Artist Lew French works with stone. People pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for his sculptures, landscape designs and functional pieces such as fireplaces and retaining walls. Lew French lives and works on Martha’s Vineyard.
In the courtyard of a house on Martha’s Vineyard, water pours out of a basin, down two levels and into a narrow channel that runs into a small rectangular pond. The entire courtyard is made of stone – carefully positioned stones shape the fountain, stacked stones create the walls, and the floor is a mosaic of flat weathered stones. Cinnamon ferns, thyme and Irish mosses grow in the corners. Artist Lew French designed and built the courtyard.
Lew French: “It’s a calm peaceful place out here, it’s mostly in the shade which is kind of neat . . . It’s a sweet place, it’s a very serene place.”
Lew French has created hundreds of courtyards like these for clients on Martha’s Vineyard. He grew up in a tiny town in Minnesota, and started a construction company right out of high school. His company worked on lots of projects, but he was drawn to working with stone. Now he’s 47 and has lived in Oak’s Bluff for twenty years, working as a full time mason and artist.
Lew French: “Stone draws you in visually, and this is what happened to me when I was young. And that’s why I do stonework. There’s something there that pulled me in.It’s taken me all these years to figure out what those qualities are and why it is that way.”
The Vineyard is a natural place to work with stone. Hundred year-old low stone rubble walls snake across the island. French says his technique, dry stacking, is similar to the one used to build the old walls. In a dry-stacked wall, the stones are laid one on top of each other without mortar, held in place by gravity. However, French’s walls and dry-stacked mosaics have none of the gaps or disjointed pieces found in old stone walls. His stones fit tightly together, each fitting seamlessly into the ones around it. French’s technique also goes beyond simple stacking.
Lew French: “It should always be powerful, it should always be beautiful the first time you see it, but it should be that way even if you’ve seen it a hundred times. You should say oh wow, I never noticed that, I never saw how that really worked together. By jutting out boulders out of a normal retaining wall, you’re creating benches, you’re creating visual breaks in the wall, you’re adding dimension, you’re adding texture to those things.”
French’s walls are made up of many different sizes of stone, placed together to create a varied and beautiful whole. In one wall, long flat pieces of granite are abutted by laundry-basket sized stones stacked in a pattern, then smaller stones the size of melons and apples, and finally the wall ends with a huge boulder the size and shape of a Volkswagen Beetle. The effect is soothing and harmonious. The stones themselves are heavy, but the variation and pattern French uses in his work gives it a kind of light, restful energy.
Lew French: “I see my work as being more feminine, you know, the lines are softer, there’s more shape to it, there’s more movement. A lot of stonework that I see is it’s like clumsy and it has this heaviness to it, this boxiness, and I see that as being more like this, masculine kind of shape. And I find that overpowering. You go in a room and that heavy stonework kind of thing, I get a sense of this oppressive kind of thing when I see that. I like to think I don’t see that with my work,”
The stones French uses are usually not shaped or altered in any way. As he builds a wall, he searches for just the right stone to fit in his designs, a process that can take months. He finds or buys stones and stores them in a rented a field. Some of the stones have been waiting in the field for twenty years, in order to fit into a perfect pattern. Occasionally, the stones French uses are almost right, but not exactly. Then, he uses a hand-held chisel to knock off imperfections or extra thickness.
Lew French: “I try not to alter the face of the stone, so the shape that you see is basically the shape that it is. . . but there might be one little knob or one little point that I’d take off so I would chisel that point off. Sometimes the stone would be too thick to fit into the wall, so some of the back might have to come off. And that’s where the chiseling comes in. Sometimes you have to do a lot of chiseling to get it to the right thickness. But none of the chisel marks or none of the broken part of the stone would actually be visible.”
“So, like with this stone, this stone is too thick of a stone, so what I would want to do is (sound of chiseling). There’s a certain technique that if you do it right you can just snap the edge of the stone off. Like with this, it’s on the second blow, the first one just kind of loosens it – that was not it – there it is, right there.”
Suddenly the grayish white stone is splattered with blood.
Lew French: “And, every once in a while you hit your hand. I just drove the chisel through and hit my hand with the stone. Lots of times I go home with bloody fingers.”
Despite the blood, French keeps working. He says occasionally wounding himself comes with the job.
French sometimes uses single, special stones as stand-alone sculptures. He calls one piece the mother-and-daughter stones, a gift to his friend’s three-year-old daughter. Two thin, waist-high stones are placed inches from each other. They were found miles apart, but their curves mirror each other as if they were split from the same rock. French says there’s a spiritual quality to stone.
Lew French I find it interesting that people will almost like confide in me that they have this thing with stone, they go to the beach, they pick up stones, or they are out in the field they pick up a stone, it is like we have this secret thing with stone. I think it is a lot deeper than that, I think there is this real connection. There’s something about stone that is powerful, it seems to have this energy or purpose where it has this emanation of power, almost.
The stones French finds lying in fields become even more powerful when they part of his designs. French moves, stacks and arranges stones in a way that make beautiful patterns that delight and calm the soul.
Broadcast September 8, 2005
Emily Zeugner reports for the Cape and Islands NPR stations.
A coffee table book of French’s work photographed by Vineyard photographer Alison Shaw has just been released.