Reinventing the Roman Arch in Montana
By Sondra Nishkian Sieg
Turning down Home Stretch Lane, "The Big Sky" is the only arch higher than the massive stone arches I'm approaching.
My first impression of Peggy Steffes' Stone Arch Farm is that I must be looking at her life's work. Instead I learn the magnificent Roman Revival arches and adjacent stone walls have been built by this talented stone mason artist in less than two years. In a landscape where stonewalls, stone fireplaces, and stone foundations are commonplace, it is breathtaking to see the artistry and creative uniqueness of Steffes' work.
The stones, strong and silent, mysteriously hint that there is a story linking their original source, the artist, and their newfound place on the Montana landscape. There is a juxtaposition of weight and lightness. The improbable positioning of the stones and rocks into tight jigsaw puzzle patterns is the trademark of Steffes' unusual masonry creations.
Her artistic style is neither the traditional dry stack or crazy quilt stonework. Her unique feel for the rocks themselves, their shapes, sizes and colors, make her stone creations like no other. "I do it because I love it, " Steffes says. "My appetite for stone is insatiable." The stone art has become Steffe's obsession. "I covet rocks and I like dirty and heavy," she says, smiling.
As a pottery major at the University of Wisconsin- Oshkosh, Steffes already had an inclination toward natural materials and surfaces. Inspired by the European structures she had visited, she spent her following summer vacations throwing and firing ceramic pots at her grandfather's farm in Fond du Lac on Lake Winnebago.
One hot dry summer day, she was stoking up a fire in the kiln. A spark strayed and burned down her grandfather's outhouse. Filled with remorse, she decided it was time to move on. Steffes wanted an environmentally clean place to live and study. She decided to acquire her Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Idaho. From there settled in the Bitterroot Valley and decided her first task was to build a non-flammable kiln building.
Later she built two more stone buildings on her property at Fred Burr Canyon, eventually selling the property to the late musician Hoyt Axton. Throughout her 32-year career as a potter, Steffes always left time to build with stone. Along the way she built several stone houses. Her current residence, Stone Arch Farm, is home to her Roman Revival arches and the seven thoroughbred racehorses she raises. Steffes' busy schedule includes harvesting a rich yield of stones from her 44-acre property.
She will only buy rock when it's necessary to form special effects. She actually communicates with the stones. "I know it sounds odd, but once when I was building a wall, a rock behind me seemed to just call out to me and say, 'take me!'" Sometimes a 200-pound rock just rolls into my truck. I used to be able to lift a 125 pound rock onto my truck. Nowadays, 80-pound rocks take my whole body to lift them. I tell my body to relax and the weight of the rock becomes manageable." Steffes says. "Certain days the rocks cooperate."
On other days, Steffes has experienced a complete lack of cooperation when gathering rocks from their natural habitat. "Sometimes the rocks don't want to join the other rocks I'm collecting." Steffes admits that her compulsion to build stone arches and walls has overtaken all other aspects of her life. With the help and muscle of her assistants, she is able to maneuver the heaviest stones into their proper place.
She then places the smaller rocks in between the larger ones locking the combinations of colors, shapes and sizes into intricate patterns with no visible mortar. The viewer feels as though each stone was meant to find its particular place. One stone more or one stone less would be less than perfect. "When the wall or arch gets too predictable, I'll turn a stone on end to put it on the tip. This reversal of weight defies gravity and makes a heavy thing look like a ballerina," she comments.
As Steffes builds, some rocks do seem to gently roll into place. Other times, she tries several rocks before selecting just the right one. She taps a stubborn rock into place with a hammer commenting that not all rocks find their place easily. Steffes looks at an opening between two rocks and asks her assistant to hoist up a 100-pound rock. "Perfect!" she shouts. "Now what about a small one to close in the space."
In the style of the Renaissance apprentice, her assistants mix and set mortar and place stone to background the visible foreground work done by the master artist. Watching Steffes build reminds you that stone masonry is hard, heavy, dirty work tasks usually done by men.
"Being a female stone mason is in itself unusual," she says. "Most women lack the strength to do this kind of work and frankly most women don't like to work in such a dirty atmosphere." But the stones lure Steffes. "I suppose imposing the human will and turning heavy stones on end is an attempt at achieving immortality."
Steffes says she has at least one more stone house in her head. She's secretive about the details, and says only that it's in the shape of a stone horse. "I picture the house on a hill or shelf with the effect of a horse running." She says.
For now , the transformation of her property on Home Stretch Lane into Stone Arch Farm has kept this gifted artist busy seven days a week. Like the Romans, Steffes has mastered the ancient art of hand-building stone arches. Fortunately, she has decided to place her stone arches on the Montana landscape.
Peggy Steffes' Roman Revival arches reach to the blue Montana 'Big Sky,' a perfect fit under Mother Nature's dome.
— Sondra Nishkian Sieg has published articles on artists and musicians. She is the author of a cookbook, "College Quickies," and two children's games, Masterpiece Memory and Bella Musica. She lives with her husband in Stevensville, Montana, and Laguna Beach, California.