The Fluidity of Stone and the Ground of Our Being
Andy Goldsworthy’s Walking Wall
Joel Kurz

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven … a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together. Ecclesiastes 3:1,5a

Ever since I discovered the work of British artist Andy Goldsworthy, he has been on my dream list of people I’d thrill to meet. I mentioned him briefly in these pages a decade ago (“Living Poetically,” Trinity 2010), but I longed to explore more thoroughly his work with elemental nature over time. Imagine my amazement, then, when I heard his voice on the local public radio station one morning last March. He was in Kansas City, working on a major commission at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. “After all of this time thinking about traveling somewhere to hear him,” I thought to myself, “and here he is, just an hour up the road!”

The nine months of his stone Walking Wall exhibit, from March to December last year, coincided with the toughest year of my life—a time of emotional turmoil, broken bones, surgeries, and ongoing physical therapy. I was also turning fifty, and wondered how I’d gone from a rock-hound kid hunting for geodes to a half-century man, splintered apart on the inside.

Walking Wall

In the 2004 documentary film Rivers and Tides: Working with Time, Goldsworthy reflects upon the power of water and stone in nature, acknowledging the deep bond between them. He speaks of seeing development in stone as “a way of understanding things in life that cause upheaval and shock,” and a river’s “line of unpredictability”—seen when its meandering curves are viewed from above. Toward the end of the film, Goldsworthy talks about a stone’s metamorphosis from liquid to solid and observes that setting aside the conception of inherent solidity informs our comprehension of what is here to stay and what isn’t.

Goldsworthy undertook his first stone wall, Give and Take Wall, in 1988, just a few years after he moved from England to Scotland. He had done some repair work on stone walls as a farmhand during his youth, and he was taken by the sculptural possibilities within that medium. Give and Take Wall (1988-1989) arose out of the need to divide land he’d gotten on a long-term lease from the field of which it had previously been a part. The wall he built allowed forest to return to Goldsworthy’s side after generations of grazing sheep had prevented it. His second undertaking in the Cumbrian region, Wall that Went for a Walk (1990-1991), has itself been disappearing as the trees of the Grizedale Forest have been dislodging the stones winding ribbonlike through their midst.

While that wall has gone largely forgotten, Storm King Wall (1997-1998) in New York’s Hudson Valley has been the most celebrated, visible, and visited of his endeavors. His first museum commission for a permanent work in the United States, Storm King Wall started as a plan to build a 750-foot wall that ended at an oak tree. The wall grew, however, to a length of 2,278 feet as it curved through the forestland still bearing remnants of stone walls from agricultural days. The initial idea changed because of Goldsworthy’s attentiveness to what was already there. The wall now disappears into and reemerges from a pond, and extends to the New York State Thruway.

Goldsworthy’s previous walls informed the Kansas City commission, Walking Wall, as did these words from Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson’s poem “Wall”:

A wall walks slowly,
At each give of the ground,
Each creak of the rock’s ribs…
They built a wall slowly,
A day a week;
Built it to stand.
But not stand still.
They built a wall to walk.

Stone laid upon stone, moving and remaining over time, makes a wall. That is what Goldsworthy wanted to explore in an entirely different way, and what coalesced in his new undertaking.

On his first visit to Kansas City, Goldsworthy wasn’t sure what he would do on the grounds of Nelson-Atkins. He found guidance, however, in the words of Plotinus inscribed on the museum’s stately stone edifice: “Art deals with things forever incapable of definition and that belong to love, beauty, joy, and worship; the shapes, powers, and glory of which are ever building, unbuilding, and rebuilding in each man’s soul, and in the soul of the whole world.” Goldsworthy studied the environs and sketched ideas, knowing that he couldn’t do anything on the “hallowed ground” between Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s four massive, iconic Shuttlecocks (endowed by Estelle and Morton Sosland, the very donors Goldsworthy’s work was to honor). When he noticed all of the existing fieldstone walls in nearby neighborhoods, Goldsworthy said he could “see the hands of the makers” in their work, and he felt the place calling for another.

Walking Wall

Those stones in the old walls trace back to the very man whose vision and means made the museum a reality. William Rockhill Nelson (1841-1915), the real estate developer and Kansas City Star founder, cleared the land on which his namesake museum now stands in order to build a new housing development, and limestone from that land went into the walls built around those homes. When Goldsworthy considered how to source the nearly 180 tons of stone needed for Walking Wall, he remembered traveling through Kansas’s Flint Hills years earlier, while working on a commission in Wichita. He had seen a historical plaque marking an 1867 law that abolished open-range grazing and provided funds for the building and maintenance of boundary walls—almost all made from fieldstone. Traveling back to the Flint Hills, Goldsworthy was able to acquire both weathered and newly quarried stone that complemented the appearance of those in Kansas City.

 “A wall is not made of stone alone, but by the builder and his energy,” Goldsworthy asserts, even though he is not the one building his walls. As he recalled in Rivers and Tides, when he did some of the early work himself, the “waller” with whom he was working wound up moving his stones for better placement. Goldsworthy now sees his task not as stacking stones but as “finding the line and working the space,” while keeping some distance for viewing and directing the shape it takes. The line of Walking Wall, he said, “was made with very little thought but much experience.” One of the builders who has collaborated with Goldsworthy over the years, seventy-two-year-old Gordon Wilton, is considered one of the best in the world at his craft, and Walking Wall is his sixtieth wall for Goldsworthy. Wilton was joined by a dozen or so other stonemasons, including his son, on Walking Wall. Knowingly, Goldsworthy attests that the work is “not just laying on the stones. It’s the ability to do that all day long, and the rhythm that that labor brings to the piece” (Gardiner).

Wallers get paid by the yard, so the speed with which they build is important. To reflect this reality, Goldsworthy “wanted a certain rawness and ruggedness” brought to this work. He told his crew that this work was “all about making a good wall fast,” and that they had to be ready for turns whenever and where ever he said (Frese, 2C). Goldsworthy envisioned a wall that would be “built, unbuilt, and rebuilt,” just as Plotinus wrote. He wanted to attempt a large-scale project that “didn’t forever claim the ground upon which it was built” but apprehended movement and impermanence in a way that expressed how “you only see a small part of a greater thing at any one time” (Frese, 2C).

For that very reason, the installation took shape over nine months—the same span of time from conception to birth. It encompassed all of the seasonal changes that occur in the natural world. Four distinct segments of Walking Wall were built and unbuilt, wending their way across the grounds, with the fifth and final segment remaining for the test of time. Goldsworthy said he felt tension when the wall was broken—each time the stones from the beginning of that length were pulled apart and moved to start a new beginning where the wall had previously ended, just as the past always feeds the present into the future.

The wall began last March on five empty acres to the east of the museum. It flowed gracefully between two of those aged, straight stone walls. In May, it moved across Rockhill Road and shut down a section of that four-lane thoroughfare for a couple of weeks—enrapturing some and unsettling others—only to ascend a hill and snake its way around a corner and to the front of the museum’s modern Bloch Building. In July, it continued its journey along the Bloch Building, navigating a narrow confine and stopping on a small green space atop the building. Come September, the wall made its way down the middle of a steep flight of stairs, curved around a corner, and emerged in the vast expanse beside and in front of the historic main building, circling a bed of flowers as it went. When November came, the stones descended a small flight of steps and flowed in a serpentine path up and down a slight hill along the far end of the Bloch Building, only to “pass through” a glass window and end with its short tail protruding onto a hallway. That is where it remains, bringing the outside in and beckoning the viewer to see from different perspectives while guessing at what is hidden from sight.

The illustrator, painter, and early-American historian Eric Sloane wrote about the skill and legacy of dry-stone construction that is Goldsworthy’s repeated medium:

Dry-masoning began to disappear when cement entered on the American building scene. Hitherto, a good dry mason could build a permanent foundation wall without any bonding cement at all and could make it so tight and strong that two centuries have left the old foundations unmoved…. It is revealing that the common worker of a few years ago did all his jobs “the hard way” and with an eye toward their lasting qualities, thinking almost less of his own lifetime than that of his successors” (68-69).

That link to times past and yet to come is embedded in Walking Wall, as well as Goldsworthy’s others that have preceded it and those still to take shape. Science tells us that stones themselves owe their fracture and dislocation from mountains to fields by means of glacial melt. Ground frost pushes stones to the surface, making them available for practical purposes. James Putnam writes in the introduction to Andy Goldsworthy’s Enclosure that stacked walls are found “in areas where stone is naturally occurring and plentiful: in Scotland, the upland areas of England and Wales and rural Ireland” especially, and notes that in County Mayo, “there is an entire field system composed of dry-stone walls” dating to 3800 BC (12).

As stones are moved, so are animals and people. Through the British Enclosure Acts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Parliament forced many people off the “common” pastureland on which they and their ancestors had lived and worked for generations. This was at the behest of wealthy landowners who wanted private land for large-scale commercial sheep-farming. Because of this massive dislocation, Putnam writes:

…many of the large open spaces had vanished, and miles of dry-stone walls divided off newly delimited land for sheep…with many farm workers migrating from the land to the town and the new industrial centres to seek employment. The plight of the poorest farmers worsened from 1875 with the flood of food from the New World (12).

Very few people had the power or influence to oppose this displacement, but, as Putnam cites, the poet William Wordsworth was able “almost single-handedly” to oppose the enclosure of Grasmere Common and preserve the traditional rights of the people for pasturing their animals there (11).

That social upheaval, tied to the establishment of new boundaries, was part of what led so many English and Scots-Irish immigrants to America. There, a good number of them cleared land and built those stone walls with which Goldsworthy engages.

Understanding that historical background cannot help but inform the current movement of people from below America’s southern borders which were being established in that same timeframe of expansionism. None of Goldsworthy’s previous walls had found their construction happening amid a heated political climate in which the word wall itself was so rhetorically and emotionally charged. Commenting on that dynamic, Goldsworthy said, “What is happening this year with walls in America, is going to be written into that whether I like it or not. This is nothing I’ve ever had to deal with…but it’s put me and the project into a really uncomfortable and amazing space.” What he and his crew were doing had, as he put it, “really little to do with that, and everything to do with that” (Frese, 1C).

While some people perceive walls as fixed barriers and impenetrable dividers, Goldsworthy’s walls are entirely different. His walls of stone are not taller than the average person, and they seldom move in straight lines. Like water passing through land or stone, his walls curve and bend in response to place—or, as he explained about the segment of Walking Wall that crossed a roof with limited weight-bearing capacity, the wall had to “stretch like a muscle and be shorter, only to be taller elsewhere.” Adaptation and “unruliness” are inherent in his work. All walls are confrontational in some way; Walking Wall most certainly was when it blocked Rockhill Road. But Goldsworthy’s work is more about connection than division. Employing buckets and wheelbarrows instead of heavy equipment at the worksite, Goldsworthy created an environment that enabled watchers to get close to the work and interact with the wallers.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates connection as clearly and profoundly as the dry-stone method itself. After the ground has been trenched (dug to support the base of the wall), stones are stacked upon each other until they reach the desired height. Putnam writes of the process:

Considerable skill is required in the selection of the correct stone for every position in the wall, as this has an effect on its longevity. Each stone needs to be carefully chosen by shape and weight; it can then, if necessary, be chipped with a small hammer to ensure that as much of its surface as possible has contact with adjacent stones (12).

Each stone exists in relation to the stones and spaces around it. Only by being joined together with other stones of various sizes and shapes can a cohesive entity emerge. The entire wall gains its strength from external weight pushing toward the center. Again, as Putnam explains:

As their sides slope gently inward, and have a slight flexibility, the walls are actually locked more tightly together by any ground movement, rather than being weakened by it. The stonework is also generally bound with throughs or throughstones large enough to span the whole thickness of the wall, which are incorporated at appropriate levels in the course of the building. A particular advantage of a correctly built dry-stone wall is that it drains naturally without damage, whereas frozen rain and snow trapped in mortared seams may push joints apart (12).

Knowing what makes for the wall’s strength helps when contemplating the portion of St. Peter’s First Epistle, where Old Testament images of the Messiah as a “chosen and precious” stone lead to a fuller understanding of what it means to belong to each other through him: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ” (2:5). We humans who comprise “the communion of saints” are brought into a new reality of existence through Christ who binds and keeps us together, like one stone upon another, making a spiritual whole. The ground-heaving events we experience can drive us closer, making us stronger as one body rather than causing us to crumble. Maybe that visible manifestation of interdependence in Walking Wall—the process of building, unbuilding, rebuilding, and remaining—is what resonated so deeply with me during that time of internal isolation and dislocation.

There was something that rankled me during Walking Wall‘s installation, though, and that was the lack of interest, appreciation, or understanding from people whom I would have expected to “get it.” How can they look at the gracefully stacked and winding stones and simply shrug them off? Were those people blind to intricacy and beauty? Blind to what’s stable in place, time, and season? Or am I just excessively sensitive? I found myself asking all of these questions, but then came to this answer: maybe these differences demonstrate how we are like the stones, all chipped in varying places so that we can converge as a whole.

Stones are scattered around my house. They are on shelves, dressers, and countertops. Each of them carries the memory of a time, a place, or an experience. Together, these rocks constitute, at least partially, and at least to me, the story of my life. Stone stands as witness of what time holds in place.

Before my last year of college, my father abruptly resigned from the ministry after thirty years. He and my mother, along with my grandmother, moved from Texas to Missouri to be near me. Among the things they brought from Texas was my rock collection, which took up a couple of large boxes. After my parents bought a house—the first they’d ever owned—Dad wanted to improve the front retaining wall by mortaring stone over bleak-looking concrete blocks. There in the Ozarks, where people say all you can grow are tomatoes and rocks, an elderly neighbor gathered stones and gave them to my father for his wall. I gave him my collection, too, and told him to use them, even though he tried to convince me otherwise. Working on that wall was his way of holding himself together as he faced the great unknown, broken and burned-out at fifty-five. He’s been gone now for twelve years already, and after living in that house for twenty-seven years, my mom finally sold it. In front of that house in which my father lived his final years and died, the stones in that wall remain. Even though my parents are no longer in the house, the stones remain.

In the biblical narrative, stone is there as the pillow-become-pillar commemorating Jacob’s dream of the ladder joining heaven and earth (Gen. 28:10-22). Stone is there as a standing witness to the covenant of peace between Jacob and his contentious father-in-law, Laban (31:36-50); there as Jacob set up another pillar to mark the place where the Lord appeared to him and changed his name to Israel (35:9-15); there as the descendants of Israel crossed over the Jordan River and set up twelve stones of remembrance after forty years in the wilderness (Joshua 4:1-10); there when the Lord renewed his covenant with his wayward people, as Joshua set up a large stone as a witness to those words under a terebinth tree (24:19-28); and there as Samuel set up the “stone of help”—Ebenezer, literally—in remembrance of the Lord’s deliverance of the people from the hands of their enemy (I Samuel 7:5-14). That brief accounting of the ancient witness of stone in the Hebrew Scriptures imbues a depth of significance.

Those histories come together, with others, in the passages Peter cites about Christ the cornerstone and the living stones built up as a spiritual house in him. When St. Francis of Assisi found the crucifix within the ruined walls of San Damiano, he heard the Savior tell him to rebuild his church. So he went through the town and begged stones of people in order to make it happen. The rebuilding of those walls reached far beyond that place and brought a renewed reality of the Church as human beings made a new spiritual whole in Christ.

My long-held desire to hear Goldsworthy speak became a reality on Ascension Day last year. As the Church remembered Christ being lifted into the heavens forty days after his resurrection, I was thinking of stone and ground, permanence and change. The second stage of Walking Wall had just been completed. Prior to the talk on that splendid May night, I walked along the new line of the wall. I studied its dialogue with trees and the diversity of people who also walked its winding way. I beheld a beautiful community of stones and place and people. I wanted to touch the stones as I saw others doing, but I couldn’t bring myself to do so for some reason. I was still carrying the weight of my sorrows, and in that moment I realized that I needed to look at individual stones rather than experience them as a whole. As I studied the large top-stones, I saw a half-circle of darkness that made my eyes well with tears. Many of Goldsworthy’s circular-shaped works have a black hole at the center, which he traces back to the day after his sister-in-law died, when he went to work at a tree with a hole in it. As he explained in Rivers and Tides, it was as if he was standing at the edge of a cliff, but seeing more than just impending doom. There is a dark side to land and stone and life. Sorrow is inescapable, so what happens around it matters. As I stared into that dark semicircle, I realized I’d already been emerging from the black hole. I saw emptiness, but I was also able to see how I had grown over the preceding months, and how I had the strength for whatever was yet to be.

Goldsworthy’s talk that night did not disappoint. I sat eight rows back, listening to him speak about his work and life and the project underway. His words expressed humility, humor, and humanity alongside deep love for this world and echoed something he said in Rivers and Tides about needing the earth and being amazed simply to be alive.

The following September, I attended a screening of Leaning into the Wind, a 2017 film on Goldsworthy’s work, at the museum. Goldsworthy spoke for a few minutes before the film began. He talked about his love of making things, then went outside to work a bit more before dark.

I managed to see every stage of Walking Wall. I thrilled to see Goldsworthy and his crew unbuilding and rebuilding it on several occasions, and enjoyed the opportunity to chat with them a bit. But more, I will continue to visit the wall that remains through upcoming changes of life and time, remembering what has been while reflecting on what still is “in each man’s soul, and in the soul of the whole world.”


Joel Kurz is pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Warrensburg, Missouri. With C. George Fry, he edited Lively Stone: The Autobiography of Berthold von Schenk. Kurz's essays and poetry have appeared in various journals over the years.


Photos used with permission. Additional photos and information about the exhibit are at https://nelson-atkins.org/events/goldsworthy-wall/. Photo 1: Andy Goldsworthy, English (b. 1956).Walking Wall (stage 4), 2019. Site-specific stone wall, dimensions variable. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: acquired through the generosity of the Hall Family Foundation in honor of Estelle and Morton Sosland, 2019.47.1,2. Photo by Dana Anderson / Art © 2019 Andy Goldsworthy. Photo 2: Andy Goldsworthy, English (b. 1956). Walking Wall (stage 2), 2019. Site-specific stone wall, dimensions variable. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: acquired through the generosity of the Hall Family Foundation in honor of Estelle and Morton Sosland, 2019.47.1,2. Photo by Gabe Hopkins / Art © 2019 Andy Goldsworthy.


Works Cited

Frese, David. “’Walking Wall’ Artist on Timing of his Nelson-Atkins Piece: ‘You Can’t Ask for Better’” (The Kansas City Star, April 7, 2019, 1C-2C).

Gardiner, Mark. “This Wall Was Made for Walking” (The New York Times, October 23, 2019).

Goldsworthy, Andy. Artist Talk, May 30, 2019. Atkins Auditorium, Kansas City.

Putnam, James. Introduction to Enclosure, Andy Goldsworthy (New York: Abrams, 2007).

Sloane, Eric. American Yesterday (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1956).

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