I’ve written a lot about Richard, my husband and the love of my life, in the context of this journey we’re walking with his brain cancer. But for this post, I want to brag about his art. He’s got a Ph.D. in economics, and for decades, he worked as a university professor and an expert witness in the economics of regulation. But at heart, he’s always been a sculptor, a person who “thinks with things,” expressing the ineffable using native rocks, steel, and wood. His work isn’t representational, but it is sometimes functional, hence the gorgeous sinks in our house, each one carved out of a boulder he picked up from some nearby road cut or riverbank. (That’s an old photo of him below, holding the first sink he ever carved, practically giddy with excitement at finding the vessel in the rock and figuring out how to liberate it with carving and polishing tools.)
He’s also fascinated with “repurposed” building stone, like the big chunks of red sandstone that came with our property, mostly likely from an ornate Victorian building downtown that was torn down in the 1980s for a bank parking lot. These roughly rectangular stones are a lovely peachy shade, and some of them show the slanting lines of the ancient sand dunes they once were. (You can see those slanting bedding planes in the block in the photo below.) Richard has placed several of these former building stones around the yard as benches, and a year or so ago, he began thinking about incorporating one into a sculpture that would hold our mailbox. As he “played with” the building stones (each of them weighs 400 to 500 pounds) and then experimented with a design that involved bending steel pipe, I got excited. Last summer when he asked what I wanted for my birthday in September, I said, “A sculptural mailbox.” “Okay,” he said.
Only in late August, he began seeing the birds that didn’t exist outside his mind, and instead of working on that sculptural mailbox, we landed in Denver where he was in the VA Hospital with his team of doctors working on figuring out what was causing traumatic swelling in his brain, which lead to the discovery of his brain tumor, then brain surgery and the brain cancer treatment that shapes our days.
For my birthday, I got to take Richard home with me from the hospital, a wonderful gift to my way of thinking. But he didn’t forget the promised sculpture. This spring, as he recovered from brain surgery and radiation–both of which seriously impacted his ability to solve the kinds of complex design problems involved in manipulating large chunks of stone and steel pipe–he set back to work.
After his fourth round of chemo, he felt good enough to get out his gantry, a hand-operated horizontal crane he designed and fabricated to move the huge rocks he works with, got the 500-pound chunk of repurposed sandstone building block moved into position for the mailbox sculpture, and poured the concrete base. (Photos of the gantry in action are in an earlier blog post.)After his fifth round of chemo, which ended just before Fourth of July weekend and our family gathering to celebrate his 60th birthday, he figured out how to set in the re-shaped steel pipes that hold the flagstone platform upon which the mailbox sits. He even made a stencil to letter the numbers in the same font as the house numbers on our front porch.
There’s the sculpture is in the photo above, with the wildflowers in our restored native grassland yard blooming around it. (The scarlet flower spikes are desert Indian paintbrush, the chocolate-brown ones with the central cone sticking up are Mexican hat, and the yellow daisy-like flowers with red centers are blanketflower.) I feel like the luckiest person in the world!
Of course, now that our front yard is graced with that spectacular mailbox sculpture, I decided that the parking strip, the narrow bit of yard between the street and the sidewalk, needed some renovation. Since our soil is tightly packed river gravel and cobbles with some sand and silt between, digging in that “hell strip” is not something I undertake lightly. But the mailbox needed an approach more artistic than the dusty strip with its straggle of native plants.
So yesterday I spent a couple of hours hacking away with a hoe to loosen the hard-packed “soil” of the parking strip, raking with a sturdy six-tined garden rake, and picking rocks (and picking rocks and more rocks…). Today Richard helped me select and move some of the flags that we bought for our bedroom patio project. That’s his hand-powered “freight wagon” in the photo above next to one of the pallets of flagstone. The wagon’s pneumatic tires can theoretically carry a 1,200-pound load; he routinely hauls rocks weighing 500 pounds.
The result of my hoe-hacking, raking, rock-picking, and hauling flagstones? Half of the wide walkway I intend to lay connecting the street with our front sidewalk (photos above and below). I was so absorbed that I didn’t think to shoot photos of the process, but here’s what I did: I loosened the soil and rocks in the parking strip with the hoe, raked out the rocks, “fluffed” and leveled the sandy soil to make a bed for the flags, and then laid each flag straight on the soil. Richard leveled the big flags–I’m not strong enough to move them–by wiggling them in the loose, dry soil until they were set correctly, and then I packed soil around them and filled the joints with rounded pea gravel.
I had thought I might finish the walk this weekend, but once I started, I realized I needed to lay flags in a wider path than I had first envisioned. (Why do projects always expand to more than fill the space and energy you have allocated for them? Surely there’s a law of physics to explain that.) I’m very pleased to have finished part of the flagstone walk though, because tomorrow our yard, the pocket park next door showcasing native and xeriscape plants that we designed and maintain for the City of Salida, and our block of restored urban creek are part of the “Open Garden” tour for the North American Rock Garden Society’s annual meeting, happening here in tiny Salida. Six gardens, some public, some private, are open for the Rock Garden Society’s members to tour during this annual meeting: five in the Denver Metro Area, and one in Salida. Yup, my yard.
It’s an honor to open our formerly blighted industrial site for a group of plant enthusiasts, breeders, and landscape designers from around the country, and not a little intimidating. Perhaps I should have started earlier and actually finished that flagstone walk. Or the flagstone project in the bedroom courtyard. Or the dining pavilion at the base of the steps between the native grassland yard and the creek bank. Or …
Oh well. Like my life, my yard is a work in progress. But I have the coolest sculptural mailbox around.