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On Sails of Stone
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On Sails of Stone

Through 35 years of creating watershapes ranging from small fountains to large waterfalls and streams, landscape artist Frederick L. Gregory always sought to harmonize the primordial splendors of nature with current times and settings. Today, he sculpts granite and creates his harmonies by deftly merging the asymmetry of the Japanese garden with the sensual abstractions of tropical Brazilian landscapes in compositions that often involve the mesmerizing qualities of water.

Through 35 years of creating watershapes ranging from small fountains to large waterfalls and streams, landscape artist Frederick L. Gregory always sought to harmonize the primordial splendors of nature with current times and settings.  Today, he sculpts granite and creates his harmonies by deftly merging the asymmetry of the Japanese garden with the sensual abstractions of tropical Brazilian landscapes in compositions that often involve the mesmerizing qualities of water.

Creating granite waterfeatures is not unlike the delicacy of deep-water yacht racing: Racing big boats across the open sea requires intuitive sense in harnessing the raw powers of nature, much as do the creative insights needed to take raw monoliths from quarry walls and produce elegant expressions that reflect our primal essence.

Both endeavors must gracefully balance the unbridled forces of nature. In yacht racing, wind and waves must be brought into harmony with a yacht’s unique rigging and sails by its skipper and crew. With granite waterfeatures, an innate sense of harmonic balance must be struck between granite and/or water, the landscape and the human observer’s ability to appreciate solemnity.

In my case, these harmonies have consistently been found in asymmetry. Indeed, I’ve come to feel confident with the premise that people are, knowingly or not, drawn to the asymmetrical balances they see in nature. I also see both art and architecture as skillful reflections and expressions of what we have observed in nature from time immemorial.

To that end, I try to create works that draw their form and spirit from the intuitive balance of asymmetry. Whether sculpting a landscape, setting stones in a rock garden or cutting granite, I constantly call up the dictum – somewhat tongue-in-cheek – that all architecture should be sculpture and all sculpture should be architecture: What I do involves freely transposing forms and ideas from one medium to the other.


My first encounters with the use of stone in asymmetrical designs flowed from the traditions of Japanese gardening.

I began setting granite in landscapes in 1967 in Fresno, Calif., after previously working in Carmel Valley, Calif., with Brad Bowman, who invented the patterned-concrete process. He had developed a Japanese garden for his home, and I was astounded to see rocks set in a garden with such artistry and apparent aesthetic meaning.


Valued Influences: My development as a landscape artist was shaped indelibly by the experiences I had in working with master Japanese gardeners at the Duncan Water Gardens (left), where I learned (among many other things) about artistic arrangement of 20-to-25-ton stones (middle), and in my association with Roberto Burle Marx, who opened my eyes to the use of granite as an expressive material and installed one of my first compositions (seen at left in the photo on the right) on his property in Brazil.

I was a concrete contractor at the time, working in ornamental and decorative forms in landscapes, and my eyes were forever opened that day to the aesthetic potentialities of concrete and hardscape materials.

Not long after my epiphany in Bowman’s garden, I was asked by a homebuilder in Fresno to create hardscapes in which I included rocks in various small garden settings. I installed a number of rocks in one small garden, about 15 pieces, none very large, and was pleased with the way it looked and how it mimicked natural, random patterning. Later, when a landscaper from the local nursery came to see what I’d done, he expressed surprise and delight: He’d studied Japanese gardening extensively and told me that I had created classic Japanese rock settings despite the fact I had no real idea what I was doing.

He fired my curiosity, showing me several gardens he had done and suggesting several books on the subject. From the outset, what I perceived and instinctively pursued were the possibilities encompassed by the asymmetrical balances found in these Japanese gardens.


Lessons Applied: I’ve always seen my work in stone as an extension of my experience as a landscape designer. In these cases, I’ve incorporated water at the foundation of the sculptures not so much to make philosophical statements about the relationships of stone to water as to reflect stone’s presence in natural landscapes and add simple visual interest and complexity to overall compositions.

At that point, I began focusing on stone, particularly granite, and set about using it in asymmetrical balance to create harmonic visual compositions. I also began devouring books on Japanese gardens and gardening and, finally, traveled to Japan to tour the amazing gardens of Kyoto.

Visiting Japan and touring the centuries-old gardens, I was struck by the manicured greenery, the ingenious use of space and the artistry of the stone settings. While it was clear to me even then that I would never master the pure art of Japanese gardening on this exalted level, I knew there were principles of this spectacular design tradition I could use to fuel my work back home.


The first major project I had that enabled me to use my initial exposure and experience with the asymmetrical precepts of the Japanese garden was at Fresno’s Duncan Water Gardens, which included more than 600 tons of stone set on a three-quarter-acre site. I signed onto the project in 1973 and had the privilege of working with two master Japanese gardeners, Matsuco Shibata, a fourth-generation rocksetter from Japan, and the great landscape architect, Kodo Matsubara.

Working under a blistering summer sun, the two men demonstrated remarkable energy and focus on the grueling work and taught me to see the garden as a whole, organized around asymmetry. To this day, Duncan Water Gardens remains a beautiful place to visit and a significant point of pride for me when I consider these great masters and the valuable lessons they conveyed.


Integrated Spaces: In each of these cases, water flows from the top to wet the entire surface of the sculpture, creating dances of light and motion on surfaces that, in the usual course of things, are seen as static. While it’s easy to apply metaphors to the results, the fact is that observing the flow is relaxing and intriguing to observers in familiar and comforting ways.

I subsequently found that these principles of artistic asymmetry, so rooted in Japanese traditions, were being transposed to other forms of artistic expression by great modern artists such as the sculptor Isamu Noguchi and others. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this transposition I’ve ever found is in the work of Roberto Burle Marx, an artist as far removed geographically and spiritually from Japan as possible.

In the early 1970s, I traveled to Brazil, where I was to live and work designing and installing my granite-based gardens – Rio de Janeiro being one of the principal granite centers of the world. I stayed for more than a decade and came to know this distant relative of Karl Marx – a landscape designer and artist who was a true revolutionary in his own right. I settled in about a half mile from his home and, although I was fully aware of Marx and his work, had never met him.

East and West

While I was on a short Japanese-garden-designer sabbatical many years ago, I became fascinated by the way that their work unfolds with a reverence for the forms and shapes of the stones and the organization of space.

Coming from a Western culture, I knew that I would never reach the level of intuitive, cultural understanding they had for their work, nor have I ever tried to become completely conversant in their gardening techniques. Still, the basic ideas they have about how balance is achieved transcend design style and can be applied across a wide range of settings and situations, be they landscape designs or sculptural designs. (As I indicated at the outset of the accompanying article, they really are one and the same things to me.)

Within the Japanese garden and its basic asymmetrical triangles, objects are arranged in a way that is profoundly comforting to the viewer – even without providing a defined center. (If you show someone a line and ask them to put one point on that line at which they feel comfortable, in most cases they’ll put a point somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the way down the line in one direction or the other – an asymmetrical distance.)

I found that once you get the logic of asymmetry and lodge that sensibility in your mind, everything in a design will flow from it. Few people really know or can express exactly why they like Japanese gardens and the sculptures that have evolved from them, but you can bank on the fact that artful asymmetry has something to do with the appeal. This is very different from Western culture, which, to stay with the triangle analogy, is based more on the isosceles triangle and spatial arrangements that have much to do with pure ventral symmetry and order.

In the Western design tradition, there is a perfect pinnacle, an apex of design, that ties into all sorts of cultural notions about man’s relationship with nature and so on. In Japanese design, by contrast, the apex is never pinpointed. Balance, harmonic balance, is achieved by the contrasting deployment of short and heavy vs. long and light. The accumulated weight/volume of one side is equaled by the accumulated weight/volume on the other.

As in Western culture, the Japanese design approach is indicative the larger cultural ideas found in religious iconography and the view of our relationship with nature. There is no right or wrong here, just a matter of recognizing guiding principles and putting them to work in garden, water shape and sculptural design.

— F.L.G.

I had some skills as a journalist and put out feelers about doing an article on this great and dynamic master of garden design and soon received an assignment from an international landscape architecture magazine. Marx and I came to know each other fairly quickly through the process, and I proceeded to work with him and learn more about what he and his revolutionary vision of the tropical landscape actually entailed.

I was lucky to spend a great deal of time with him and see how he applied principles of 20th-century abstract art to his garden designs, which he very often accentuated with prodigious quantities of exotic native foliage available in Brazil as well as myriad pieces of granite, some hand-carved up to three centuries previously. He showed me fantastic spaces, particularly his own garden on a sprawling estate in Guaratiba, on Rio’s southern outskirts. It was there that I saw the diverse uses to which he put granite – in beautiful, sculpturesque landscape settings, as elegant wall decorations and as groupings of set stones. His use of space, his layering of views, his palettes of colors, textures and plant materials – they and Roberto himself indelibly captured my imagination.

As I thought back to the gardens in Kyoto, with their magnificent backdrops of trimmed azaleas, it occurred to me that Marx’s work was not all that distant from Japanese gardening, even though he was using broad-leafed tropical plants and granite configurations that were vastly different from anything the Kyoto gardeners could have considered.

For lack of a better term, Marx’s work has often been described as “abstract tropical gardening,” which as a rule bears very little stylistic similarity to Japanese gardening. Nonetheless, I was struck by how roundly his work encompassed the same familiar principles of balance and asymmetry.


With my background in hardscape and stone and, more important, with the powerful inspiration of my Japanese masters as well as Noguchi and Marx, it dawned on me that working with stone sculpture was a natural extension of the landscape design work I had done. It was at this point that I began trying to incorporate the concept of three-directional asymmetry into single sculptural pieces.

I started out with vertical pieces – basically tall rectangles stacked one-on-top-of-the-other – putting saw cuts between each piece to create shadow lines. Using this basic approach, I’ve been able to create what I view as Japanese gardens condensed into single sculptures. By approaching forms in this way, I’ve been able to create pieces of sculpture that, on their own, provide the sort of asymmetrical balance and soothing harmony of a garden, and they work visually as either stand-alone pieces or within the context of well-designed spaces. (Interestingly, I’ve found that the vertical pieces I’ve done really “read” in only two dimensions while existing harmoniously in three-dimensional spaces.)


Light Play: I began working with water as a landscape artist and transposed that interest to my work with granite sculptures. The sense of fluidity set against a backdrop of such profoundly stationary objects has proved particularly intriguing to observers and clients alike.

The use of water in my pieces is not something I ever thought about in any direct, formal, philosophical way. I simply started working with water as part of the whole landscape mix, not unlike a writer who’s interested in both poetry and prose. I have found, however, that the pieces I’ve done that include water have received considerable acclaim among both viewers and clients, primarily because of the wonderful visuals inherent in the interplay between rock and water – particularly with black granite, where the wetted surface becomes a mirror.

As is the tendency of people who spend time thinking about what they do, I’ve come to see the use of moving water in my sculptures as being emblematic of the origins of life on the planet and of man’s existence as part of the planet. This makes observing these sculptures both relaxing and intriguing as well as familiar and comfortable to those who see them.

This familiarity puts all of us watershapers in a good place: People are drawn to what we do, even if they can’t express the reasons why. We grew up with water as a species, it is inherent in our composition, it is how we originated. This is why water is so important to all human beings, no matter the culture or principles of design.

Combinations of water and stone draw us to our natural state – not unlike a day spent sailing before a following sea.

Frederick L.Gregory is a sculptor and landscape artist with more than 35 years’ experience in working with elements of nature – granite, wind and water – as he has pursued an artistic aim he describes as “the hand of man in harmony with nature.” Based in Carmel Valley, Calif., Gregory’s work is featured at the Hawthorne Gallery in Big Sur, where his granite and steel sculptures have built a widespread following. Throughout his career, he has participated in landscape creation and design in such contrasting settings and cultures as California, Japan and Brazil. He has also written extensively about landscape design and sculpture and is a published poet.

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