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Originally published January 11, 2013 at 11:00 AM | Page modified January 12, 2013 at 3:32 AM

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Jeffrey Bale catches nature's rhythms in mosaics

"I want my paving to be rich in meaning, the best it can be, to alter your life," he says.

Special to The Seattle Times

Local news partner - Plant Talk

Valerie Easton writes in her blog about gardens and the people who make them.

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MOSAICS ARE all about the materials, explains Jeffrey Bale, who spends a third of his time on any project sorting through piles of pebbles for just the right ones. The Portland native was recently profiled in The New York Times after he completed his third mosaic for the Los Angeles garden of Tony Shalhoub, of "Monk" fame, and his wife, actress Brook Adams.

With his multiple piercings and piercing blue eyes, his extravagant dress and quiet voice, Bale preaches the gospel of stone. "I want my paving to be rich in meaning, the best it can be, to alter your life," he says. "Gardens should be something that change you."

"My grandparents were rock hounds," says Bale of his lifelong obsession with collecting stones. After getting a degree in landscape architecture and working briefly in an office, Bale was off to Spain and Portugal, where he fell in love with mosaics.

"It was kind of a dead art in the '80s; there wasn't even much stone available," he says. He learned his craft by scavenging rocks to build a patio in his now thoroughly mosaicked Portland garden, where he's been working on a 40-foot-long rattlesnake path for the past eight years.

Bale spends his winters traveling through Asia and Europe, studying sacred architecture and ancient gardens. He finds Spain's Alhambra, which he considers the pinnacle of human expression, inspirational for the layers of meaning and history embedded in its stonework.

He takes as his model the pleasure gardens of Persia. He loves shrines, grottoes and architecture that aligns with the stars. "In Hindu culture, the Gods will only be attracted to structures that have a relationship with the cosmos," he explains.

For all his appreciation of the exotic, Bale is practical when it comes to stone. His ultimate inspiration is nature, and his favorite mosaics are pebbles naturally layered in the strata along streambeds.

Bale's mosaics are known for how tightly the pebbles fit together, with no mortar joints showing. He places the pebbles into the cement sideways, or thin edge up, which makes for a smooth, stable mosaic that feels good when you walk on it with bare feet. "I tuck all the pebbles in together as if the mosaic had been formed by a force of nature," he says. Well, not quite. After he finishes a section he covers it with a piece of plywood and jumps up and down on it to level the stones. He says "it needs to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle." Did he like jigsaw puzzles as a kid? "I was really good at them."

How DIY are pebble mosaics? Bale advises getting organized by sorting all the pebbles before you start. He uses Type S Mortar Mix, stirred with water until it's the consistency of stiff pudding. "Don't mix it up and go answer the phone," he warns.

One reason Bale's work looks so settled in so quickly is that he builds in expansion joints so that patios and pathways drain. This permeability soon enough allows what Bale calls "the miracle of moss" to soften the edges of the pebbles. (See Bale's detailed instructions on building a mosaic paver at http://bit.ly/S0vN2g.) But technique is only part of what's needed for this kind of artistry. Considering the resurgence of interest in pebble mosaics, why aren't more people doing this kind of work? He has a quick answer: "They aren't patient enough."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "petal & twig." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.

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