The New York Times recently looked into the life of Thea Alvin, a stonemason with creative, beautiful dry stone work art all over the world. The following excerpts are from the article published in the NY Times.
"MORRISVILLE, Vt. — The business of building a 50-ton stone helix on the front lawn is perhaps the definition of a specialty trade. Almost no one other than Ms. Alvin has the imagination and skill to do it.
And her life’s training would be particularly hard to emulate. Ms. Alvin grew up in a commune (which, on second thought, may have been a cult), partied with the Grateful Dead when she was 5, spent the better part of a school year in her bedroom under a kind of “solitary confinement” and eloped at 18 and raised three children in a cabin with no running water. The experience has left her with a creative disposition and an underdeveloped interest in capitalism."
"Ms. Alvin does a lot for her friends in the neighborhood, the scruffy little hamlets that ring the well-groomed ski principality of Stowe. On a recent Thursday morning, she offered a driving tour of her ambit.
One of the first stops was a yak farm where she had rehabbed a retaining wall below the barn. Across from the state Capitol in Montpelier, a little ways down the road, she had installed a 12-ton mound of environmental art. This was a meditation in slate on the power of storms and floods.
One job was as good as the other. Wherever you set it, a stone is a stone.
To the extent that her craft involves breaking rocks in the hot sun, Ms. Alvin appears to be having fun. She wields a 4-pound maul that she calls Garfield. “It’s short and fat,” she said, “and really likes lasagna.”
She admits to having a “hammer fetish”: she owns three to four dozen, all of them named. “I have a 7-pound hammer that you hold in one hand, and that’s called Bam Bam,” she said. “And I have a 12-pound maul, and that’s called the Convincer.”
She rarely strains her back hoisting these tools. For starters, she doesn’t have much of a back to strain. She stands an inch or two over 5 feet, and that’s in her work Crocs.
One of her longtime friends, Suzanne White, recalls lending a hand on a stone job. “She asked me to pick up one end of a big stone,” Ms. White said. “And I couldn’t move it. So she just lifted it by herself.”
Ms. Alvin reckons, “I top out at around 150 pounds. I can move a rock that’s 200 pounds, but I can’t pick it up.”
Still, once you have the stones, anything is possible.
IT IS FEASIBLE to bully a single boulder, but the better part of the art is persuasion. Stacking stones, Ms. Alvin said, “is like playing Tetris with real objects.”
Mr. Haddow lives and works in Scotland, at the edge of the Highlands, and he has seen Viking-era walls nearby, where “the stone is built exactly the same way I do it.” Almost as longstanding, perhaps, is the Old World schism between dry “wallers” (that is, farmers) and mortar-smearing “masons” (tradesfolk). “Masons shape the stone,” he said, “and wallers find the right one.”
Most Americans take a less dogmatic view, and Ms. Alvin works in both idioms. But as Mr. Haddow said, “she seems to have the knack to find the right stone.” He was calling from Alton, Ontario, where he makes an annual pilgrimage to play around at a dry stone festival in Canada (formerly known as Rocktoberfest). That’s where he first encountered Ms. Alvin’s stonework.
“By my standard, it’s impeccable,” he said. Yet to Mr. Haddow’s expert eye, “she’s an artist rather than a waller.” This is in keeping with the migration of the form from the sheep pasture to the manor lawn. “People like Thea are doing features for rich people,” he said."