Building walls and finding freedom

Structures: Vermonter Dan Snow specializes in the building of dry-stone walls, a peaceful craft and one surprisingly in demand.

October 07, 2001|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

In the company of Dan Snow, a dry-stone waller from Vermont, rebuilding, an often painful proposition, is as natural as breathing. It is his job to take geological rubble and render it into walls, fences, terraces, sacred grottos and delightful follies.

The boulders, slabs and stones Snow uses are often recycled from structures built more than a century ago to mark boundaries and keep livestock within pastures. He uses no mortar. Instead, Snow manipulates stone with a hammer and chisel to make a snug fit.

It's an apt time to speak with Snow, and to read his book, "In the Company of Stone: The Art of the Stone Wall" (Artisan, $35), a meditation on a handcraft dependent on natural materials and basic rules dictated by gravity.

In the aftermath of last month's terrorist attacks, "There is a need for hope for rebuilding, and, I think, much of that hope is to find peace. I think the book is peaceful, and [I hope] many others will discover peace from it, too," says Snow, who will speak about his work this Thursday at the Baltimore Chapter of the American Institute of Architects on Chase Street.

The book, illustrated with photographs by Peter Mauss, forced Snow, 50, to articulate what had always been a mostly intuitive process. As he attempted to explain how a construction fits together, how it "finds its place on the landscape," the book "changed from looking out at what I'd done and how I'd done it, to what this meant to me."

In an early passage, Snow writes of fleeting moments when he and the stone find where they belong: "When now and again a stone falls into a place that is utterly inevitable, I feel I am suddenly standing under a shower of grace. For an instant I become inevitable, too. I share the compatibility that stone finds with stone. If I'm lucky, it happens a lot. Then again, some days it doesn't happen at all. Grace may fall in the next moment or never again. I know only that if I put myself with stone, it may happen again, so I keep on walling."

Snow became a waller in 1976, not long after returning to Vermont from New York City. There, he had studied industrial design at Pratt Institute, became a model maker by day and a sculptor working with found materials by night.

In New York, Snow had friends who intended to make it big as artists, and then buy a place in Vermont. Snow decided to skip the "make it big" step and simply go home. He had always enjoyed making things and had apprenticed with a mason and labored on a farm, among various manual jobs. But Snow had no use for the construction business.

Waiting in line daily at the building supply store to buy ungainly lumber didn't appeal. Instead, Snow says, "I decided to take my chances finding what I needed by just exploring. That's a lot of what choosing stone is: being an explorer. Taking the chance you may or may not find what you need. There's some excitement in that."

Nor was Snow interested in helping clients choose the interior of their bathrooms. He was interested "in how people feel about their landscape, the space around them."

Snow trained with master craftsmen in Mexico, Italy and Scotland. Today, he is one of few Americans certified by the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain. Last month, he spent a week building dry-stone corners and a round pillar under the scrutiny of judges who will determine whether Snow has earned his master craftsman certification, the ultimate walling distinction.

While all dry-stone wallers follow their craft's basic principles -- one stone lies on two and two stones lie on one, for example -- each develops a signature style.

At a recent walling conference in Virginia, Snow observed walls made of stones chiseled beyond recognition. It's lovely work, he says, but Snow prefers to "let the stones stay the way they are for the most part." He is more tied to the "Scottish sensibility" of using stone "as you find it, allowing the stone to stand on its own."

As he works, Snow says, "I have a pretty strong vision of the way a form will come out, but I don't know the relationship of the individual stones before." For that reason, "It's always a surprise to discover just how all the parts connect to make the form come clear."

In a field enjoying a renaissance fueled by preservationists, wallers and homeowners willing to pay handsomely for stone structures, Snow wonders if he has taken the craft "beyond its limits." In his book, he describes a grotto he built into a ledge: "Filled with dozens of waterlines that allow it to weep from its very pores, this ledge-topping extravaganza defies the code of restraint inherent in the dry-stone craft."

Another piece featured in the book, a stone sphere with a hollow core, plays with heft, light and the marvels of geometry. Currently, Snow is building "a medieval-looking tent structure," draped in vertically-placed stone to sheer, textile-like effect.

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