A stonemason creates enduring art
New England is a region of rock, from the granite faces of its many hillsides and mountains to its rocky shores and boulder-strewn fields. The early settlers crafted walls, foundations, and buildings from this rock, but stonemason and landscaper Phil O’Donnell of Stratham, New Hampshire, sees rock differently. For him, its weathered and varied forms are inspiration for his art.
O’Donnell, owner of New England Land Artisan, creates unique sculptures, fireplaces, walls, water features, and other elements. Some are rough-hewn, suggesting the raw power of the natural forces that forged this material. Others are carefully plotted exercises in symmetry, using thousands of tiny rock slices to create the final design.
O’Donnell first worked with rock in his landscaping efforts, doing numerous hardscapes with plantings. After 20 years, he gradually eased away from the plant-based designs and began focusing more of his time on his rockwork. At first he created pieces primarily for the Boston Flower Show, but as others saw his stunning creations, he began to get requests for custom jobs.
“I like the permanence of the medium,” says O’Donnell, who built an impressive stone-filled patio and garden at his home. “Rockwork is also a way to bring dramatic impact into a landscape. It’s a natural element so it is not going to seem out of place. In addition, the appearance of these pieces subtly changes through the day as light and shadow shift.”
O’Donnell works with reclaimed granite from old mill or building foundations, quarried stone from his native western Massachusetts, and with fieldstone that is harvested from all over the region. His motto when working with reclaimed granite is “reinvention through deconstruction.” Old foundation materials may find themselves hammered, chiseled, broken, and otherwise rendered into new shapes as he fits them to his vision.
A good example from Stratham is a monolithic water feature that still bears the marks of being part of an old barn foundation. O’Donnell split the rock to get the shape he wanted, and these scars add to the column’s rugged appearance. Standing on the patio with water coursing down its face, the stone seems like an ancient relic wrought from deep in the earth, still part of nature despite its modern function and historic past.
O’Donnell is completely self-taught and has learned his art through decades of hands-on work. Although his pieces clearly illustrate a high level of skill, he feels he has barely scratched the surface in terms of his knowledge of stone. “The more I work with stone, the more I understand how much I don’t know,” he says. “Every stone is different, every piece is different. It is an art that is endlessly fascinating.”
Sometimes O’Donnell searches for a particular stone for a specific project, but other times he simply lets the stone “speak” to him. “It’s nice to have a project in mind, but I have found that I’ll go looking for certain rocks for a project and wind up stumbling upon something completely different. This found piece will totally change the direction I’m going in. It’s an exciting way to work because you are constantly being surprised and can keep reinventing what you are doing.”
Among the many striking pieces at O’Donnell’s home studio is the Cairn, a chimney-like sculpture he created 10 years ago to denote his purchasing the property; it marks the end of a stone wall, which he also fabricated, that wraps a section of his land. Cairn stands 15 feet tall and is made of thousands of thin slices of blue and gray stone. A similar piece marks the other end of the wall. Next to the rock garden is the Orb, a giant beehive-shaped sculpture that now rests on a huge stone pad. It is roughly four and a half feet around and rises to an impressive six feet in height. Again, thousands of thin slices of gray stone have been carefully layered to build the Orb; the gray tones are broken up by two dramatic bands of white stone, called the “belt course,” which highlight the sculpture’s impressive diameter. The Orb was initially created to be a signature element in a display at the Boston Flower Show, causing O’Donnell to alter his usual technique for this piece.
“I typically work using a dry-laid stone technique,” he explains. “This means, I don’t use mortar. The stones are held in place by gravity and the way they are fitted together. However, since this piece was going to be shipped, I did use mortar. It took 21 days to build. I do pieces like this and the cairns because they add punctuation to the landscape. They are a lot of work but command your attention when done.”
He recently completed an unusual stone fireplace for the patio, which uses rough pieces of granite left over from various projects for the main framework, a slab of brownstone from an old church for the mantel, and is then inlaid with a variety of smooth fieldstones. Near the fireplace are a range of stone tables and chairs, many with lichens still intact. “I’m a big fan of moss and lichens,” he says. “I think they add character to the rock and keep that connection to nature. I see myself as an environmental sculptor, so for me having those natural elements in place makes sense.”
O’Donnell hopes to craft more projects like the fireplace and also do more work with archways. “I did a keystone arch for the Newburyport Art Association’s sculpture garden entryway and it was a fun project,” he says. “With keystone work, one rock—the keystone—holds everything in place. Working on something like that is both challenging and satisfying.” O’Donnell has been working with the association to create the Range Light Community Sculpture Garden for the past three years; the garden is scheduled for completion this spring.
Because O’Donnell primarily works without mortar, he can pretty much work year-round. “If I can get the foundation and underpinnings of a project in before winter, then I can work on building out the rest of the project even with snow on the ground,” he says.
O’Donnell’s yard acts as an outdoor showroom for his work, allowing clients to get ideas and inspiration as they view projects both completed and underway. “I add things all the time,” he says. “It’s nice to have new concepts to show people, but it is also such satisfying work that I just enjoy the process. I’m always intrigued to see where the stone will take me next.”