Decorative-concrete artist Tommy T. Cook has built a reputation for being able to create almost anything from concrete using an array of highly refined and boldly artful processes. In this feature, he demonstrates a portion of that skill by describing how he uses the gargantuan Gunnera plant to craft watershapes in which replicas of the plant’s outsized leaves serve as uniquely natural fountain basins and spillways.
Ask anyone who’s tried and it’s almost certain you’ll hear that replicating nature isn’t easy. That hasn’t stopped artists throughout history from trying, however, or from making natural forms an influential source of artistic imagination and ambition.
The great thing about using nature for inspiration is that it’s all around us and all we need to do to draw on it is open our eyes, make good choices and decide how what we see can be used in our creative endeavors.
In my case, I’d worked in decorative concrete for a long time before nature crawled under my skin. It began when my friend Laurie Smith, a talented artist and sculptor, challenged me to look more closely at the world around me. It was easy for her to say, because she grew up in an area near Seattle that is rich in natural beauty and her own inspiring work clearly reflects the influence of her surroundings, but it took me a while..
I’d always loved nature, but I hadn’t taken it seriously with respect to artistic inspiration because of my medium of choice. Indeed, my specialty then as now is architectural features such as countertops and fireplace surrounds. But with Smith’s inspiration, I’m now constantly engaged in the careful study of my surroundings on every scale possible, from the grandeur of mountains and valleys to the finest details of plant and animal life.
As I travel the country practicing and teaching the ins and outs of working in decorative concrete, I find that my work is more connected to nature than ever before, that my life has improved in ways I can’t easily express and my clients are responding to what I do in ways I never thought possible. It’s been a good ride.
A PERFECT FIT
One of the great things about working in decorative concrete is that almost anything can be used as a mold, from natural objects to just about anything you might find in a thrift store. If you can pour concrete into and then pull it out of any given object, you can use the result to create art – so much so that I now see it as an almost limitless medium for artistic expression.
I’m obviously not the first person to see concrete’s potential as an artistic medium. For years, craftspeople have been taking molds of rock outcroppings and trees and transferring these “natural” forms to residential and commercial settings, often on grand scales. Personally, I’ve never worked in artificial rock: My projects tend to be more intimate, so I end up using maple leaves to shape soap dishes, for example, or make countertops look like sections of natural stone.
One of my favorite inspirations (one that will be the focus of the rest of this discussion and an idea that came directly from Laurie Smith) represents a perfect introduction to my technical approach and demonstrates just how natural forms can be repurposed as art pieces.
In this case, the result is an unusual fountain.
|Once we select the leaf for size and shape, we sculpt a pile of sand to the approximate contours we want with respect to the depth of the basin and the elevations of the spillways, then place the leaf atop it, face down. We then encase the leaf in glass-fiber reinforced concrete.|
Smith grew up in an area near Seattle where her father worked in the parks and recreation service. As a result, she spent her life in steady contact with the natural settings that became the primary inspiration for her art. After we’d worked together for a while, she introduced me to the Gunnera plant, a member of the rhubarb family and one of her favorite subjects.
Indigenous to South America, Gunnera grows well in moist, temperate environments and thrives in Seattle’s climate. I was immediately impressed by its huge leaves, which can grow to be up to 12 feet across, have fascinating textures and seemed to me to be the perfect subject for molding into concrete replicas.
In the course of my career, I’d often made structures that used water as a decorative element, including an array of traditional fountains, waterwalls, runnels and more. Smith was already using smaller Gunnera plants as living basins and spillways, and we began taking about using my knowledge of concrete to replicate much larger leaves. Seattle is graced with lots of driftwood, and I saw it as a natural way to lend support to the large compositions we were envisioning.
Once I worked my way through some interesting technical challenges, we were on our way.
The approach we used to capture Gunnera leaves in concrete stands as a great example of what can be done with decorative concrete through simple, time-tested techniques – in this case, sand casting.
The first step, of course, is selecting leaves for the desired fountain effect. If I’m making a large, multi-tiered fountain, for example, I’ll select leaves in graduated sizes while visualizing how they’ll work and fit together. Obviously, this part of the process isn’t an exact science: Mainly what I’m after are leaves with structures that give me the basic shapes and internal features I need.
Early on, I learned that freshness counts: From the time I remove a leaf from a plant, I have about 24 hours to use it as a mold before it dries out and becomes brittle and impossible to use. (It’s possible to soak the leaves in water and keep them moist, but there are limits to what can be done to extend the working time.)
The sculpting process begins with a big pile of sand that will serve as the mold’s backing. We keep the sand slightly damp so it will hold its shape, then start by carving it into the rough shape of the leaf we want to replicate. In some spots, we’ll work with specific contours and edges, perhaps slightly adjusting a line here or there, curling this edge or that to hold water, or flattening certain areas to form spillways.
|Once the concrete sets, we pull the casting off the sand base, carrying the leaf with it. Once the leaf has dried up, we peel and blast it away, then begin the process of finishing the raw surface to the desired colors and appearance. It’s our preference to make the leaves look as natural as possible, but that’s ultimately the client’s call.|
When I’m satisfied with the result, we’ll lay the leaf upside down onto the sand and pour the concrete directly onto the leaf. After allowing it to dry for several days – until the concrete is firm and the leaf completely dried – we will flip the cast leaf and use compressed air to blow away the dead natural leaf.
This leaves us with a one-of-a-kind, single-use casting. Yes, we could make a rubber mold off of it and mass-produce leaves in concrete, but my clients have always seen uniqueness as a key value, so we use the castings only once.
Note that we make our Gunnera castings off the backs of the leaves rather than the fronts: Even though the cast surface will be presented as the front, we flip the leaves because their undersides have more dramatic detailing than their tops. In particular, we use the pronounced ridges on the leaves’ undersides to add definition to the final product, although we ultimately work these surfaces in such a way that perhaps only a botanist would be able to perceive what we’ve done.
In most cases, we simply smooth the undersides and leave them unfinished, knowing they’ll never be seen anyway. But in cases where there will be double-sided visual exposure, we’ll use pieces of smaller leaves to make impressions and lend texture to their other sides.
As mentioned above, all of this became fairly systematic once I had figured everything out – but that wasn’t the situation when I made my first leaves and fountains.
At first, I used traditional decorative-concrete techniques and worked with a classic seven-sack mix: 70 percent sand, 30 percent gravel and a 94-pound bag of Portland cement. This was applied over a sheet of six-by-six welded wire, so by the time we were through, the leaves had to be about two inches thick to support their own weight.
Down the Road
I’m among those in the concrete industry who have come to believe that glass-fiber-reinforced concrete will eventually replace steel-reinforced concrete in almost all applications.
That may seem a radical idea, but ongoing research backs me up and I’ve spoken with enough experts to become convinced (along with many colleagues) that the days of using steel in concrete are numbered. And I am told this is true even in purely structural applications – something to watch with interest as the future unfolds.
This was clearly not the best solution, as it took a crew of seven or eight burly gents (in my case, bikers from my motorcycle club) to lift a single large leaf. Even worse was that the heavy leaves required the use of stronger and more visually intrusive structural supports within the fountains, making it virtually impossible to achieve natural-looking results.
I’ve long since converted all of my work to glass-fiber-reinforced concrete (GFRC), a material in which specially designed glass fibers replace gravel as the primary aggregate. The beauty of GFRC is that, properly applied, it is several times stronger than standard concrete, requires no steel reinforcement and can have significantly thinner profiles – in this case producing leaves that are no more than a three-quarters of an inch thick. This has been a huge step in the right direction.
With the casting method settled and systematic, we’ve been able to focus much more attention on finishes and detailing and on making the leaves’ surfaces look as natural as possible. In fact, it’s our goal to have people walk up to these fountains and be surprised to discover they’re made of concrete. This alone is one of the best rewards I can receive in presenting my artwork.
Of course, we also accommodate clients with different desires. Some, for example, want the leaves to stay in their gray concrete color or like a look in which we select a color we integrate with the concrete mix and include no additional coloring or detailing beyond that. We’ll never argue the point, because we appreciate the fact that sometimes it’s enough just to give the impression of the leaves and let these compositions stand on their own as pure artistic exercises. Moreover, as artists, we sometimes need to step back and give clients what they want, even if we might want something else.
|These compositions can take on any number of forms, partly because we make no reusable molds and each casting is one of a kind, but also because we can arrange leaves of different sizes in simple structures with just a few levels or create grander cascades with multiple tiers and water paths.|
Personally, however, I think these unaltered pieces don’t pop as much visually as their fully detailed counterparts, and we always prefer to go as far as we can to infuse them with a natural appearance.
We use acid stains as coloring agents. I love this material because the interactions of the hydrochloric acid, heavy metals and free lime in the concrete brings subtle variations and visual textures, even when it’s sprayed on in a mass application.
What it ultimately boils down to is countless hours spent with tiny artists’ brushes, painting veins and adding darker colors where the leaves contain more chlorophyll and then feathering that green out into the broader flesh of the leaf. We might use only two or three shades of green, but with meticulous care, the subtle variations come close to what is seen in nature.
Practice makes perfect, but this is invariably hard, painstaking work that offers no shortcuts. We’ve spent years getting good at it, and in addition to steady hands and keen eyes, we’ve found you need an almost maniacal commitment to expressing the finest details.
Using our one-off approach, every leaf we make is as unique as the client who wants this sort of fountain and the places in which they ask us to place them. So we start fresh every time, using various combinations of leaves in overlapping configurations to create our gentle cascades.
As noted above, we use driftwood as structural supports, doing all we can to make the impression that the leaves have actually sprouted from these trunks. To make this impression work, we go to great lengths in sourcing and selecting just the right burls or stumps to act as yet another aesthetic element of these compositions.
Through the years, we’ve run into a couple of clients who just want the leaves, saying they have the desire, skill and nerve required to assemble their own fountains. As we see it, this is utterly wonderful: Simply by making these amazing leaves available in a permanent form, we’re inspiring these clients’ artistic, creative impulses and giving them an opportunity to explore these forms the way we have.
Not bad for a bit of sand casting – and a true hallmark of the (largely untapped) expressive ability of decorative concrete!
Tommy T. Cook has been designing and fabricating concrete countertops and a broad spectrum of custom decorative and architectural precast concrete products for more than a dozen years. Beyond producing functional products such as countertops and custom fireplaces, he is also widely known for his use of concrete as an artistic medium and has completed numerous watershapes, sculptures and public art projects. He was founder of Cook’s Custom Creations and co-founder of Absolute ConcreteWorks in Seattle and is now a full-time trainer and consultant in the precast industry, traveling the country in his recreational vehicle and providing on-site solutions. His journeys can be followed at www.tommytcook.com.