Stoneworker Lew French does not call himself an artist.
“That’s pretentious,” says the Edgartown resident. “It’s not up to you to call it art; it’s up to someone else to call it art.”
Regardless, there is no question that there’s artistry in all of Lew’s stonework, whether he’s constructing a wall with geometric precision, patterning a hearth, designing a fountain, or making a sculpture. At a client’s Chilmark summer home informally known as the Wave House, Lew’s artistry is present throughout the landscape, linking buildings, walkways, gardens, walls, and sculptures through the theme of stone.
“Good design ties everything in with everything,” says Lew. “There are themes, parallels. Always for me it’s about proportion.”
When he first arrived at the property twenty-three years ago, good proportion was sorely lacking, and nothing tied in with anything. The previous owners had bulldozed the land, graded it flat (with a mild slope down toward Menemsha Pond), and built a 1960s deck house (“a meaningless house,” in Lew’s words). Now, in a tear-down situation, Lew was responsible for shaping the hardscape – the permanent landscape features, including not just stonework but the terrain itself.
“This was huge for me,” he says. “I had done some projects before but not on this scale.”
He started by bringing in his own bulldozers and front loaders – to build up rather than flatten. Seeking to restore the lay of the land to something like what it looked like originally, he built multiple berms and knolls on the property, giving it contour and hillsides. “There’s my context,” he says, indicating the neighboring hills and the marsh. “The way the land kind of undulates now, that’s what I did here. And by doing that, I established where the walks and walls would be, and where the plantings would go.”
Over the next couple of years, Lew fashioned an area for a vegetable garden from fieldstone and locust and built tight, flat-topped stone walls bordering the driveway and extending along one side of the property all the way down to the marsh. He created paths, patios, garden borders. Pointing to the stone veneer of the main house’s foundation, he says, “I physically laid every one of those stones. The choice of stone, the pattern of stone, is mine.” The same is true for the stone veneer on an outbuilding called the boathouse (which houses an office over storage space).
But his work wasn’t over yet. A year after he’d completed the property’s hardscape, the owners called him and asked him to take over the gardens as well. They were unhappy with what a landscaper had planted and wanted Lew to redo it.
“The person who did the work never really asked them what they wanted, what their likes and dislikes were,” Lew notes. “What the wife wanted was flowers. They come basically for July and August, and what the landscaper planted was mostly native species with small blossoms; and most of the native plants flower in the spring.”
So Lew focused on flowers – a mixture of annuals and perennials, with a few hydrangea bushes thrown in. His goal was to plant in a way that made sense within the context of his extensive stonework, the buildings, the topography of the property, and the greater environment surrounding it – the softly rolling Chilmark hills, the marsh the property abuts, and beyond it, the pond. After five years of maintaining the gardens, Lew moved on to other things, and West Tisbury’s Arnie Fischer and his Moonlight Gardening took over. Arnie has been the property’s landscaper ever since.
But as it turned out, Lew’s work there wasn’t over. Two years ago – some twenty years after he had completed the hardscaping – he was commissioned to build a sculpture by the boathouse. He didn’t have a specific plan in mind when he started the sculpture; rather, it evolved as he worked, incorporating both large blocks of stone and smaller rocks. When he completed it, the owners liked it so much that they commissioned a second sculpture. The result lies near the edge of the lawn bordering the marsh. It is curved, somewhat serpentine. It echoes both the shapes of the inlets in the marsh beyond it, and the curves and circles in the house’s architecture. Lew wanted to create something the owners’ grandchildren could play on, and so this second sculpture is low to the ground and sturdy.
“It has a sort of a head,” Lew says. “I don’t know whether it’s more like a serpent or a dinosaur, but it definitely evolved into a kind of animal thing.”
The gardens too have evolved. Arnie says his aim has been to maintain “an exciting, colorful, full landscape and garden.” With input from the clients (they don’t like bare spaces and don’t want to see mulch; the husband likes bright oranges and reds and dislikes daisies; the wife likes purple and is partial to hydrangea), he has created a vibrant, lush, exuberantly colorful garden. Several of his employees have served as principal gardeners on the property, and each one has made his or her mark. The current principal gardener is Tara Gayle of Chilmark.
“Arnie taught me everything I know about this garden,” she says, “how to prune, how to encourage each shrub and flower for the next year.” When she uses the term “this garden,” she is actually referring to numerous flower beds, hillsides, and stone wall borders.
One of Arnie’s instructions for the garden was to keep the plants back and the soil level below the tops of Lew’s stones, so as not to bury his work. So far, Tara has succeeded in this, though it’s a constant battle against necessary compost, plant debris, and the vigorously spreading plants themselves.
“Arnie has respect for what each plant is going to do,” she says. “He’s not into keeping things too manicured. He likes the wild side.” But Tara notes that plants do what they do, and by last season, things had become a bit overgrown. Consequently, she spent much of the fall pruning, “bringing it back down, to let everything revamp itself.”
Tara calls Arnie “very democratic,” meaning that he lets her have her say in the management of the garden. While the garden’s overall structure is loose, informal, and natural, there are plants that recur throughout the various beds, notably butterfly bushes, hydrangea, irises, and roses. Crocosmia is another “theme” plant that Tara has added – “because I love it.”
Maintaining so much garden is a major undertaking. The weeding alone, Tara says, is “intense.” But, she adds, it’s worth it. “There’s such a big payoff when it all blooms. It’s just amazing. I’ve never worked in, or even seen, a garden that’s so incredible. Even if you don’t get to plant and are just weeding a patch, it makes you happy.”
While the gardens have evolved into something considerably different than what Lew originally planted, he is philosophical about change. Describing a time when a landscape architect criticized the tight stone walls he had built on this property, calling them “un-Chilmark,” (i.e., not traditional, loose farmer’s walls), he says, “Are we all supposed to stand still? There’s not supposed to be any kind of improvement or variation? We’re all supposed to do the same thing? If something is okay, it’s okay.”
The stone sculptures Lew created on this Chilmark property in the past two years are quite different in style from his original work here. Asked whether he thinks his work has changed, he replies, “Let’s hope so!” That being said, he surveys the totality of the property and is pleased. Sometimes, he confesses, he looks back on older work and thinks it looks “kind of cheesy.” But not here. “I don’t have any regrets about anything I did here,” he says. “It’s stood the test of time. I still think it’s fantastic the way those stones in the wall went together. There’s a lot of subtlety here, a lot of layers to it. That’s always been a key thing to me.”
Reflecting on the evolution of his work over time, he says, “None of this would have happened for me if I’d lived anywhere other than Martha’s Vineyard. If I worked in a metropolitan area, there’s no way that an architect would let me have free rein. On the Vineyard, I’m often working on people’s second or third homes, so if the owners trust what you do, you get to do what you want. I’m the luckiest person alive.”