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Master Class: ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ (Part 1)

Cutthroat Castle Group at the Hovenweep National Monument
By David F. Wilson
….is the title of an intriguing film by that master of the graffiti one liner, Banksy. Ever the artistic provocateur, one of his best known ‘wheezes’ was when he sold the ‘Girl with Balloon’ for £1.04m at Sotheby’s in 2018. Immediately the auctioneers gavel struck, the canvas began to self-destruct through an inbuilt shredder in the bottom of the painting’s frame, much to the shock of the auction audience but no doubt to delightful howls of laughter from the artist himself. Ostensibly a celebration and exploration of the emerging street art scene the movie develops into something much more ambiguous. Driven by creatives developing art out-with the established art world, graffiti and street art has always had subversion and rule breaking at its motivational core. So too one perceives is the film as the story line develops. It follows the antics of Los Angeles based Frenchman Thierry Guetta as he builds upon Banksy’s suggestion to follow his own artistic muse.
Through a heady combination of passion, energy, absence of talent, and copious amounts of money he transforms himself into an artistic Frankenstein called Mr. Brainwash. Using a pick and mix of artistic tropes, motifs and styles he produces a vast quantity of work culminating in a much-hyped cultural event to rival Banksy’s very own explosion onto the USA art scene. Crowds and art collectors descend in a frenzy desperate not to miss the art world’s latest phenomenon. Art ‘bollock speak’ abounds as works fly off the wall at eye watering prices, again all to the great amusement of Banksy as he guffaws like a drain at the monster he has created. As the title suggests money is at the heart of it all, where he and his reputation fits within the plot is up to the viewer to decide.
Girl With Balloon by Banksy
Girl With Balloon by Banksy
Illusion and mystery are part of his schtick, so too though has been the feeling that pulling one over on others is central to what motivates his art. An approach to creativity where the joke at someone’s expense as a key component is dubious at best and errs towards the malevolent, it’s difficult not to discern a level of arrogance and condescending smugness. Perhaps you’ve perceived by now I’m not Banksy’s biggest fan, however as an intellectual starting point it is thought provoking and throws up some interesting aspects around the issues of appropriation and motivation. What does it contribute to creating work that is real and authentic?
Midway through my Winston Churchill Fellowship Travels to the States and Canada in 2017 to ‘research the contemporary uses of stone in urban spaces’ I was introduced to Ed Reilly, the Owner of Bronzesmith Fine Art in Prescott, Arizona. After a tour of his foundry Ed showed me plans for a cabin retreat he was planning to have built, a main feature of which was a stone tower. ‘Lucky son of a gun that gets to build that’ I thought, never for once imagining that two years later I would be sitting on a flight out to the States to help him realise his dream.

The Desert View Watchtower

Head two hours North out of Prescott Arizona and you arrive at the Grand Canyon, what a place to have easy access to virtually on your doorstep! It’s an area Ed and his family know well having spent many enjoyable times exploring the canyon on camping and canoeing trips. Situated on the South Rim of the Canyon is a large stone Tower officially titled – ‘Watchtower at Desert View’ (cover and left). This is a building Ed loves, and is the inspiration for his Cabin Tower.
Designed by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, ‘Watchtower’ was completed in 1933. Part viewpoint, part museum, part exhibition space, part giftshop, the building is a fascinating architectural addition to the area and its history. Inspired by traditional Native American Indian architecture it commands uninhibited views across the Canyon and the wider circle of the distant horizon.
Prehistoric Indian Towers are specific to the area of the Southwest US, known as the ‘Four Corners’ where the boundaries of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado meet. The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde are probably the best-known ruins of these ancient civilisations. From about 100AD this area was inhabited by ‘Ancient Pabloan’ (formerly referred to as ‘Anastasi’ now regarded as politically incorrect) hunter-gatherer ancestors of some of the Native American tribes such as the Hopi and Ute. As their lifestyles changed across the centuries, they developed their own unique styles and forms of architecture.
Watchtower, Designed by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (1933)
Watchtower, Designed by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (1933) situated on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon
Cutthroat Castle Group at the Hovenweep National Monument
Cutthroat Castle Group at the Hovenweep National Monument
Simple wooden post and adobe structures advanced into more complex stone constructions with rectangular and circular stone towers found throughout the landscape.1 Careful recording and studying of them has shown a confusing picture of their purpose. Some sit in prominent high locations which suggest a requirement for defense, others are hidden away at the bottom of canyons amongst more domestic dwellings which hints towards the more utilitarian function of harvest storage. Perhaps their proliferation points to a more banal explanation, that of an individual or tribe’s status symbol, ‘keeping up with the Jones’ isn’t an entirely modern trend. Purpose may be uncertain, what is not is the skill and ambition of their creators, many fine archetypes remain as testament to the ancient’s stone masonry skills.
It was with these in mind that Ms Colter set about designing the latest, modern, tower to be built in the area. Such an iconic location threw up some interesting design demands, not least the aim of having a building that would sit within the landscape and become part of its surroundings. Modern materials were out and naturally stone was the material of choice. The ‘Watchtower’ was never intended to be a faithful copy of any specific tower, the design is a ‘reimagining’ combining a rich tapestry of ideas gleaned from extensive examination of historical precedents.

Good Vibrations

It started with a small vibration! Cuddled up on the couch zoning out to some distraction on Netflix my phone indicated a new message. It was Ed – ‘fancy building my Tower?’ ‘Tell me more’ I replied. Almost dismissing it out of hand as I was already very busy. After a few quick calculations, assessment of windows of opportunity; it was too interesting a prospect, how could I refuse? Within a week I was Arizona bound. The challenge? 2 weeks to stone clad a concrete block tower 28ft high and 18ft wide at the base. I was going in blind: the stone was unknown and details of the logistics sketchy- it was a big ask. How confident he was about me, or how desperate, wasn’t exactly clear. All I promised was effort, the risk was his.
After a quick overnight stop in Prescott to catch my breath, we were out on the highway through the arid desert terrain of Southern Arizona, heading for the Hills, listening to Country music on the radio. What wasn’t there to enjoy. Ed wanted me to see the Watchtower so that I could better appreciate what he was looking to achieve with his own tower. This was my second trip to the Canyon having visited it on my Churchill travels to view the Mather Point amphitheatre (designed by Andy Dufford:, and built by Kyle Schlagenhauf and his team as detailed in “Stonechat #29”- see No picture does it justice, to stand and look over the millions of years of erosion and geological history that confronts you truly is a sensational experience; (now on my bucket list is to be able to join Ed on one of his expeditions within the canyon itself.)
The Watchtower is perched on what used to be called Navajo Point, renamed Desert View. Constructed atop a massive concrete foundation anchored into the cliff edge it is only accessible from one side, the other is a sheer drop off into the depths of the canyon. Standing at 70 ft tall to my eye at least it does fulfil the criteria that it fit with the surroundings, the design is sympathetic and doesn’t jar within the landscape. It is an amalgam of the old and new, a stone skin around a steel framework. Clever use of natural materials is key to its success.
Square Tower at the Hovenweep National Monument
Square Tower at the Hovenweep National Monument. Photo by Colin J. McCechan
By the time the ancient builders started creating the Towers they had already migrated out of the Grand Canyon, probably due to climate change, the surrounding landscape proving more conducive to their agricultural practices. The design of the Watchtower is based on extensive research on Towers of the Golden Age of Indian architecture. Tower construction was practiced across many centuries, their builders didn’t adhere to a rigid design, each was built for their own purpose and needs, adapting the form as they went dependent upon site conditions and the materials they had to hand. Many of the original towers were created over many years, possibly decades, meaning that different hands worked upon them; (some found handprints are quite small suggesting that many of the masons were in fact women). No two Towers are identical, they are an eclectic representation of their societies, constructed in a fascinating rich texture of quality and styles. This diversity and underlying ethos freed up the creators of the Watchtower when it came to imagining how their own should be built.
Just like Banksy’s ‘protege’ Mr.Brainwash, Ms.Colter copied features from historical precedents for her design, could this be viewed as a cynical cut and paste job as well? Cultural misappropriation, devoid of integrity?
As with many issues that cross over between cultures, this is a controversial and murky subject. especially in today’s political climate. Inappropriate adoption of motifs and symbolism from a different culture, usually of an ethnic or subordinate group by a larger dominant group, is deemed problematic. Divorced from the original cultural context. significance and meaning are devalued., part of a process that overwrites the values and belief systems of those societies. diminishing their relevance and historical worth. What was once meaningful is reduced to frivolous decoration.
As with nearly every argument these days. the current zeitgeist dictates it will be a black or white issue whatever side of the debate you are on. The creative arts though have always been open to this form of ‘copying or borrowing,’ as one current meme puts it ‘steal like an artist.’
This is nothing new in the art world. in truth it is actively encouraged, permitted by the term ‘influenced by.’ If you have no influences you’re nothing! The driver within the arts that actively welcomes appropriation is the desire for innovation. a quest for the new over the old, the advancement of culture not its stagnation. ‘Stealing like an artist’ is a fraught subtle balancing act that requires integrity and creativity, it is the essence that transforms that what is established into the newly formed, a continuous process of transformation and reinvention. To succeed it must incorporate elements of originality and personal input from the creator, err too close to the line between innovation and re-creation one falls into the trap of pastiche.
That is what I find problematic with Banksy’s Mr.Brainwash. They dived into that pit knowingly and willingly with elan and glee! Cynicism is at its core, with a flippancy and disparaging view of the audience. Funneling ‘punters’ through the gift shop with added laughs for yourself, to my mind cancels any effort and is devoid of any redeeming attempt to genuinely aim for creative expression. Hey! but what do I know, the buyer of the million-pound shredded painting kept the bits and as a piece of art history it has increased in value!
Where does Mary Colter’s Watchtower design fit within this artistic dichotomy? It’s a question I contemplated as I walked around the tower and considered how I would ‘interpret’ Mary’s ‘borrowed from the ancients’ design, into my own ‘borrowed from her borrowed from the ancients’ design. Fair to say I felt a certain unease.
Ed and I spent a few hours experiencing the Watchtower viewing it, appreciating the myriad of details that he enjoyed and wanted me to incorporate into his tower. Devoid of the historical knowledge that underpins it I found it really intriguing as its unlike anything I have experienced in the UK. It is a very eclectic building full of interest, colour and texture. Certain areas within the stonework construction would be considered naive in terms of ‘correct’ technique, however it is carried out with an evidential sense of bravura. Those elements that broke the rules increased its’ charm, adding rather than detracting, (I filed that observation away for later.) The overall effect is a mastery of design, an excellent use of a vernacular style. combined with a clever confident use of locally sourced material. I could see why Ed loved it.
The ancient ruins illustrate that they were anything but unskilled builders, sophisticated masonry practices are reflected in some of the best-known Towers at Mesa Verde. They are built with a high degree of skill, fully coursed with a pecked surface finish to leave a smooth even surface, suggestive of individuals who dedicated a lot of time towards the craft. It was one of these fine examples in terms of proportion and line that the design of the Watchtower is based. The exact date of when conical towers became de-rigueur has not been proven. there could even be an argument that these were the earliest form of Tower as the shape was a natural evolution from earlier pit dwellings and Kiva layout designs which were often semi. or fully. circular, circular structures being easier to build than rectangular ones. None of those pesky difficult corners to be found or shaped, all of us who’ve struggled when not having the right materials will see the benefits of that approach!
In the absence of modern scaffolding it is thought the ancient masons had an intriguing solution to working at height that might be slightly out with todays required standards of health and safety. As the tower’s height increased, they would sit astride the rising outer skin pulling their materials up on ropes, that’s showing confidence in your own workmanship! This results in the walls of the towers being surprisingly thin in relation to their height (at Mesa Verde the tower is only 18” thick at the base and 12” at the top), illustrating the inherent strength of a conical form, with many towers which deviate from this shape having fared worse over the passage of time, showing far more evidence of collapse.
Square Tower at the Hovenweep National Monument
Square Tower at the Hovenweep National Monument. Photo by Andrew Kuhn.
Round Tower, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde. Photo by Ansel Adams
Round Tower, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde. Photo by Ansel Adams
The availability of material and what it will allow you to do to and with it has a direct influence on what can be achieved. So it was at the Watchtower, it was decided that the easiest, cheapest (probably), source of stone was that which lay easily accessible around their chosen site and could be ‘harvested’ (a word I heard used often along my North American travels for the collection of stone directly from the environment). To have worked this material to the level used on the Mesa Verde original would have taken away from its’ natural qualities which was exactly what made it the perfect choice in the first place. The judgement was made that the design would be influenced by the Mesa Verde tower and the masonry dictated by the stone itself with historical styles acting as a rough guide.
During the research phase for the project a series of photographs were put into a catalogue of sorts that acted as a reference resource for those undertaking the tower’s construction. Careful appraisal of these, illustrated interesting quirks of masonry styles which is reflected in the stonework today. As the ancient towers were built over a period of time, added to and repaired over centuries, inconsistencies in the type and size of stone used was a characteristic of them, whilst time had imposed its own patina. This resonated with the designers, they recognised that what was created organically and without intent brought a life and interest to the stonework. They wanted to capture that happenstance and carry that ethos through into their own construction methodology, creating not a copy but a reinterpretation of the possibilities of the form and technique.
Painted Hand Pueblo at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Painted Hand Pueblo at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Tower at the Hovenweep National Monument
Tower at the Hovenweep National Monument. Photo by Thomas Holt Ward.
1 There is some debate over the date of the origins of the Ancestral Puebloan Culture. The date of 100AD is given by Encyclopedia Britannica (extracted 2.2.2021) – others date their origins over 1000 years before this. There is more agreement over the development of their stone architecture which began around 1000-1200 years ago

The content above was copied with the generous permission of the author David F. Wilson

This Master Class article originally appeared in issue 33 of Stonechat, produced by the North Wales Branch of the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great BritainThis entire issue of Stonechat, and many more, are available at  

Thank you to Sean Adcock and David F. Wilson for allowing us to provide this content, and please donate to The North Wales Branch.