December 29, 2014
Text by Robert Kiener
Thea Alvin creates arches, walls, and walkways that seem to defy the laws of nature.
If you want a clue to Thea Alvin’s profession, you might ask her to hold out her hands. They’re tough, calloused, solid, beefy, and strong. Now look a little closer. This forty-six-year-old, internationally acclaimed stonemason and sculptor doesn’t have any fingerprints. “After thirty years of working with abrasive stones, they’ve been worn away,” she says.
While her stunning stone creations, from elegantly crafted walls and walkways to intricate stone circles to a complete stone chapel, don’t bear her fingerprints, they do reflect her unique vision and artistry.
“I like to call my creations ‘poems in stone,’” explains Alvin, as she shows off the looping, fifty-ton, three-arch, DNA-like helix of stone that sits in the front yard of her Morristown, Vermont, farmhouse. She lives on busy Route 100, and the work draws intrigued onlookers almost every day. “I want to use stones to tell a story, to bring out feelings and emotions in people,” she says. As her front-yard helix proves, she’s intrigued by making stone “do what it looks like it couldn’t do naturally, such as making it look fluid and in motion.”
After starting as an assistant to her brick-and-mortar mason father on Martha’s Vineyard and then apprenticing with a Vermont-based stonemason, Alvin eventually carved out a niche as a much-in-demand stone artisan. Her private and public commissions take her across the country and around the world. “My international work has just blossomed recently,” she says. “I used to hunker down during Vermont’s long winters but now I work year-round.” This winter she will complete commissions in Australia, Kenya, Mexico, and elsewhere.
She and her partner, sculptor Michael Clookey, recently completed a standing stone circle for a Wisconsin homeowner. For private Colorado client Tatiana Maxwell, she installed a massive 100-foot, 500-ton stone wall. “Thea has a magical, artistic quality that she brings to everything she does,” says the Boulder homeowner. “Somehow she can look at a pile of tons of stones and know where each one goes to create a work of art.”
For her private commissions, Alvin looks for projects that give her the chance to stretch creatively. “I don’t like to repeat myself,” she says. “Clients deserve something that is unique.”
The artist confesses that while some prospective clients think they are interviewing her during the first stage of a project, it’s actually the reverse. Sometimes she turns down projects. “I look for clients who are willing to give me artistic freedom and are open to change. My sculptures are organic, and,” she jokes, “I always remind clients, ‘Nothing is set in stone.’”
Although stone is durable and long lasting, Alvin explains that many of her installations and projects are not necessarily permanent. “I think working with stone is like sketching with a pencil,” she says. “With dry stonework there is no mortar, so you can take it down and put it back up. There’s a flow in this kind of work, a loose type of spirituality.”
While she uses mortar in some of her work, Alvin, like other masons, sometimes calls it “the devil’s cream.” She says, “Mortar is a bonding agent that can protect a wall, but it can also trap water and lead to the death of a wall. Also, it can be used as an excuse for poor workmanship.”
Alvin has become known for her precisely fitted dry stonework and her signature, gravity-defying stone arches, which she usually builds without mortar. She uses wooden frames during an arch’s construction and removes them when the stonework is completed. “I give the arch a good shake to make sure it’s sturdy,” she says. “If it doesn’t move, it’s finished.” She will use mortar if the wall or arch is intended to be climbed on.
Watching Alvin work is like watching a composer; she’s a study in concentration as she chooses just the right pieces to help her craft her symphony in stone. As she uses a three-pound maul, which she calls Garfield (she has named most of her thirty-plus stone hammers), to split a seventy-pound piece of Vermont granite, she explains, “There’s a rhythm to stonework. I often listen to classical music and can almost stop thinking when I’m building a wall. Instead, I let it tell me how to build it. It’s a spiritual experience, really, because the act of creating is divine.” •