January 23, 2008

Landscape Architecture
January 2008

By Marty Carlock

Devotee of stone Jonathan Piaseeki, ASLA, tells how he builds walls, makes art, and tries to respect the land.

Jonathan Piasecki, ALSA, has a mystical feeling about walls. At the Bronze-Age roots of our own Culture, he says, the wall was “a fusion of stone, earth, and ritual,” the place where raw and perhaps hostile nature was held at bay. Basic to Piasecki’s work is an attitude of respect for the earth and for stones as the bones of the earth.

From the beginning of a project, Piasecki, approaches the design of a landscape backwards. Instead of imposing his plan on the land, he walks around a site, gets an idea of “what the landscape wants to be,” and to some extent improvises as he works. Piasecki muses, “If you draw first, the drawing tells you what it’s going to be. If you just go out and look, there’s a process of discovering what [the landscape] could be.”

He does some other unorthodox things. He makes his own art from the materials he finds on site. You won’t find fountains, benches, or cherubs sculpted elsewhere and plopped into place. For him and for users of the place, the art works as directional signs and place markers.

Most radically, he builds his own stonework. Sometimes he has help, but when lie’s working on a project he’s on site, dust and dirty fingernails and all, cranking come-alongs and working tractor front loaders. He’s particular about the way he wants his dry walls built. “There are not many landscape architects who do stone. Masonry peoplc know how to set it but don’t have the design thing. It’s pretty rare to fuse the two.” Piasecki takes satisfaction in laying every stone himself. The macho component to wrestling with and subduing tons of rock is balanced by his creativity.

Working with a vision of how he wants a wall to look, he adjusts as he goes along, trusting his instincts to know when he has it right. To break the stone to the sizes he wants, he uses traditional tools such as chisels. He uses a transit to set the level of the wall at both ends, but he refuses to string mason’s lines to make sure it’s straight. “I do it by eye. When it’s not perfect, it looks like it’s been there forever. It’s very freeing when you don’t have to make it super tight. I try to get to the fluidity of the stone.”

A representative sample of his work is in Lenox, Massachusetts. He calls it an Ordovician bench, because the stone he’s using is from that geologic era. He’s dug no foundation; digging would have killed the 50-foot pines and hemlocks the wall runs alongside. The walls are laid dry but bonded, stones of each course set at right angles to the one below and overlapping the seams. “My walls are very tough,” Piasecki points out. “Rough walls in the stone building trade are looked down upon. I think this rough work is better. It’s alive.”

To avoid tree trunks, the wall zigs around them, creating a dozen right angles. Occasionally he makes a notch, a seat in the wall “to hang out on.” The corners are anchored with two-ton blocks, creatively placed, so not every corner is square and true; some are set back,
leaving small seats. On a front corner, one block is sculpted with parallel vertical cuts Piasecki sliced with his diamond saw, then partially chipped out to create striped shadows. Every rock is positioned so the face with the most beautiful patterning shows.

His tractor will handle 800 pounds. With a come-along strapped to trees, lie can crank and tow rocks to where he wants them. He uses straps around the stones, too, so he won’t mark them. When he gets a rock about where he wants it, he levers it into place with rollers and a big pry bar. “People who came to watch called me Archimedes.”

Piasecki’s wife worries about the fact that he usually works alone. He shrugs. “I’m 40 years old and I’m pretty careful. But I’m not good at managing other people. Landscape architecture always means field adjustments; that way you can tie it into the land and the people you are working for. I lay every stone and make every adjustment.”

He finds the physicality of the work welcome. “You never can stop. Your musculature gets accustomed to that work. If you stop, you lose that.” His advice for those who want to do what he does: “They’re going to have to learn stone masonry, stone manipulation. It’s the very definition of a hard thing to learn.”

Of his free-form style, Piasecki says, “At first it was fate.” Piasecki’s art place markers began when clients in Harlemville, New York, asked him to cut a crosscountry ski trail up a ridge, through woods. “Then they asked, ‘How can we make sure we don’t get lost? Could you put some orange dots on the trees?’ I thought about it and I said, ‘No. Why don’t I make you stuff?'” The “stuff” he made is very subtle. Here it’s simply a rock cairn. There it may be a bladelike stone wedged between two tree trunks or a pile of rocks cupped by the trunks of five oaks that grew from a single root.

Some will not last long. One marker is simply a stack of saplings. Another is a lattice Piasecki fabricated in his studio from twigs and hung from a branch. “If they deteriorate, I’ll redo. Or sometimes not. With these clients, my thinking was, they need help getting around the woods for awhile. Then things could deteriorate and it wouldn’t matter.” But he goes on to say, “I don’t think it’s going to work out like that. I think they’re getting fond of the sculpture.”

Piasecki takes pleasure in the fact that it’s hard to tell his markers from ancient ones lie finds in these woodsmythic stone piles or natural outcroppings. The point is to get people in the habit of looking at what’s around them.

“Working in the woods, I thought, not many people see my work. But one day I was here and there were a whole bunch of kids from the Hawthorne Valley School. The teachers bring kids from there to get them puzzled about the woods. I had no idea so many people saw [my sculptures].”

For several hundred yards toward the end of the trail, just before it exits into a meadow, Piasecki’s art goes spooky. Flat stones, dozens of them, hang from trees. There’s something about them that looks like the human shape – they are crudely carved to have shoulders and a head. Their maker calls them “manitous,” the Algonquin word for the spirit that permeates the world.

He found the first one. “I was looking for stones in one of these piles, and I found this one that seemed to have a presence. I felt it had been made to represent something spiritual. I started reading, doing research.” He learned that such shaped stones were not uncommon. “We can never know what it means,” he says “because these people [who created them] are gone.” Piasecki’s manitous hang from wires around the “neck.” It grows on the viewer gradually that these stones represent dead people. It’s decidedly unsettling. This installation is the artist’s tribute to the aboriginal people who once lived here.

At the end of the ski trail is a wide, mowed swath through meadow grasses. The path leads past a dug pond and into a woodsy bog. Piasecki says nobody knew the swamp was there. He built a brief boardwalk meandering into it, past sedge hummocks.

Exploring the woods, he found a huge hickory tree that had been blasted by lightning and had the core burned our of it. Its canopy was still alive. Completely awed, Piasecki built a crescent wall of rock partway around it, taking care that the only place to sit is in the middle, staring at the cavity of the tree. He thinks of it as a shrine tree. What he has done encourages passersby to pause and consider the forces of life.

After finding tile shrine tree, Piasecki says, “I wanted to find more big trees I could engage, could interact with.” Near the meadow he encountered a huge oak and decided to people it with something very different from the eerie manitous. The branches of this tree are hung with something like many-armed stick figures, the arms made of hollow phragmites reeds that whistle in the wind. Where the shrine tree invokes reverence, the whistling oak is playful.

HOW DOES PIASECKI get people to buy his “stuff’?

“I had to do more selling at first,” he remembers. “Now people come to me. It’s pretty obvious from my portfolio what I do. I tell them what my ideas are, and either they’re down with it right away, or they’re marginal, or they fire me.”

If he feels the need for a change and they don’t, he’ll turn down the job. “There was a woman who wanted me to plant purple loosestrife (an invasive wetlands plant) because she wanted color in her meadow.” He couldn’t persuade her to go with anything else. “I quit.”

In business as Golden Bough Landscape Architecture in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, for 10 years, Piasecki says, “This is the first year I’ve scheduled the year ahead. I have more work than I can ever do.” He often puts in a day or two on one job, then a day or two on another. “I get it done,” he says. In the second-home-packed Berkshires, “I work with people who aren’t there.”

Born near the Canadian border in Chateaugay, New York, Piasecki studied biogeochemistry-“forest ecology, climate science,” he explainsat Cornell University. Because “I don’t think I could work inside very long,” he took a job that paid $3 an hour at a solid waste facility in Vermont, hated that, and became a tree pruner and arborist. Working with a landscape architect during that time, he thought, “I can do this.” He applied to Harvard Graduate School of Design and earned an MLA.

Piasecki has just been chosen as artist in residence by the Pittsfield (Massachusetts) Storefront Collaborative, which has charged him with filling empty shop windows with his art. The art is ephemeral arid edgy. It grows out of Piasecki’s love of his materials: stone, twigs, reeds, knotty branches, and scraps of weathered wood. “I’m primarily a landscape architect, but I make things. So they’re sculpture I get flashes of inspiration, start work-ing on it. I might do a drawing, but I’m a lousy drawer. Then I build those things. I get a feeling; I know when it’s good. I don’t think of myself primarily as an artist, but there’s artistry in what I do.

“Artists are fearful of making their own stuffthat’s what artisans do. Making stuff sets up a different relationship. When you make something, you use it in a very different way.”

Outdoors, his onsite art is kin to earthworks art and inevitably brings to mind sculptor Andy Goldsworthy’s work. “He and I are subtly different,” Piasecki says. “I’ve had a developing relationship with his work. First, I thought it was so beautiful. Then I got jealous. Now I think my work is different, but I owe him an enormous debt. Without him I wouldn’t be able to do these things. No one would give it any value.”

Not all Piasecki’s work falls into the earth-art category, but it all involves stone these days. He’s just completed a courtyard in Troy, New York, in a building owned by a restoration architect. Piasecki had to do it all by hand-the doorway to the Courtyard is too small to admit machines. He was lucky. He dug into the ground in the yard and found bluestone, buried after a building was destroyed by fire in the 19th century. So as he prefers to do, he was able to use material found on the site.

Piasecki spent a year between 2004 and 2005 at the American Academy in Rome as a recipient of the Prince Charitable Trust Rome Prize Fellowship in Landscape Architecture. There he studied archaic, Etruscan and Roman boundary walls. Piasecki thinks his work wasn’t changed by the Rome experience, but, he muses, “There are a lot of different Romes to see. If you dig down in the soil in Rome, you go back in time. You can literally see the rapport the masons had with the earth. You can see how they reused stones from earlier buildings. In America, we throw stuff away. In Rome they reused everything.

“I think the impact of what I’m doing is important,” he declares. “I’m in a chain of people making boundaries that goes back millennia.”