Art is everywhere on Martha’s Vineyard. You can find it in the galleries and shops all over the Island.
Its cousin, craft, is easy to find as well, but often it requires a trip outside. Take a drive up-Island, for example, where the weathered stone walls in Chilmark still serve as property boundaries and line the roads. Dry stone walls have existed for centuries, used in all corners of the world and constructed according to the same basic blueprint: fit stones of differing sizes together in a three-dimensional jigsaw.
“A lot of it is having that eye. It’s being a real life puzzle builder,” said stone mason Justin LaRue, 32, of Artistic Stone and Landscape. He walked around a West Tisbury property filled with examples of his own work — a driveway skirt made of large rocks mostly buried in the sandy soil, a two-pool rock pond built up from a stone patio, a level walkway composed of tumbled blue stones mixed with pale granite from around the property, and a long, low curving wall subtly dividing the short grass of the lawn from a thick groves of trees.
Mr. LaRue began building the wall four years ago, even before he started working as a mason full-time, bartering his skills with family friend Virginia Yans so his parents could stay at the house. Two years ago this May he left his job at Vineyard Gardens, where he had worked for 17 years, to found Artistic Stone and Landscape. The move had been a long-time coming. Mr. LaRue grew up in Iowa and studied physical education at Northern Iowa University. But even as a student he was thinking about the eventual shift to stonework.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Mr. LaRue said. The interest may be partially in his genes. Mr. LaRue’s father, Dave, designed the arboretum in Dubuque, Iowa, and a young Justin would accompany his dad out to the job site, absorbing the details of landscaping and irrigation.
When Mr. LaRue began Artistic Stone and Landscape the business consisted of two clients, a pick-up truck, a wheelbarrow and a shovel. The business has grown since then to a base of about 50 clients in spite of the fact that Mr. LaRue does little in the way of advertising. A flier at the Scottish Bakehouse is one of the only signs that Artistic Stone and Landscape exists. Most of Mr. LaRue’s clients find him via word of mouth. In many cases, he said, he’ll finish up a project and immediately be re-hired to begin work on another on the same property.
The stone itself comes from John Keene Excavation and David Merry and Sons, both of which bring in material from quarries around New England. Mr. LaRue also tries to mix in Island granite, preferably from the property he’s working on, whenever possible.
Every stone mason’s eye is different, making certain jobs tricky, like one last summer for which he completed a barbeque pit and had to match the work another mason had already finished. But no matter what Mr. LaRue is building, the end goal is a creation that melds practicality with aesthetics.
“It has to not only function but look right,” he said.
Dry laid stone, as the name implies, uses no mortar, making the intricate geometric piecing of the rocks paramount. When building a wall Mr. LaRue first digs out a trench and lays gravel and base rocks within as a foundation. Without this the seasons would take their toll, particularly during winter when frost heaves can change the contour of the wall, eventually causing it to topple.
The basic act of hauling stone can be a feat in itself, and for this Mr. LaRue relies on techniques that have been around for millennia — creating a lever of plywood to raise a hefty rock, building a small stone pyramid to set a larger stone. There’s no machinery involved aside from the transport truck.
“That’s part of the challenge that I like about the job,” Mr. LaRue said.
These days Artistic Stone and Landscape has expanded somewhat, in that Mr. LaRue purchased a dump truck last year to help with the hauling. A small Bobcat is on the horizon for future purchases. But it’s still a one-man show, although he does have help with the bookkeeping side of things.
“Now is go time,” Mr. LaRue said. “Spring, summer, fall are really busy. Winter is consistent.”
When he can, he fits in projects to give back to the community that helped him get started. Most recently he donated his time to the West Tisbury Community Garden on Old County Road, installing an irrigation system. “You spend so much of your time working that you have to enjoy what you do,” he said.