Samantha Holmes’ Hell Gate Cairns are a series of stacked stone pillars, or cairns, that stand watch over the southern coastline of Randall’s Island Park, a monument to the human creativity and industry with which we have shaped the world around us, from land reclamation projects to the construction of buildings and cities. Through their simplicity of structure, Holmes aims to embody our impulse to imaginative construction – stacking stones first in play, then as architecture. Their verticality mirrors that of the city beyond. The surface of the cairns is covered in stone mosaic with flickers of glass and gold, reflecting the light of sun and water, and turning the medium of mosaic upon itself: stone celebrating stone, a symbol of the creative relationship between man and nature.
By focusing on the forms of natural stone, the piece draws attention to the boulders that line the Park’s paths and fields, remnants of the great earthmoving projects of the 20th century that cleared the city’s waterways – most notably the perilous “Hell Gate”, the narrow stretch of water between Randall’s Island and Queens responsible for hundreds of early shipwrecks. The monument’s placement at the water’s edge recalls these feats of human engineering, while further calling upon the cairns’ symbolism as both a memorial to the deceased and an ancient sign of treacherous waters.
We're hard at work on the final pieces of the mosaic. These large stones, the base of each sculpture, are each several days' effort to cover in mosaic.
I love working on the island. It's absolutely beautiful, even just as a backdrop for installation work! We're hard at work getting the site ready for the piece itself - digging holes for the supports and pouring concrete bases, bolting support poles in place, etc. Thanks to Peter Hunter, Deb Unger, and the Randall's Park Alliance ground crew, as well as NextGen cement, for all of their help!!
Rainy day one, digging the holes. New York in the fog:
Day two: time for the cement.
My old faithful car, carrying extra bags of concrete to the site:
We stacked the first "stones" today in the studio to get a sense of how the project will come together. Very happy with the initial results.
Meanwhile, progress continues on the rest of the stones....
Mosaic is a slow art form - even mosaicists forget just how slow. At this stage in the project, I make mosaic every day from morning to night in order to cover my sculptural stones with real stone tiles in time for the opening. I'm using a combination of different marbles - Carrara (the stone from which the David is sculpted), Travertine (which clads so much of Roman architecture), Onyx (the white of the figure in an old cameo), Bianco Perlino, Botticino, and others. By using multiple white stones from different parts of the earth, I create a more complex, more nuanced white. There are also small tiles of gold and colored glass from Venice, known as smalti, which will reflect the sun and water of the island and cause the piece to glitter in the light.
There are a few particularities to crafting a base for mosaic: usually you create a metal armature (where reinforcement is necessary), then craft foam around that, then cover everything with a coating of resin and fiberglass wool - the same technique used for building a boat’s hull, which creates a strong, but lightweight surface. A coat of very small gravel is then applied to the final layer of resin, providing a rough surface for the cement to adhere to when laying the actual mosaic.
The foam blocks were delivered to my studio this week, and I got to work sculpting with two serrated knives and a planer. My studio is covered with foam, as am I, as is my car and my home and everywhere I’ve been lately…. but it’s coming along nicely!