‘When I’m doing stonework, even after 20 years, it still feels like I’m skipping school,” Bill Vieira tells me over a bowl of chili at the Ashfield Lakehouse.
I spend most of every workday in front of a computer, so I have a hard time picturing myself out in the sun, hauling around tons of stone for hours on end. That’s what Bill and his brother, Jim, founders of North Wind Stonework in Ashfield, have done for two decades. But the work, while physically taxing, usually leaves them smiling.
“You’re out in the fresh air. You’re collaborating with your client and your crew,” says Bill. “And you get to do something creative. As long as my body holds up, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”
Bill is 50; Jim, 49. Bill studied economics at the University of Massachusetts, but it wasn’t until he was in his early 30s that he stumbled upon what would become his career. He moved into a house on Bug Hill Road in Ashfield, a few miles from the quarry run by Ashfield Stone Company. “I live next to a field,” he explains, “and they’ve been throwing stone over the bank onto my property for 150 years. I got to pick from that stuff, so I started playing around.”
Pastime turns profitable
One day a neighbor, who had come by to drop off some soil, caught sight of Bill’s early attempts at laying and stacking stone. He offered Bill a chance to try out a project for pay. The next year, Jim joined in.
“It mutated into an occupation, after a lot of trial and error,” Bill says. “I’m just glad that I got the opportunity to make mistakes at my place, so that I’d learned how to do this by the time we took on clients.”
The brothers work side by side on nearly all their projects, which have ranged from walkways and patios to retaining walls, stairs and stacked-stone artworks that resemble spheres, eggs, conical towers and rough stone mounds commonly referred to as cairns.
We’re all familiar with the look of old stonemasonry projects gone to seed. Walkways sprout weeds. Shoddy outdoor walls succumb to year-round battering by New England weather.
But good stonemasonry stands up to the passage of time, and the Vieiras set high standards to ensure their work lasts. For example, Bill says, “you should be able to hold a tray of martinis and walk across a stone patio without looking down. That’s what we go for.”
The slabs of metamorphic schist they use — nearly all of which comes from Ashfield Stone Company and nearby Goshen Stone — interlock beautifully, highlighting the varied colors and patterns laid down in these layers of rock naturally over millions of years.
It’s a medium rich with artistic possibility. Bill cites the British sculptor and artist Andy Goldsworthy as a major source of inspiration, and it’s easy to see why — Goldsworthy’s tightly packed cairns and undulating stone walls, which can be found all over the world, capture something elegant and beautiful about the environments in which they appear, whether it’s the National Gallery of Art or a lone, rocky mountaintop.
Whether the Vieiras are working on a project for a homeowner or a commercial business, the priority, Bill says, is to fit the solution to the environment. “We look at everything we do as artwork,” he says. “It takes physical exertion and problem-solving, but what we’re really trying to do is combine things in a way that is beautiful. And a big component of beauty is relationship.”
Relationship to a house, garden, or other pre-existing structure, yes, but also to elements that are harder to measure: fields, tree lines, bodies of water, and open spaces. Bill refers to a well-made stone patio, for example, as a “tamed space,” implying that there is still something very much alive about the look and feel of those rock surfaces — and the snow, leaves and maple buds that fall on them from season to season.
“It’s like you’re leaving a canvas,” he says. “Stonework sits out there in the elements, and you have a continuous relationship with it.”
What about the process itself?
Bill says on-site work is just as demanding as you’d expect. “Many sites, you can’t get a machine anywhere near them,” he says. “We come up with a lot of Fred Flintstone solutions to get the stone where it needs to go. But you’d be surprised at the size of the stones you can move with just a couple of people and some bars and rollers.”
Since laying stone is often just one aspect of a larger construction project, the Vieiras frequently collaborate with Rawlings Excavation in Ashfield. For some projects, they work directly with architects. More often than not, though, a project begins with a sit-down meeting with a homeowner to talk through needs and goals.
“Most of the time,” Bill says, “there’s a good component of winging it. You can’t always know how everything should look before you start. Nobody likes to backtrack, so once you put something down, you hate to rip it apart. But you just have to accept that as part of the process.”
The Vieiras typically take up projects within an hour’s drive of Ashfield. That may seem like a limited clientele, given how sparsely populated many of the Hilltowns are, but the brothers have done well. Even given the implied permanence of their work, Bill says repeat business has been good among local clients looking to expand on previous projects.
“We’ve been blessed,” Bill says. “Stone is a luxury for a lot of people, and there are usually cheaper solutions. When someone pays up for stone, we think of them as patrons of the arts, and we really appreciate that.”
Hunter Styles can be reached at .