We tend to think of stone as a workaday material: big, heavy slabs good for paving patios or perhaps building up a decorative wall. But Graham Fry of Raleigh has a different view of stone. In his hands, it’s an art supply.
Fry, 47, started Winding Path Custom Stone Masonry in 2001 after working for nearly a decade in landscaping. He did the full range of landscaping tasks, but his favorite jobs were the ones that involved stonework.
Stone, in all its variations, reminded him of his childhood in Raleigh, when he would visit Oakwood Cemetery “and just look at all the stone.”
“There’s some really beautiful stuff there,” said Fry, “and I think that just stuck with me.”
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As an adult, Fry said, he appreciates the permanence of stone, of “building something that’s going to be here a while.” And his clients appreciate it, too: “Sometimes you’re just completely transforming a space from something that’s not functional or not a pretty space and making it into something they can use. You just get a lot of satisfaction out of it,” he said.
But where Fry has really worked that transformative magic is with stone in its smallest form: the pebble. With pebbles of various sizes, Fry creates artwork that mimics a meandering brook or fabric draped over the landscape. Cheerily colored flowers “bloom” where the real thing might never grow. Taken as a whole, Fry’s installations use color and shape to create a scene and a flow that’s at once natural and whimsical, both familiar and unlike anything you’ve seen.
Like any stone work, his pebble installations are both beautiful and able to address a variety of problems – an installation at the Stone Center of Carolina store in Durham, for example, camouflages a drain, and stone can also be a good option in areas where grass or plants won’t grow.
Once he’s talked with the client about budget (a small piece might start around $400, but it all depends on space, size and materials) and their needs and personal taste, Fry sizes up the setting and gets to work. He starts with a sketch, but the real magic happens when he kneels with his bucket of pebbles and lets the space move his hands. As Fry explained, pebbles in a flower pattern will go where “I thought they looked right,” a stream will meander over a boulder or a spiral will weave through larger stonework.
“It really just depends on the space,” Fry said. “You just try and figure out what’s going to work where and how it’s going to give that area a flow.”
All the while, he’s listening to music. For heavy lifting and other very physical tasks, it might be ’60s or ’70s era funk or R&B, like James Brown or the Meters, “any kind of music created to get people on the dance floor,” he said. For more thoughtful tasks, like placing pebbles, he might slow it down a bit.
Music is much more to Fry than just a soundtrack to his work. For years, landscaping has been a day job that has allowed him to play in bands at night. Before starting Winding Path, Fry played guitar in metal band Confessor, and now he plays with rock bands Leadfoot and Deltoid. He sees a lot of parallels between in working with rock (the music) and stone (the landscaping material).
“Stonemasons talk a lot about having ‘a good stone day,’ and basically what that means is it’s effortless,” he said. “It’s the same with musicians. Sometimes you get on stage and you don’t think about anything, and suddenly the show’s over. … Then you know you’ve had a great show.”
He finds he can get into a similar groove when laying stone.
“You want to put yourself in that mindset; you want everything to be kind of instinctual,” he said. On his own “good stone days,” he said, he’s done all his thinking before the job and upon arrival, so once he gets to work, it’s all about a rhythm and a flow.
Flow is a signature of his designs, too, with their graceful curves and echoes of the land around them. Mary Beth Bishop was Fry’s first pebble art client, and she finds the outdoor space that he built a few years ago at her Durham home almost “a meditative space,” she said.
“It’s the kind of thing that draws your attention without capturing it,” she said of the space, where you can frequently find her sitting and reading with her dogs nearby. “You can look at it and kind of think or relax.”
Kayte Price of Cary hired Fry when her family wanted something beyond the basics for her backyard as they adjusted from their previous 5-acre space to a quarter of an acre.
She talked to several contractors, Price said, “and they just gave us the standardized version” of what they could do for the space. “He was just like, ‘Let’s make this better,’ and we were all for it.”
In addition to beautifying the space, the pebble stream that flows out of a rock wall also helps direct water away from the house, Price said.
“I look back there every day – it’s just a great place to be,” she said.
Whether playing music loud or designing an outdoor space of quiet beauty, Fry strives to give people the best he’s got: “I just want to give people the most interesting, creative thing that I can give them within their budget.”
Reach Chandler at firstname.lastname@example.org
Meet the Artist
Meet Graham Fry of Winding Path Custom Stone Masonry and see one of his pebble installations at the Downtown Raleigh Home Show at the Raleigh Convention Center Sept. 9-11 (he’ll be in Booth 1417).
You can also see his work at the Stone Center of Carolina store, 6515 Apex Highway, Durham, or on his website, windingpath.com.