The Grotto

Let me tell you the story about the BIGGEST piece of art I ever made.  Even now, every time I look at it I'm still amazed that it was ME who built it. In May of 2016 Scott and I were visiting the The Christine Center, a spiritual retreat center in Central Wisconsin.  On one of our walks we came across a small grotto (shrine?) that someone had built.  Instead of it being a shrine to Mary or Jesus or some biblical character it had a painting of the Tree of Life mounted in it.  It was pretty cool....I was impressed. I half jokingly said, "I need one of those in my yard."  


Over the next few weeks I realized that I didn't just want to HAVE one in my yard, oh no.....I wanted to BUILD one in my yard.  Big difference.....especially considering that in June of 2015 I had a cancer diagnosis. I was lucky that they found it early and it was stage one.  I didn't have to go through chemo, but after some major surgery it was still a long healing process.... physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually....  Building this grotto would be part of my healing process.  

I decided that I wanted to make it out of materials found around my own yard and neighborhood.  My way of repurposing and cleaning up a lot of stuff that was laying around in the alleys.  Scott rigged up a little cart for me made out of  dolly and a big plastic crate.  I wheeled that little cart all over my neighborhood collecting bricks and stones that my neighbors were more that happy to have hauled away.  It was sturdier than using a wheelbarrow and I could hook my dogs leash to it and bring her with me on my hauls!  I'm sure it raised a few eyebrows when people saw me pulling my little "wheely cart" with the beagle attached to it.  It didn't take me very long to accumulate a HUGE pile of bricks and stones behind my garage.....but I still had no idea how to even begin this project


One morning, at the breakfast table, I announced to Scott that my goal for that week was to find someone....anyone ,who could at least show me the basics and help get me started. That very weekend I was at an event talking to another artist. I happened to mention my grotto project and the fact that I had no experience working with concrete.  I explained that I was looking for guidance from someone who could show me the ropes of brick laying and setting stones.  Turned out that the very person I was talking to used to do masonry work!  Matthew John George became my teacher and friend.  We broke ground a week later......

June 23rd, 2016....the 1 year anniversary of being cancer free. Today we broke ground and laid a sturdy foundation.

I had never worked with concrete before. This is all new to me. Matthew is teaching me how to mix it to the right to lay the bricks. I'm wondering if I've gotten in over my head!

After laying my first couple rows I realized how out of shape I'd become. It's hot out...the bricks are heavy...mixing the concrete is WAY more difficult than I expected. After working for a couple hours I feel like I'm gonna die.

It takes me a few days to get the bottom bricks in place. I can only work for short periods of time. I do it in the early morning before it gets too warm, but I'm beginning to have fun adding little touches to it like this ohm symbol that I painted for a corner stone.

Today Matt comes again with a gift! A HUGE piece of wood that I can use as the bottom of my (not yet built) dome. We cement it in place on top of a long piece of field stone.

I continue building the base of the grotto, still only able to work for short periods at a time but noticing that it's becoming physically easier. It's still challenging but at least I don't feel like I wanna die after working a couple hours! :)

If you look closely you'll find all sorts of little surprises tucked into it, especially on the dome.

Using chicken wire and some wood I begin building the frame for the dome. It's exciting to start this phase! It's easier working now because it's at the perfect height....not on my knees anymore!

I've got the dome halfway finished. I can only do a row or two at a time so that the concrete can set. I'm realizing that it's going to end up being taller than me. I also need to figure out how to create the curved part on top.

More chicken wire and some metal strips cemented into place form the top of the dome. I need a step stool to do these last few rows. The top arch is a challenge. I notice that my body has gotten used to the work. I'm not so sore stamina has increased. I feel SO different than I did when I began.

Finally finished! THIS was an exciting day!

I decided to paint my own "Tree of Life". The painting was done on wood and then sprayed with about a zillion coats of spar urethane.

I've mounted the painting so that it can be taken out and changed seasonally.

I made this piece for the winter months. The globe is 3D! I needed to find a way to keep it safe from the winter elements, so this one got about 2 zillions coats of spar urethane. It seems to have worked. It survived it's first winter beautifully!

I made this to prove to myself that I could. It is a testament to my health....a monument to Peace. It challenged me physically, mentally and spiritually. Each time I look at it I remember why I built it. I am healthy, I am whole, I am enough. Namaste.