Rotating a saucer-shaped red sandstone, Andreas Kunert finds the sweet spot where its edges are cradled naturally by the rocks below it.
That stone, pulled out of a New Mexico river by Kunert, is now part of the largest public art project in the region, a 60 metre rock mural at Four Mile Hill along Island Highway. The artist’s signature swirls and waves of stacked stone stand up to four metres high in sections separated by massive pillars of basalt and granite.
Stepping back from his work, Kunert crosses the street to see his progress. Besides from some rough chalk outlines on the wall, he doesn’t have much to guide how he places the stones.
“Working up close, I can’t see what I’m doing,” he says. “When I step back and look at it, I’m as amazed as everyone else to see how it comes together.”
Kunert’s stonework skill is something he discovered 20 years ago and honed at a time when he was struggling through personal traumatic events and memory loss so extreme that he says he couldn’t take lessons because he’d forget everything he’d learn one day to the next.
Doctors diagnosed him a savant, a rare condition where people with developmental disorders struggle in many aspects are their life but are brilliant in one area, which is how Kunert can explain his extraordinary ability for seeing shapes.
“If I walk into a rock quarry and see a bunch of stones, immediately in my mind I start to see how they fit together,” he says. “Certain rocks will call out to me, and I might not know why in the moment, but I pick them up and they fit perfectly into a piece.”
Without formal training, he has come to be regarded as a master of his craft. And since people started calling him that, he’s started dressing the part. He works every day in a formal shirt and tie.
“It’s how I distinguish myself,” he says. “I don’t want people to think I’m a mason. I use the tools of a mason, but I’m an artist.”
He’s created many stone murals and sculptures for private commissions across North America, and the City of Nanaimo has several of his pieces in public buildings. The View Royal wall is his largest public canvas to date, and he’s been working long hours to get it done by September.
He often starts his day at 6 a.m. collecting rocks along the Malahat Drive and can often still be working on the piece into the evening. In a day’s work, he’ll place 100 to 150 stones, sealing them in place with mortar and screwing some of the key pieces into the wall.
Usually Kunert would work alongside Naomi Zettl, his partner in life and art. But she’s been at their home in Shawnigan Lake with their new baby, born May 3 the day after Kunert started work on the Four Mile mural.
Zettl regards her partner’s art as a sort of energy work, listening to the rocks and creating the shape that reflects the natural environment.
“The shapes are created through his hand, but its really something that flows through him,” Zettl explains. “What he does, you couldn’t mimic it. Ever piece is unique to the location and the energy there.”
While Kunert provided the Town with conceptual sketches before starting the $150,000, casino-funded project, the design continues to evolve based on materials available and what’s influencing him.
“Every piece is a story, but I won’t reveal what the story is until after it’s finished,” he said.
After the mural is done, the Town plans to also have Kunert create two View Royal signs in a similar style, with basalt columns and stone swirls. One will be at town hall, and the other will be a welcome sign at the Colwood border. The two signs will cost $50,000, funded from casino income and a tourism grant.