes an idea takes hold and won’t let go until it attains some semblance of reality. Nothing is real to me unless it achieves three-dimensionality. Even at ¼”-1’ scale, a concept materialized in modeling clay is enough to make me a believer.

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Montshire Museum Raindrops

A raindrop splashing on still water ripples the surface with expanding wave rings that grow in number as they diminish in height. From the purity of the physics involved comes a simple beauty. Liquid in motion is mesmerizing to watch because it’s constantly changing while remaining the same. For the upcoming project at Montshire Museum I will petrify an instant in the life of two raindrops.

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Stone Memorial Bench

There’s much to be considered in the process of producing of a stone memorial. Even something as simple as a bench requires discussion about setting, size, shape, materials, and the wording, layout and carving of a dedication. Often there are many family members and friends involved in the choices to be made. My task as a memorial designer/builder/installer is to gather individually held emotions and transform them into a collective expression. Hopefully, everyone will recognize something of their personal feelings reflected in the finished work.

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Cairn With a Twist

As solid as land art is, it’s capable of absorbing an unlimited amount of meaning. Each viewer brings a unique perspective and adds a bit of their own story to the experience of the work. The memory of the work that they go away with is a blend of what they brought and what they discovered while there. The meaning of the work is modified by every viewer. Over time, with many viewings, that adds up to a hefty load of ephemeral meanings, none of which physically impact the land art. It stays the same as its meaning changes.

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Rock Springs Revisited

After decades of assessing the attributes of inanimate objects in a direct and uncompromising way, I find myself in terrain where taking that path of least resistance only leads down a slippery slope to nowhere special. From a distance, the long way around appears to be inefficient and wasteful, but once the trip begins, the side tracks and stops along the way become the definition of the journey. The people met, the conversations had, the agreements made, are memorialized in the installation that’s left behind. They become the substance, if not the point, of the project. The public work now belongs to those who meander by, and will, I hope, become their memory touchstone.

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