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Powers of Imagination

Faux-rock specialist John Carlson has spent his career creating artificial structures that deftly fool the eye.  Along the way, he’s applied his skills in a various settings, always pushing toward greater levels of complexity no matter whether he’s working with swimming pools, aquariums, decorative features or home interiors.  As he demonstrates here, what gets and keeps him going is the flexibility of a material that seems so rigid.
Faux-rock specialist John Carlson has spent his career creating artificial structures that deftly fool the eye. Along the way, he’s applied his skills in a various settings, always pushing toward greater levels of complexity no matter whether he’s working with swimming pools, aquariums, decorative features or home interiors. As he demonstrates here, what gets and keeps him going is the flexibility of a material that seems so rigid.
By John Carlson

It’s frequently tough to figure out how a person ever finds his or her way into a specific line of work.  In my case, for example, I more or less fell into the faux-rock trade, never imagining that what seemed like a blind stumble would ultimately unlock my imagination in a whole range of unexpected ways.

It all started when I was working in the oil industry in Alaska in the 1980s.  When petroleum prices dropped, I was out of work and moved back to my home town of Tucson, Ariz., where I was hired as a laborer by the Larson Company, which was among the trailblazing firms starting to work in faux rock.

I began by mixing concrete and did my fair share of grunt work.  As luck would have it, I began showing some artistic promise and in a relatively short time found myself working on major projects and learning the process literally from the ground up.  After a couple of hard years, I became a superintendent, a promotion that led to my involvement in major overseas projects, including aquariums in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan, as well as an extended stay in Italy.

These were wonderful, formative experiences, but eventually I struck out on my own and became a hired gun for a number of large companies – in one case in a seven-year engagement that brought me to St. George, Utah, where two years ago I started my own firm.

NATURAL SETTINGS

What I didn’t recognize at first (but have since come to appreciate in a big way) is that growing up in Tucson subconsciously fueled my love of working with rock formations.

Arizona abounds with spectacular geological formations that clearly left strong impressions on my inquisitive mind.  From sandstone to basalt, from the grandest of canyons to the most ascendant of mountains and mesas, the terrain inspired me to collect rocks and develop an interest in the natural world at a very young age.

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Done well, artificial rockwork can look very much as though it has been there forever – an effect we compound by making certain our boulders, outcroppings and various other structures fit within the familiar contexts of local geology and topography.  It’s a harmony that’s even more important when both our work and nature’s will be in view simultaneously.

But there’s more:  My father was a mining engineer who was always involved with geology and often brought me along with him into the field, sharing his observations on natural history and nature’s processes.  So even though I never really meant to wind up in this business, it seems my life experiences were always pointing me in this direction – and I couldn’t be happier about having finally accepted it.

What I’ve learned along the way is that faux rock is a wonderfully flexible medium that can be effectively applied across a broad range of settings, everything from home interiors and poolscapes to large commercial aquariums and zoological exhibits.  No matter the setting, I find myself pushing to learn more of what it takes not only to replicate nature, but also to do it in such a way that it is worthy of being labeled as sculptural art.

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The framework underlying some of these faux-rock structures can get impressive.  These substantial underpinning allow us to create grand, dramatic effects as we add flesh to the underlying skeletons.

While with Larson, I worked mostly with faux-rock panels – a major innovation at that time.  Their level of detail was fantastic, and they offered us a great way to achieve realistic results fairly quickly.  But I also found them to be fairly limiting, especially when it came to extremely large projects:  Even with a wide array of available panels, there’s an inevitable repetition of forms and patterns that eventually comes into play.  So, as much as I loved my panels, I increasingly found they just weren’t for me.

Working with panels did, however, give me a great education in natural patterning and random variations.  When I was introduced to what used to be called “free carving” (or, essentially, hand sculpting), that’s when the medium opened up for me and my work took off in all sorts of creative directions I’ve pursued to this day.

I was so into what I was doing that I soon developed my own techniques for water and air sculpting as well as more traditional approaches using carving tools.  I also explored a huge range of finishing techniques, experimenting with various acid stains and paints.  And this sort of growth accelerated when I formed my own firm and began working with wonderful artisans who share both my curiosity as well as my determination for all of us to explore various means of achieving higher levels of detail and get better at what we do.

The upshot is that, today, I believe we’ve reached a point where we can replicate rock types by hand better than we ever could with panels.  To be sure, the work is far more labor intensive than it would be if we used panels, but we’ve come to treasure the creative flexibility it gives us and, perhaps more important, the ability we have to go back and change the look of things, which is difficult to do with panel-based systems.

PERFECT IMPERFECTION

As is true with any type of work where nature is the inspiration, faux rockwork springs from relentless study:  You simply cannot do this work without intimate awareness of and familiarity with, for example, the way wind and water work on stone; the subtle variations attributable to rocks’ chemical composition and the effects of oxidation; the influence of sedimentary and metamorphic activity; or the near-brutality of the way lava flows.

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Once the basic forms are in place, we begin elaborate processes of fine tuning and finishing, adding and shaping fresh concrete as needed and then, after the material has cured, going back and painstakingly staining, coloring and painting the surface – always striving for the most natural appearances we can achieve.

The amazing thing about nature is that whatever it does, the forms always fit the surroundings or, more to the point, are the essence of the surroundings.  To step up and deliberately mimic formations that reflect thousands or even millions of years of natural processing therefore takes intuition, creativity and mental discipline, but it also takes a good bit of nerve – especially when large investments are on the line.

It’s all so subtle:  As we work, we seek to reconcile evident patterns with random inconsistencies.  We know that if we follow patterns too closely (as with sedimentary layering, for example), the work seems false because it’s too consistent.  So as we respect patterns, we must also find ways to disrupt them the way nature does through erosion, seismic activity or even root intrusion.  As we do so, we’re always aware if we randomly insert disruptive elements without having a narrative rationale for their presence, then we run the risk of ruining the illusion.  

This is why study is so much a part of what we do.  I’ve spent countless hours roaming in all sorts of environments, collecting untold thousands of photographs of an endless universe of details, both up close and in larger, panoramic views.  By examining natural formations and, particularly, the interaction between stone and water, wind and plants, we’re constantly running across new ideas and possibilities.  

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Artificial rockwork can take and almost limitless number of forms and be put to an incredible array of uses.  In the projects shown here, for example, pieces have been integrated into a home’s structure; been used as signage, hosted animals in a zoo exhibit and been crafted into the form of a fossilized tree to which fiberoptic lights add an unusual spark of life.  There are essentially no limits to what can be achieved – or imagined.

Indeed, keeping nature in mind drives everything we do, starting with the steel armatures we use to support our structures and reaching all the way through to the finish work.  We work strictly with shotcrete, six to eight inches thick, to establish basic contours, then apply a rich sand/cement plaster mix as the topical medium in which all of the detailed sculpting and finishing takes place.  

Other faux-rock artists of my acquaintance are now working with glass-fiber-reinforced concrete – GFRC – to take advantage of its added structural strength, but I’ve always felt that our formations need proper structural engineering anyway, and we also find that the fibers interfere with our finishing techniques.  All in all, one might say that I’ve gravitated to a “traditional” approach to faux rock.

As we see it, however, it’s a traditional base upon which we’ve piled numerous innovations and a flexible set of skills and techniques that enable us to move in any number of ways.  Sometimes we’re handed a basic design by the client or an architect and flesh things out with respect to details.  In other cases, we’re given a blank canvas and asked to do what we think is best.

CASE BY CASE

Ultimately, of course, our focus is on our clients and their specific needs.  In some cases, they know what we’re about and are prepared for the level of detail we’ll be applying and the costs it entails.  In others, we help them reach the conclusion that what we do is simply too much, at which point we guide them to more affordable, production-oriented shops.

We’ve been lucky through the years that we’ve always managed to find enough clients who understand the value of quality work and have the wherewithal to pay for it.   

Once we’re engaged, our presentations run the gamut.  For some clients, we develop detailed scale models (especially true for large projects); for others, hand renderings, photographs and/or computer-generated images are what it takes.  In all cases, our aim is to create formations that are, regardless of the setting, practically indistinguishable from nature.

As I mentioned at the outset, one of the great things about faux rock is how flexible it is with respect to the places and ways in which it can be applied.  Each project is different, and we’ve learned all about the hazards that come with generalizing and making broad characterizations.  Even in that context, however, we’ve devised a set of guiding principles:

[  ]  In all projects, from large scale commercial environments through to intimate interior installations, it’s the shapes that matter.  This isn’t to say that texturing and finishes aren’t critical, but rather that we’ve found great shapes to be an ideal foundation that speeds the detailing and finish work.

This is why we spend so much time designing and rigging shapes with our support structures – often the most time-consuming part of our work.  Bottom line, we know that no amount of great detailing or finishing can correct problems with a basic shape that is either unrealistic or out of sync with the setting.

[  ]  In most projects, the “hand of man” is a key consideration in that we must be cognizant of the way the purely naturalistic elements of our work will interface with structures and details that are clearly part of the built environment.  

Often, for example, we’re asked to place outcroppings in entry courts or traffic circles, often for use as a form of signage.  Our ambition in these cases is to give the rockwork enough of a sense of drama that it made sense for the developer to leave an “ancient” formation in place rather than leveling the area and starting from scratch.

When Faux is Faux

In all the years I’ve worked with faux rock, there’s one big, counterintuitive lesson I’ve learned:  As much as we might strive for naturalistic perfection, there are cases in which there’s no avoiding the fact that a given structure is artificial and that we must count on people to suspend their disbelief.

Just recently, for example, we’ve been experimenting with placing fiberoptic lights in the tips of the branches of faux dead trees.  We’ve also created a vanity that resembles a wind-blown tree with a basin.  (When you push a branch up, water spills out of another branch – a bit kitschy, but fun, especially when, during a home show, I watched consumers try to figure things out.  I loved their reactions when I would flip the branch and water spilled out of the other branch.

b_400_400_16777215_00_images_archart_201103Carlson_201103JCSB1.jpgNobody, of course, is going to believe that dead trees actually twinkle or spill water from their branches, but the effects are so striking and the trees themselves so otherwise realistic that clients have no problem letting go of the impulse toward realism and easily accept the presence of what’s become a purely artistic statement.  And on days when, say, the lighting effect distracts them for whatever reason, they are quite free to turn off the power!

We run into this sort of physical compromise every time we work with aquariums or zoological exhibits:  Nobody for a second believes that coral reefs form in Utah or that icy habitats for penguins and polar bears occur naturally in Arizona, but if the work is accurate enough that viewers delight in letting themselves go and imagining that they are seeing these creatures in the wild.

-- J.C.

In other projects, the effects are more subtle – as when, with residential projects, we’ve been asked to build a formation into the home’s interior.  In these situations, we work closely with the architect or home builder to be sure we can make it seem as though the rockwork is part of an existing outcropping and that the house was then cleverly built around it.

[  ]  In all cases, we seek to create a context for the appearance of our rockwork.  When we place an outcropping inside a home, for example, we create an illusion of continuity by placing similar outcroppings out in the exterior space – whatever it takes to avoid the impression that the interior feature is just a rock somebody hauled in for ornamental purposes.  

[  ]  Along with shape, both scale and placement are all important – but it also helps if the texture and finish of the rockwork we create matches that of  indigenous outcroppings that might be visible from (or within easy reach of) the property where we’re working.  Along similar lines having to do with avoiding obvious visual mistakes, we also make certain there are no perspectives from which the casual viewer can catch any glimpse of a steel armature, lath or chicken wire.

[  ]  Depending on the situation, we don’t shy away from revealing a “human touch” and occasionally design structures that appear to have been crafted from rough-hewn stone.  We’ve done some fireplace surrounds, for example, that appear to be ancient structures that predate the home.  Here, the narrative is that the current home was built over and around the ruins of a much older structure.

In purely practical terms, the beauty of faux rock in many of these settings is that it allows us to achieve effects that could never be accomplished with real stone.  Whether it’s the fact that faux rock is relatively light or that it makes it easier to manage plumbing, gas and electrical runs, the simple availability of the faux-rock option makes things attainable that might not otherwise have appeared within the realm of creative possibilities.

In addition, the potential use of faux rock for functional purposes opens up a whole new realm of possibilities that have not been much explored in the industry.  The ability to include seating areas, fireplaces, fire pits or even bathtubs and vanities – as well as to hide access and equipment areas offers a host of intriguing options; it’s also possible to restore the look of natural rock elements after a formation has been cut for installation of a roadway or in grading a building lot in a previously undisturbed natural area.

SPECIAL EFFECTS

Of all the projects we tackle, those that get us involved in working in and around various watershapes are among the most satisfying and, often, the most challenging.

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Many of our projects involve integrating our work with watershapes.  The most dramatic effects are achieved when we make it seem as though the formations were there and the watershapes have been built with and around them, accommodating their presence.  In other cases, as with the fiery, lava-encrusted spa seen at right, the feature makes statements all on its own.

As mentioned just above, it is advantageous that faux rock offers a great deal of flexibility when it comes to hiding various pipe runs and concealing equipment.  In purely aesthetic terms, however, there’s something broadly appealing about juxtaposing the permanence of rock against the ephemeral qualities of water.  As we see it, it’s also a golden opportunity to revel in nature’s own sculptural techniques.

Implicit in this, of course, is that we know how water and stone work together and have thoroughly studied how water erodes and reshapes different types of rock.  We know enough, for example, to avoid flat weirs over which uniform sheets of water fall over suspiciously sharp curved or straight edges.  That might happen in spots on massive natural waterfalls, but most of the time falls express themselves through crevices or breaks in the stone forged by water following paths of least resistance.

Often in our work with pools and spas, we’ll create springs or watercourses that are “there” as an incidental but permanent presence on the property.  Now, the narrative goes, an opportunistic architect or builder has shrewdly taken advantage of the property’s native endowments to create a stunning interface between the man-made and the natural.  

In other settings, we’ll install outcroppings in conjunction with pools – something that works so long as the faux rock genuinely resembles an outcropping and is consistent with local geology.

In all of this, we are keenly aware of the effects water can have on concrete.  You don’t generally see instances of efflorescence in nature, so we are careful to seal and waterproof our work – an entire subject unto itself that I will leave for a future discussion.

Fire is another natural “element” requiring some care in its use, basically because it doesn’t usually emerge from rocks without some obvious necessitating context.  That’s why it’s important to surround fire elements with human touches – as with the abovementioned fireplace, where rough-hewn “stones” were stacked to accommodate fire.

The one instance in which flames can appear in a purely natural context is in the re-creation of active lava flows.  It’s an attractive look, but it’s a particularly tricky one because lava is, in my opinion, the hardest of all stone types to mimic:  The textures and surfaces are tremendously complex, and all I can recommend if you ever find yourself wanting to imitate it is that you should try it out in your own backyard before attempting it in someone else’s.

It’s sorely tempting to do just that:  When lava is replicated correctly and combined with fire, it results in an almost otherworldly scene of primordial desolation.  This isn’t a look that suits everyone’s tastes, but in the situations we’ve used lave and fire together, they create startlingly dramatic effects.

As I see it, that’s the magic of faux rockwork as the craft is pursued on the highest levels:  For clients, it’s about creating great experiences and placing them in imagined, fully realized worlds.  For us, it’s about the ongoing adventure of bringing those imagined worlds into reality.  

 

John Carlson is the founder and principle of JDC Faux Rock Creations, an artificial rock design and fabrication firm based in St. George, Utah.  Born in Venezuela and raised in Tucson, Ariz., Carlson was inspired by the spectacular geological formations of Arizona and childhood experiences in nature with his family and geologist father.  For more than 25 years, he has created elaborate and complex faux rock structures around the world, including multiple large-scale projects in Japan, Portugal, Spain and Italy.  His work is all carved and finished by hand and spans both residential and commercial settings – from subtle interior treatments and exterior pools and spas to zoological exhibits and massive public and commercial formations. 

 

 

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