Stone is powerful.
And stone needs space.
So Hank Nelson found 20 acres on Whidbey Island decades ago to make and display his sculptures of stone along with sky-high steel structures, bronze casts and art of and by the earth.
Called Cloudstone Sculpture Park, hundreds of his creations are planted among trees, mounds and valleys. Some of the mounds and valleys are actually part of Nelson’s earthworks, constructed with the help of a 1950s rusted-out logging grappler affectionately called “The Beast.”
“The only thing back here was old skid roads,” Nelson explained while giving a recent tour. “The whole 20 acres was brush and trees when we bought the land in 1993.”
“The only way my wife and I and the Realtor could see it was to crawl on our knees with a machete.”
Located west of Freeland off Double Bluff Road, Cloudstone is down one of those back roads of Whidbey where artists go to hide and thrive.
Nelson has achieved that in spades.
Few Whidbey residents know Cloudstone exists; it’s only open to the public once a year during International Sculpture Days, this year on April 21 and 22.
Under the roof of a blue barn and out on his land, Nelson has turned thousands of tons of marble, granite and basalt into curvaceous, evocative and immense works of art. Some pieces carved into the red hues of Dakota Mahogany Granite weigh up to 12 tons.
Nelson’s sculptures are leased to a few businesses and other venues and are on display around Freeland, Langley, Greenbank and Everett. But beyond that, his park is his showroom. (It also has a gallery displaying his smaller stone carvings and figures formed from melted cast iron.)
Considered a master, mentor and a visionary among his peers, Nelson is to be honored during an April 21 ceremony at Cloudstone. Along with Freeland sculptor Sue Taves, they’ll be recognized by Sculpture Northwest, a nonprofit that promotes public sculpture in Island, Skagit, Whatcom and San Juan counties.
When Taves first came to Whidbey 14 years ago to pursue stonework, she sought out Nelson. They worked out a trade so she could use his tools and work space and learn the cutting and breaking required of granite carving.
“I probably go to Cloudstone and talk to him and see what’s new a couple times of year,” said Taves, who now works out of a warehouse of collective space called Freeland Art Studios. “Every time I go up there, I’m amazed how much more he’s done.
“Hank is somebody who comes by the eccentric artist label honestly,” she said. “He does what he’s moved to do and that’s rare in the art world based on selling.
“Hank is someone who’s always valued making and creating and he’s pretty much worked in obscurity the whole time.”
Frank Rose, a South Whidbey member on the board of Sculpture Northwest, said Nelson was chosen “for following his dreams in the design and creation of Cloudstone and for his contributions to the arts.”
“The depth and breadth of his approach to carving and construction, in the sculptural sense, is both cathartic and awe inspiring,” Rose said.
A walk around Cloudstone is a walk through Nelson’s fertile mind.
His sprawling installations reveal his worldview, his inspirations, his bleak take on the future of humankind.
Walking toward mounds of earth covered in stone and rock resembling archaeological digs, Nelson points to two huge holes that were dug up and filled with various pieces of metal, rock and other material.
Standing along a rim trail, he points to the left.
“This represents the past people, the Anasazi. They all left and we don’t know why. This is what they left behind,” he says. “One person said it looks like a Turkish graveyard. Everyone has some kind of comment, some interpretation.”
Nelson then looks right at the pit he calls “Nuclear Holocaust.”
“This side represents destruction of modern man, excesses, atomic power and what they might do to the planet.” It’s splayed with chunks of concrete, rebar, old pipes and other castoff construction debris.
Natural substances, such as dirt, rock, vegetation and timber, form what Nelson calls Site Specific Earth Reconfiguration, better known as earth sculpture.
“Earth sculpture is a domain where you might lose yourself, or find yourself step into ancient history and experience startling revelations about civilization,” he warns in his Cloudstone artist statement.
Nelson also re-purposes cast-off rusted radiators, valves, pipes, water tanks and rebar to form sets of mind-boggling conceptual art, such as “Rivers No More.”
“This is how man can really screw things up,” he explains. “It’s a play on all the waterways in the world and how man has decimated them by building dams and cities over them.”
Walking with Nelson is his longtime trusted friend Marty Matthews, who is helping take an inventory of Cloudstone’s art. He also serves as the park’s director.
“We got 380 pieces so far and we’ve worked on it for two years,” Matthews said. “There’s a lot more.”
Nelson says he’s kept Cloudstone private all these years because it’s a work space and several pieces in the field are works in progress. Also, liability and security would have to be addressed in a public space.
But Nelson is slowly allowing more people to peek in on his place and disturb his peace. An educational foundation is being formed with a board of directors, nonprofit status and a mission to help others learn from Cloudstone’s founder.
“So it will be very qualified people chosen to come and learn three-dimensional art,” Nelson said. Renting the space and facilities for group workshops is also a possibility.
The satisfaction, both mental and physical, from carving stone “is immeasurable and unpredictable,” Nelson says. He considers himself fortunate that his carvings have great visual impact and substance and that he’s healthy enough to continue following his passion. (His age, he likes to say, is nobody’s business.)
“Liberating the image within” is the motto he chose for Cloudstone Sculpture Park.
Such is the power of stone.
• Cloudstone Sculpture Park and Gallery is open to the public 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 21 and 22 during International Sculpture Days. Sculptors Hank Nelson and Sue Taves will be recognized at 1 p.m. April 21 at the park during an awards ceremony. 5056 Cloudstone Lane, Freeland.