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Dan Snow: An artist who works in stone

Dan Snow stood on a wall he built for a client. Snow is a master stone wall builder, and the author of several books.
Dan Snow stood on a wall he built for a client. Snow is a master stone wall builder, and the author of several books.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

DUMMERSTON, Vt. — He’s worked with stone for so long now — a master craftsman who builds walls that are sturdy works of art — that he is sometimes mistaken for what he does and not for who he is.

“I’m associated with stone so much that sometimes I am introduced as ‘Dan Stone,’ ’’ he told me the other day on a snow-frosted terrace. “I hate to correct them.’’

His name is Dan Snow. And anyone who knows about the stone walls that for centuries have been an iconic part of the landscape of New England, once spanning 250,000 miles, would never misidentify him.


He’s one of a small number of Americans who have earned the master craftsman certification from the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain, a singular distinction. His work has been featured in publications across America.

He is, simply put, a stone whisperer.

And when he handles stone, he said, it affects him more than it does the stone.

“I grew up intent on being an artist,’’ said Snow, 68. “And that involved just being by myself and making art. What I wanted was to do something that was just mine. And, once I found it, it was kind of like, ‘Give me some stone and leave me alone.’ That’s all I needed.’’

The results are on display in Dummerston, throughout New England, and beyond, where he has earned a reputation as something of a poet whose language is not etched in stone. It is stone.

“Just put him in the middle of a pile of rock and let him go,’’ said Teddy Berg, who first met Snow more than 30 years ago when she was building a home in Walpole, N.H. “You’ll be surprised what comes out of it.’’

You’ll also be surprised by the stone whisperer’s demeanor, too. Calm. Quiet. Confident.


“Dan you don’t guide,’’ Berg said. “He just looks around and looks around and we couldn’t figure out what he was doing, but when we came up the next weekend, 50 feet of wall was done. He does it at his own pace and his own way. That gentle soul rubs off on everybody.’’

That gentle soul. It’s an apt description of a boy who was born in Brattleboro and, after his schooling, decided to stay.

Dan Snow is the oldest of three boys. His mom was a nurse until her family grew. His dad was the sales manager at the Brattleboro Reformer newspaper and, later, director of a federal office of housing based in Burlington.

“I always wanted to be an artist,’’ he told me. “But I couldn’t see how I could do anything except commercial art. I wanted to do three-dimensional construction. I didn’t just want to sit at a drafting table and draw. So I had to find something that would allow me to make things – be creative.’’

And so that’s what he did.

He lectures. He has authored books. Mostly he has used his hands to place stone on stone until what stands is a wall like those long since reclaimed by the forests.

The other day, as we stood at one of his structures – a 35-year-old wall at a farmhouse — Snow talked about the essential elements of his work. Gravity. Friction. Careful placement. And patience.


“It’s a type of work that allows for reflection,’’ he said. “It allows for expansion into thought that might not otherwise be available because you’re either in a conversation or even reading. You can’t let your mind wander.’’

He wants nothing between him and the stone.

“If you put on a pair of gloves, you’re shielded from the complete experience,’’ he said. “That’s one thing. The other is gloves can slip off your hands. They can give you a false sense of security. You can think, ‘Oh, I don’t have to think about the stone trapping my finger because I’m protected by the glove.’

“They can protect you from abrasion but as far as getting your finger crushed, they don’t do anything for you.’’

When Rick Richter, a retired screenwriter, and his wife, Susan, spotted Snow’s work featured in a magazine, they asked Snow to help with their plan for landscaping a property. They were converting a 19th-century stone house into a 16th-century French-English manor.

Snow developed a clay mock-up. And then got the job.

“The neat thing about Dan is that it’s a solitary thing that he does,’’ Richter said. “You hear him out there chipping away. I didn’t want to bother him. He gets in a zone. You pick up a stone and you put it in place and you never go back. I’m watching this very intuitive thing going on. It was going from long rows of discombobulated stone into this beautiful structure.

“It’s kind of a magical thing.’’


Or, as Peter Mauss, an architectural photographer who has collaborated with Snow, put it: “It’s almost unbelievable, really.’’

“He can synthesize unforgiving material on the ground in front of you that looks like rubble and by three-dimensional alchemy he can fashion something that he has already imagined,’’ Mauss said. “It’s like a jazz musician doing a riff on something in a really great way. You can’t do that riff unless you have classical music training. And that’s where Dan is at. I think he is the ideal.’’

He has been at it for more than 40 years now. His work has taken him to 13 states and eight countries. He lectures and is in demand for private and public art commissions. And when he’s not doing that, he’s back home where he was born, living here with his wife of 17 years, Elin Waagen. Together they have four children.

When I asked him how much longer he’ll be building those sturdy walls, he told me a story.

“The other day, I saw someone at the hardware store,’’ he said. “He used to work on my cars. I hadn’t seen him in probably 15 years and I didn’t even recognize him.

“And as I was cashing out, he saw my name on the register and he said, ‘So, you still stacking stone, Dan?’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m still fixing cars.’ And we both agreed that we would think about retirement if there was some way to do it and have some cash in our pocket.’’


When I asked him about that encounter, and whether each man was expressing a genuine desire to stop doing what they love, he paused.

And then he said: “I think we both were not being fully true in our description of why we haven’t stopped. I don’t think either of us wants to spend the day without being involved in it.’’

And that’s why when Dan Snow is driving down a windy Vermont country road and spots a 150-year-old stone wall that had been built in the style of its time — a wall that has stood the test of the ages — he pulls off to the side of the road.

“I get out of the car to take a picture of those every time,’’ the stone whisperer said.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.