Friday, November 29, 2013

An Outdoor Classroom

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Having this sculptural outdoor classroom project for a school as my first large public work was both challenging and rewarding. Following a site visit with the arts committee of the school I created a concept that would be distinctive of the schools ethos and beliefs, while also creating a visually stimulating space that would be a slice of earthiness and nature in an urban area largely dominated by concrete and steel.
It took almost a year, and 100 tonnes of stone to complete, but I think the before and after shots below shows how successful the project has been.
My new favorite before and after photo

Tom Pollard acting out a scene on our theatre stage.
Working in the middle of a school yard, the site often felt like a theatre stage, with students and parents alike curious to see what was happening and eager to see how the structure developed. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to share some knowledge of the craft I am so passionate about. I would sometimes find myself performing for my audiences, overly dressing a piece of stone so that the ping of hammer and chisel rings out over the school yard to the delight of the spectators.
There are almost 500 students in this school. So if you multiply 500 students by 1 million questions each, it equals some pretty amusing questions. I have been asked "Are you building a church?" "When will the castle be finished?" "Why are you hammering the bricks?" "Why are you doing that" "Why do you have a hole in your jacket", but the most common question and response I would get from students and parents alike went as follows:
"What are you building??.......An outdoor classroom!............(long pause).........."Will it have a roof on it?"....No it is an outdoor classroom!.......(another long pause)......."oh"...

I was delighted to be able to create a space that visually demonstrates the schools ethos and sparks excitement and curiosity in the process. It is a wonderful feeling to leave the space behind knowing that it will continue to excite and intrigue minds young and old for generations to come, also knowing that the structure will only improve with age as the stonework weathers and the planting evolves.

click on the video to see the building process from start to finish. Get yourself a cup of tea 'cos it's seven minutes long, but then again it did take a long time to build.

The Concept

The outdoor classroom consists of a walled garden type structure. The walls are comprised of dry faced stonework, inspired by the ancient traditional dry stone walls found throughout the country. The stone is Lacken sandstone from Co. Mayo.
Taking inspiration from the four strands of the learning spiral from the school ethos, the centre of the structure is a large spiral incorporated into the floor and walls. The first strand of the spiral is already visible as you walk towards the classroom. It spirals first along the ground, then into the wall, before curling up to create the arched entrance into the classroom. Similarly, another of the strands runs into the wall, curling up to form the border of the family tree mosaic. Yet another strand finishes at the teachers stone chair, with the fourth strand of the spiral turning into the path of the exit from the classroom.

Entrance into the outdoor classroom
The concept is to have a structure that is visually inspiring from both the outside and the inside, a place for children to get excited about being in the great outdoors as well as learning about it.
The stone structure sits in between sculpted grass mounds that help create a wilderness setting. These mounds fill with colour in the early spring with a dense mixture of spring bulbs. This explosion of colour is continued on into the late autumn by the blend of native Irish wildflowers which will also encourage wildlife into the area.  The planting inside the structure is composed of various colourful seasonal flowers the children can both plant and admire throughout the year.
Planted inside the stone structure, behind the stone teachers chair is a native ‘Fairy Tree’, or Hawthorn. The Hawthorn, with its beautiful spring blossoms, is a tree embedded deep in Irish myths and folklore and will make for many a great tale on a sunny day in the classroom.

One feature in the structure I was very much looking forward to building was the spiralling moongate. I had this feature in my head for some time and was waiting for the right opportunity to build one. Building this moongate involved  a lot of head scratching and even more stone cutting. In order to build it in a way that it would be structurally sound and withstand the heavy traffic it is likely to endure, a lot of cleaver cutting had to be done.  The most difficult and time consuming part was building the lower left (as seen below) section where the spiral coils back into itself. These skinny pieces are in some cases three time the thickness of what is visible, they have been chamfered back into the larger stone below to give them strength and weight.  

Another complex feature that I was excited to build was the stone tree mosaic. I have already written about this feature in a separate blog post that can be read here
The roots of the family tree mosaic
Student participation.
students painting leaf tiles for the family tree mosaic

The design brief called for the students to be involved in the project in some way so that they could put their own stamp on the project. The design allowed for a number of projects for the kids to get involved in.  The natural stone 'Family Tree' mosaic that is incorporated in the walls has leaf shaped tiles which the kids got to paint in class along with the border tiles that surround the mosaic. Read more about the family tree mosaic in the blog post I did about that here

The family tree mosaic
The four large tables in the classroom have also been mosaiced. A competition was held in the school to design the table tops. The students were asked to design the table tops to represent the four strands of the schools ‘Learn Together’ Curriculum, these being Equality and Justice, Ethics and The Environment, Belief Systems, and Moral and Spiritual Development.
Every student in the school (almost 500 in total) got the opportunity to be part of the mosaicing process 
The completed tables
Ethics and The Environment table
Students were involved in planting some of the 3000 daffodil bulbs into the mounds that surround the outside of the classroom. They will be involved on an annual basis in planting of flowers in the raised planting bed inside the classroom walls. Two past students, now in transition year in the neighbouring secondary school also got the opportunity to work with the artist for a number of weeks gaining valuable experience in stonemasonry through the building of the stone walls of the structure.
First of the spring bulbs
Summer wildflowers

The teachers chair (well most of the time)
I will leave the final words to the school who wrote this lovely testimonial for me.

Testimonial from the School

Awarded the project after successfully competing in a public tender process, Sunny Wieler from Stone Art was commissioned by the school to create an outdoor classroom. From the very start it was clear that Sunny had fully embraced the ethos of the school both in his presentation and his daily work.

Sunny has been working at the school for the last year, practical in his approach, he has been very flexible working around school yard time/ PE etc. He has worked  in close contact with our caretakers/gardeners in order to maintain a strong link with any changes happening during the school day he needs to be aware of and has always been enthusiastic in answering the children's many questions. Starting on site early each morning he has built a rapport with the parents as they drop their children to school.

He has contributed positively to all our committee meetings, embracing changes and answering all our queries, helping us shape our thoughts as the project developed. Sunny has consistently been eager to include the children, staff and parents and indeed the wider community in the project. Each have been involved in creating many of the mosaic pieces and planting around the classroom.

Sunny is meticulous in his approach to his craft. Both in the original design consideration and in his daily approach to his work. He certainly never 'cuts corners', his attention to detail in many elements of the design have been remarkable. The almost soothing sound of him chipping away at one of our native stones will be truly missed when he completes the project.

It has been an honour to have Sunny create for us a lasting piece of art that, in a rapidly changing world, is both a beautiful testament to our history and a practical outdoor space we hope will be used and appreciated by many future generations.

Finally a quote from one of our caretakers, “Sunny has the patience of a saint, he quietly works away, it sometimes feels like he isn't here at all, that the classroom just grew out of the ground” I hope this indicates how much he has become part of our school community, how his craft is quietly appreciated everyday and how successful our 'Outdoor Classroom' project has been.


  1. Exceptional work. Inspiring writing too. Keep up the good work Sunny.

  2. You must be very proud of a job well done. Not only is the workmanship outstanding but the design is exquisite. Congratulations.

  3. Fantastic stone work, beautiful design. A wonderful classroom and perfect environment where students can't wait to learn!

  4. Sunny, that is an amazing feat. A through work of art that fits perfectly into the space.Well done man and god bless your hands.

  5. Wonderful to see what you've achieved here. It is larger than I imagined - a long project but your shoulders broad enough - a big well done. The collaborative aspect is really great too and those children shall never forget helping you to make this!

  6. I love it! Think every school should have one!

  7. You are an inspiration to all trades that are fortunate to be a part of children learning. The outdoor classroom will grow with the enthusiasm you planted the seeds for.
    A really exceptional contribution to the learning curve!!

  8. Your project has taken my breath away! This is a great way to have all the children in the school involved in something together. And the result is simply outstanding. Hopefully more schools will think of doing things out of the box instead of being too conservative.