In garden walls and abstract sculptures, Edwin Hamilton pays respect to masonry’s long history
by HAZEL WHITE photography by MARION BRENNER
The roughly one-square-foot gap near the end of the wall may be filled today, or maybe not. Walls tell stories, according to stonemason Edwin Hamilton, and what is happening now will be a piece of the story of this Sonoma fieldstone wall for the hundreds of years that it stands.
Hamilton, 6 foot 3 and 245 pounds, a footballer once, speaks softly in Spanish to his masons. He indicates with a relaxed broad hand how the stone in that empty space at the top of the wall might curve out, away from the batter. He carves a line in the air toward the cornerstone, already set—a magnificent, squarish, almost jet-black mass of basalt (before cutting, about three-quarters of a ton). The cornerstone has a slightly protruding face, so there is a possibility for a subtle torque here, “a transition of planes in the batter,” he says, smiling at the serendipity of it.
A MATTER OF TIME
Hamilton and six of his crew of fifteen masons have been building this 4-foot-high, 130-foot-long retaining wall and a stone stairway in the entrance court of f Lee and Tony Hooker’s house for more than two months, and have several weeks at least to go before it is complete. The house sits in the Tiburon hills, above the San Francisco Bay, and Hamilton’s work is part of a landscape project by Blasen Landscape Architecture. As it’s turning out, each mason is completing two to four square feet of the wall each day, by intricately cutting and fitting one or two stones. “To do this level of work is incredibly time consuming,” says Hamilton, “On this project, we have a wonderful client. I’Lee told me to knock myself out on this wall. We cut as much as we want to cut. That’s something of a rarity.”
For Hamilton, whose abstract sculpture is exhibited in museums, the Hooker wall is “as close as a stone wall can be to being sculpture. Maybe it is sculpture,” he says. It conveys a sense of the mass of the stone; one feels the awesome weight of it, and also its ancientness. And yet in the improvised flow of the joint lines between the stones, and the rhythmic placement of the largest stones, some three feet tall, there’s a highly intentional intervention. The art, says Hamilton, is about intentionality, the “dialog between the mason and the stone he is working with.”
One of his favorite walls is a freestanding boundary wall at the Stamper residence, in Marin, just a few miles from here. Massive split slabs, spheres, and cubes of black academy granite are balanced in a grand sculptural arrangement across the edge of a lawn, just where the garden, designed by Topher Delaney, falls away onto the slopes of Mount Tamalpais. Hamilton likes the “lightness” of that wall, that you can see through it.
Hamilton started building walls 20 years ago, after dropping out of college. He apprenticed himself to two stonemasons near here, and after a couple of years, he bought a one-way ticket to Europe to study old European stone work. He stayed for two years. Working on a house in Provence, he’d go out into the fields to pick up his stone in a wheelbarrow every morning. In Scotiand, he spent several months repairing a farmers field walls and building a stone bridge over a stream.
A recent project, an architectural one, shows other, older influences on Hamilton’s work. In 2001, he built a 42-foot-tall stone cladding of limestone for a mountain house in Ketchum, Idaho, designed by Thierry Despont. That’s the scale that he would like to work at again. All his work is inspired by monumental stonework—in particular, by the Inca ruin of Sacsayhuaman in Peru. In 1996, Hamilton spent several weeks there, studying the intricacy of the fit of the massive stones, conjecturing how it was done. “I was humbled as a craftsman and stunned by its resonance,” he recalls.
At the same time he is building the wall at the Hooker residence, Hamilton is also installing an exhibition of his recent sculpture in the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, in Sonoma. He has placed a massive 16 tons of stone into a small (500-square-foot) space there, forcing a sense of the monumental. Several of the sculptures are spheres, inspired by huge spheres Hamilton saw in Costa Rica. His artist’s statement refers to his awe of ancient monumental works in stone and his wish to “capture the resonance and power” of them in his own work, and so keep the tradition alive in the modern world. During the installation, Sonoma landscape contractor Paul Martinez, who had watched the delivery of the sculptures, burst into the room, exclaiming about the Inca ruins in Peru—had Hamilton seen them? In his opinion, it wasn’t such a mystery how the work was done: “If you take your time, you can do anything!”
Hamilton agreed. Just an hour earlier, speaking of his own work, he had said “it takes a lot of time, an awful lot of time, a different sense of time.” H