I don’t want to make any overblown artist’s statement about my work. Simply said, I make pretty pictures out of stone. Pictures that make me smile inside. That swell my heart with awe and emotion.

Tim Urban: Saturday

Try as I might, I can’t paint. Not a flower. Not a bowl of fruit. Not a bathroom wall. But put a dirty, dusty grinder in my hand with a diamond wheel spinning at 20,000 rpms a few inches from my face, I might just get the image of that playful little bear or bird or cat out of my head and see it come to life in stone. A forever moment captured by a forever material. Because it’s those little moments, those peaceful, joyful, timeless moments passing all-too-quickly all over the world every day that seem to be the very essence of life.

From a young age I had a fascination with the possibility of building pictures out of stone. It all started with a rock the shape of my home state, New Jersey. With that in hand, I figured to build a stone map of the entire United States. That didn’t go so well. Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming—not too bad. But Maryland—the state in which lived my future wife—aaargh! Seriously? I would have done better looking through a scrap heap. Not for my wife, I mean the rock. Anyway, in the end, combining just enough of an artist’s eye with the skills acquired during a nearly 30-year career as a landscaper and stoneworker to execute the work, it is without a doubt the God-given patience and the hardcore do-it-again-again-and-again demeanor to survive those frustrating days when the progress is more backward than forward that has allowed me to realize my vision. All the cursing and the screaming and beating my head on the wall when I run the blade across my fingers or that tiny piece I’ve been working on for the past two hours goes flying out of my hand to land in the deepest, darkest recesses of my incredibly dusty shop? Really just part of the fun of it all.

No lie. I saw my reflection in the window glass one long, harrowing night and hardly recognized myself: goggle-eyed, my face all pocked, ghost-white and my hair standing straight up off my head. Kind of how I looked in high school. And that’s when the name came to me:

Grindstone Cowboy

Because, believe me, with all the dust and the dirt and the blood flying around it’s a whole lot more like a rodeo than an artist’s studio in there.

Yeah, It’s a little crazy.

Tim Urban, Catching the Last Light (detail view)
Tim Urban: And Their Fathers before Them

I could bore you with the long history of the art form I unknowingly stumbled upon while researching how to make it more likely I will still be counting all ten fingers when I’m old and gray. An art form that has become my passion because of the immense challenge it presents and the great sense of accomplishment I get when I finally complete a work.

I could tell you that the Latin term Opus sectile literally translates as “cut work” and properly refers to an art that began in the Hellenistic world, first appearing in Italy before spreading to the greater part of Europe as a decorative tradition. I could tell you about how its popularity declined with the fortunes of the Roman Empire, but was then revived during the Italian Renaissance in the 15th Century. I could tell you the main difference between the most common type of mosaic, in which the design is composed of many small cubes (tesserae) of stone or glass is that opus sectile pieces are much larger and can be shaped to define larger, component parts of the design.

I could tell you all that and more. But I won’t. Because, like I said, I don’t want to bore you.

So, please, take a good, long look at my work. See what it is I’m doing at three o’clock in the morning. Every weekend. Every holiday. Every minute I should be doing something on that to-do list that never seems to get any shorter.

I hope it makes you smile and feel the awe and emotion that life’s simplest moments can instill.