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Master Class: ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ (Part 2)

David Wilson's Completed Project
By David F. Wilson

My Turn!

After the Grand Canyon visit it was off to Ed’s Ranch to set me at my labours. His property is about a mile off the main road, within an area of the northern Arizona pine forest. There I was confronted with my task. Above me stretched a large semi- circular column of blockwork, to be clad with stone. Standing there it appeared a lot more daunting than it had from the pictures I’d looked at on my phone the week before. Fear may be too extreme a description, but it was not far short! Two weeks? It was a very big ask. Ed had placed a gamble on me I didn’t want to let him down. I had a word with myself and rationalised, perhaps if I could get close maybe that’s all that could be expected of me. He busied himself with other things on site and left me to my thoughts; I was certainly nervous it was one big assed tower!
Reconvening we chatted everything through and came up with a highly detailed plan, (see sketch below!) Ed had been dreaming of this for a long time, being a creative he could see it clearly in his mind’s eye he had the vision, it was ‘simply’ up to me to bring that to life. He had planned lots of interesting details to be incorporated so beyond the basic task of building there were plenty opportunities for me to put my own stamp on the work, an aspect of any project that is important to me.
Starting point of Ed's project
Starting point of Ed's project
Sketch of the project
Sketch of the project
In terms of logistics Ed had organised some additional help, a guy who would mix, move, lift, shift, cook, cajole, humour and entertain me during my stay, I call him my ‘redneck’ buddy, Joe Davis, I couldn’t have asked for better, he was a conscientious worker with a winning smile. We got on great and I’d have him at my side any day, not something I can say about every labourer I’ve ever had. His brother Dylan, the main contractor/carpenter/everyman was also on site whenever we needed a delivery or additional help.
Scattered around the area were pallet after pallet piled high with an assortment of stones of varying size and types. I spent the first hour or so walking among them assessing what I had at my disposal, creating my own mental map of what I’d use where, what creative possibilities were opened up by the different shapes and textures. With no time to waste, less than 24 hours after I’d arrived in Arizona I picked up a trowel and got down to business.
Earlier in the build some larger feature stones had been installed at the base of the tower, consolidating these and bringing a sense of order to allow me to build up was achieved by the end of that first shift. This base ‘course’ is red sandstone and I placed this in a very random pattern utilising a mix of sizes similar to that observed at Desert View. Being a darker colour to that used for subsequent courses it adds a feeling of weight to the bottom of the tower. (Once it was completed I came to realise that this area of stonework bears a striking resemblance to the outline of the surrounding mountainous landscape, a fortuitous touch of serendipity).
Building off this base was to be done with what was the majority stone type a lighter pink sandstone. There were three distinct sizes for me to use all roughly 4 inches thick, approximately 40, 125 and 250 millimetres in height, I’d build these against the blockwork using Type S mortar and lots and lots
Red sandstone base "course"
Red sandstone base "course"
On my first full day of building wanting a jump start to the walling I decided to put in a triple course of the taller blocks topped off with a deeper section of the thin slices on top of those, with the odd feature projection. All this was very conventional and an easy build I was feeling pretty pleased with progress and myself. Ed had returned to his day job at the foundry in Prescott but was very keen to follow my daily progress. Photos of my efforts were sent off for his appraisal and feedback. It wasn’t negative but neither was it entirely positive. It’s too flat and normal, ok up to a point, he demanded more, more texture, more life, more… unconventional.
Referring to the photographs I’d taken, and the book about the Watchtower Ed had given me; I looked harder. Ed’s comments made me realise I was bringing too much ‘knowledge’ and UK perception of stonework to the task. There was a charm and naivety within the Watchtower stonework that my ‘correct’ eye was dismissing but it was those exact qualities that gave it life and its distinctive appeal. I needed to loosen up and set aside the ‘rules’ as I knew them and attack the stonework with a more ‘laissez faire’ approach, not worry so much about achieving what I understood ‘good’ stonework to be. Having the image of the Watchtower stonework so fresh in my mind I began to see the undertaking not as an intimidating prospect so much as the opportunity to be loose and free with the ‘rules’ a chance to play about with technique and have some real fun with stone.
First day of work
Triple course of taller bricks
Once I started to build with that attitude the flow and enjoyment really started. This also taught me a valuable lesson, one that only comes with working with new people and in new scenarios, sit within your own bubble you can end up at a dead end where you go round in circles thinking you’ve arrived whereas in reality you’ve come to a creative dead stop. Sharing and being open to other people’s vision and ideas is an enriching experience it allows you to find new routes with wonderful and exciting new possibilities. Being content with what you know and can do is a block to personal growth, something I for one aim to keep in mind.
I began to concentrate less on achieving a sweet smooth line as one would aim for in a traditional walling sense, worrying less about technique, focusing more on building in character and texture. At the end of the project I came to view that earliest section as the least successful, Ed was right, within the whole it is ‘fine,’ not the greatest endorsement adjective.
Placing the stones with more gay abandon really started to bring a life and a dynamic to the wall, I could pick and choose the most characterful side of each as the face and place stones end out which are always more random and weirdly shaped, less flat. Another technique was to shift stones in and out and twist them on their beds, this helped create texture adding shadows and depth to the facade, everything was moving one way or t’other.
Having this flexibility allowed me to get stone projecting beyond the main line of the wall back to the blockwork increasing the cladding depth in a way adding tying stones to the structure some of these project 3 to 4 inches from the main face line of the wall so these could be up to a foot in length. I made special effort to place ties around these areas, always conscious that if I was to reach my target, especially in the early lower lifts I was pushing at the height limits of what I could safely build in a day without the potential for the weight above causing issues. Ever in the back of my mind was a past experience of being on a construction site and hearing the almighty crash as a whole section of stone cladding crumbled to the ground around some other masons working in the area, too much in one day, too few ties, I wasn’t brave enough to investigate or ask! :-)) The last thing I wanted was Ed turning up to site finding me knee deep in a pile of rubble and old mortar at the base of his empty wall.
Texture of the facade
Texture of the facade
Squarish double course of deeper blocks
Squarish double course of deeper blocks
Moving onwards and upwards I again put in a double course band of the deeper blocks, this time I decided to break their length in half, making the blocks squarish rather than long rectangles and to utilise a quirk of laying them that I’d noticed on the Watchtower. I placed no emphasis on breaking joints, I’d lay them as they came if joints coincided no problem, don’t overthink it, this has the effect of creating its own distinctive pattern and one which I think actually turned out to be very attractive it made that band stand out. Unconventional and against the ‘rules’ but within this context a successful tweaking of them.
My next challenge was a pillar and area around what is the back door to the property, Ed had very precise plans for this section. As this was in fact the door they would mainly use he wanted it to be full of detail and incorporate various items that would make this a really interesting focal point upon arrival. Into this wall I built a shelf which upon the surface contained fossilised footprints across it’s length to which I then created a little opening out of the surrounding wall for a bronze turtle to be striding out from! Above this shelf I also incorporated a group of stars to represent Orion’s Belt, being a Gemini himself, Ed made these in the contrasting red stone, a sweet detail. He was also very specific about how I should tackle the pillar, he wanted it to look ‘ancient’ as if it was in a state of collapse and disintegration. Oh I could do that! There’s no way I would have approached the pillar that way, but he was right, higgledy-piggledy in this situation looks far more interesting than what I would have produced with my more technical attitude.
Things were progressing well by the end of my 3rd day I was about a third of the way up, but things would only get slower from here on in. Next on my list of challenges was building around the windows there are 4 on the tower. These are of a distinctive shape wider at the bottom narrower at the lintel. The Watchtower template again provided the inspiration to how I should tackle these, the detailing of the windows was ‘organic’ (rough), stepped and jutted around the opening.
Orion's Belt and the Bronze Turtle
Orion's Belt and the Bronze Turtle
More conventional crossing of joints
More conventional crossing of joints
"Organic" window construction
"Organic" window construction
Ed’s windows were within the timber frame behind the blockwork wall so about 14 inches from the desired finished tower face. This gave me another point up the height where I could get some stones with depth attached to the blockwork increasing my confidence that large areas would not slip off. Here though I aimed for a more conventional crossing of joints with alternate lengths into the wall body I allowed lots of projections and stepping to naturally occur too. This worked out really well, and dare I say it, I think my detailing around the windows is better than that at the Watchtower.
Contrasting sandstone detail
Contrasting sandstone detail
We had planned for a distinctive band to form another detail at first window lintel height. I chose to make that with a pallet of darker thinner sandstone, there wasn’t a lot of it and the quality was poor, how to give that a distinctive feel? Then it came to me, I’d emphasise that by using it to build a very rough textured band, breaking what I had up into smaller pieces which I then laid in a pronounced, jaggy course, resulting in a strong contrast with the surrounding stone. When broken the internal colour of this stone was much lighter than the weathered surface. My hope is that the darkening re-occurs and the band increases in colour depth.
Aztec ring placeholder
Aztec ring placeholder
Ed had left me two polystyrene shapes that I had to locate at certain specific points, he was then going to replace these with bronze castings that he would make. The first was a ‘ring’ that references the ancient Aztec sport of ullamaliztli, a game played between teams with a 9lb ball with the ultimate aim of putting it through the hole in the ring. This was more than just a game, encompassing gambling religion and politics. To paraphrase Bill Shankly it was game which was more important than life and death, as in some places it involved human sacrifice. The second shape was going to be replaced with what is termed a ‘grotesque rock’ an unusual piece of rock or wood that could be seen as an animal, called a Balolookong or Great Plumed Serpent a mythical snake from Peublo Indian folklore. A beautiful example has pride of place at Desert View.
These quirky details were a major part of the plan, perhaps the one most against walling ‘rules’ was a large running joint ‘scar’ he wanted, travelling from the top of the side door pillar up to the top last third section. This continued his thought process of wanting the tower to look old and in a semi state of collapse. His plan is at some point have something weird and fantastical emerging from that space. Certainly unconventional, and opposite to what ‘proper’ walling practices dictates, it actually ended up looking pretty cool, adding rather than detracting, it animates the surface of the Tower in a way that simply building correctly never would have. I cannot wait to see what he puts there.
an-example-of-a-balolookong
A running joint "scar"
A running joint "scar"
By the end of my first week, I was more than half way up and it looked like I was roughly on track, but progress was slowing down. Shifting the scaffolding two to three times a day was taking time away from the walling I was still unsure if completion was in my grasp, but Ed was loving the way it was going, at the very least I knew there would majority of the stonework would be done if I ran out of time. I continued creating differing bands as I moved upwards mixing the stone types as I went. The tower was in two sections two thirds was blockwork whilst the top third was a timber frame stepped back the width of the blockwork this gave me the ability to put in a full course of long tie stones across to the face stones and lock things together and be a good base for the stonework above. I’m a worrier, getting a significant tie to everything eased my concerns.
Once I moved onto the top section to clad the timber frame the end was in sight and though I wasn’t going to have much time to spare I was surely going to achieve what had been asked of me. Within this top section was the final detail a panel of three joining diamonds. Desert View has two panels that use this decorative form, right up at the top and near the tower entrance. These are pretty close replicas of detailing on another building at Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, a real fun section to build.
Final detail: a panel of three joining diamonds
Final detail: a panel of three joining diamonds
Inspiration for the three diamond panel
Inspiration for the three diamond panel
The end was in sight, Saturday was to be my last working day, but Joe and Dylan were itching to leave early that day to get home for the weekend. Without their help to complete the final topping out and taking down the scaffolding I’d have to leave without seeing the completed tower in its glory. We were up against the clock and the external pressure of the pull from home that Joe and Dylan were no doubt feeling Suffice to say we got there, it was DONE!! The scaffolding was down. Joe and Dylan finally managed to get away in the late afternoon and I can only hope they were greeted with open arms and a not too frosty reception. Their efforts deserved the former. I’m very grateful to them I’d never have reached the end of what was a mammoth task without their help and support. Ed and his wife Kathy had travelled up for the weekend. It was smiles all round. I felt a great sense of relief and pride, I’d repaid Ed’s trust in me.

Final Thoughts

After the fact, what about my initial unease about making a copy of a copy, did I fall into the pastiche trap? Am I as guilty of cultural appropriation as Banksy’s protege, Mr. Brainwash? Did I simply do a cut and paste job? Where does this project sit in the spectrum of ‘good’ stonework? Perhaps I should leave judgement of those questions to the reader to draw their own conclusions. However, since completing the project I’ve contemplated at length the inherent dilemma posed by the task Ed set. There are obviously mitigating factors that don’t address the fundamental question, it was a fabulous experience in a wonderful part of the USA, I had tremendous fun and derived a great sense of achievement in completing such a big ask in the time allowed. Working with the sun at my back and warmth in the air made a delightful change from doing it in the cold and damp that is the typical Scottish summer, the company and the food were exceptional. All in all, it was a memorable joyous ‘busman’s holiday, but does the project achieve authenticity? Is the stonework Good?
I don’t think the project illustrates the cynicism and pitfalls that I see and dislike in the work of Banksy and his sidekick Mr Brainwash. It is Ed’s vision, derived out of a delight and love for a building he really admires. It was within his capacity to celebrate that and get some of what he admired for his own enjoyment, why not? Interests of the client and artist were aligned, the process was a real collaboration, he couldn’t achieve it himself and neither could I have produced the result I did without his eye and input
Completed Project
Completed Project
Completed project with team
Completed project with team (from left to right: Dylan Davis, Joe Davis, Ed Reilly, David Wilson)
Being asked to discard the stonework rules book opened me up to creative options in terms of the qualities that could be brought out in the stone when I responded to it in less conventional ways, a revelation that I aim to use to inform my own future projects. The subversion of my knowledge and approach helped me created something new, advancing my own potential opening my eyes to exciting different methodologies. Perhaps in creating our Tower that’s the biggest lesson, one I could pass on to others, stonework has endless possibilities, it is not only what we know, don’t let the ‘rules’ lead you to a dead end, be open, don’t become inhibited by what is deemed correct, who knows where this freedom could get you.
Finally for me the real success of the project and the one that in my own mind legitimises the whole endeavour; the only ‘howls of laughter and guffaws of delight’, here were for the shared joy we all had bringing Ed’s dream Tower into reality, that’s a fundamental difference… but I would say that wouldn’t I.
Dedicated to the memory of Joseph Tyler Davis (October 2, 1992 – January 15th, 2021) and happier times. – DF Wilson

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 http://www.dswales.org.uk/Stonechat.html  

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