Tailgate: Lew French, Rock Star
After finding his passion at 19, French has spent the last 35 years designing one-of-a-kind works with stone and natural materials.
What got you started in stonework?
I grew up in a small town in Minnesota and started working on houses at 17. After graduating from the local vocational school, I started my own business. I had the good fortune to hire three friends of my father. They worked for me, but I was their apprentice. I worked with them in almost all the home-building trades: framing, carpentry, plumbing, and stone. But just about a year into it, I knew that working with stone was where my future would be.
Do you consider yourself a stonemason or an artist?
I don’t consider myself either. To me, a stonemason is someone who carefully cuts stones and then builds with them. I leave stones in their natural state. And I certainly don’t consider myself an artist. Artist is such a powerful word. I have a friend who’s a real artist, and I could never do what he does. I consider myself a designer who works in stone.
Do you ever cut the stones you use?
Uncut stone has a power and drama that is not only seen but felt. I spend a lot of time choosing stones that fit right together. When I absolutely have to reshape a stone, it’s going to be barely shaving a piece, and I do it where the cut edge will not be seen.
Your projects look like the work of someone who is obsessive and a perfectionist.
Oh yes. I am definitely both.
So are you ever satisfied?
No, not really. I feel like I let someone down—usually myself—every day. I always feel like I could have done something better or differently. No one except me sees my work the way I do. And even though I’ve been doing this for over 35 years, with each new project I still get apprehensive that this time I’m not going to be able to deliver—that this time I won’t be able to find that creativity.
Do you feel the same way with personal projects?
I do. It doesn’t matter if what I’m working on is for me, a new client, or a client I’ve worked with before. I still get that feeling.
Do you draw detailed plans?
No. I have a basic plan, but the work just evolves as the stones fit together. My job is to see the character and strength of a stone’s shape and how that stone relates to the next stone in a cohesive and harmonious manner. The completed piece should gently focus your attention and draw you in visually and emotionally.
What inspires you?
Nature. I observe stone in nature. But what I do is a pale imitation of what occurs in nature. I manipulate the placement of stone, but I try to be truthful. By placing myself in the stone’s environment, I try to understand what I see. I try to quiet my mind and let as many natural impressions enter as possible. I then interpret the thoughts and formulate ideas for my designs. One of the highest compliments I receive is when someone tells me my work looks like it has always been there.
How did you make the leap from competent stonemason to craftsman?
I’ve been doing this for so long that my work has become recognized. After my book Stone by Design was published in 2005, more people became aware of what I’d done. Then in 2007, Steve Hartman interviewed me for CBS Sunday Morning. Right after that interview, all printed copies of the book sold out.
And now your second book is scheduled for a fall 2015 release.
I’m collaborating again with photographer Allison Shaw. In addition to photographs of completed projects, this book will go into more detail about the process of creating some of the work I’ve done.
You do physical work. Do you ever think of retiring?
I’m going to keep doing what I do for as long as I’m able and as long as I enjoy it. My work is always evolving. I’ve been doing some sculptural pieces for corporations and organizations and smaller pieces that I’ve been selling at a gallery on Martha’s Vineyard. I work with smaller stones, and I incorporate other materials, like driftwood, into these pieces. I may not always be able to do the big things, the millstones and the boulders, but I can still stay in the medium of stone.
What would you say to the kid who wants to stack stones for a living?
I think there are opportunities at all levels for the next generation of stonemasons and craftspeople. What’s most important is that you find enjoyment in what you do. My work is my passion, but it’s a practical passion. It allows me to express my creativity but still support myself and my family. You have to find your passion.
Illustration: Jacqueline Rogers