John Henry: Setting the stage in stone

Taking a break from putting finishing touches on "Phase Two" of his latest project, John B. Henry takes a walk through his Stone Hill Amphitheatre.Megan S. Smith | Rappahannock News
Taking a break from putting finishing touches on “Phase Two” of his latest project, John B. Henry takes a walk through his Stone Hill Amphitheatre.

Rappahannock’s Neolithic stonemason John B. Henry: The man, the legend, and now … the video!

You can see two of the three on Saturday, June 6 at the second open-air theatrical production to be held at Henry’s recently expanded, made-entirely-of-Flint-Hill-stone Stone Hill Amphitheater.

It was here that award-winning National Geographic photographer Bruce Dale beautifully crafted his recent “John’s Follies,” a biographical video that also made use of a five-foot drone to get amazing angles of Henry’s structures. (You can see it at vimeo.com/117519769.)

After meeting Henry at D.C.’s Cosmos Club, Dale visited Henry’s property, became instantly enthralled, and the video project — which received great fanfare at this year’s Film Festival at Little Washington — was born.

In the video is Henry’s famous Crest Hill Road mailbox, with its six-square-foot stone front. But the surprise is on the back, as it cascades 12 feet down over a hill (using 30 tons of Flint Hill granite to do so, Henry estimates). Also shown is Henry’s 850-foot-long stone wall — in one spot wide enough to corral sheep — which a visiting Scottish stonemason deemed the “marathon wall.”

But the video showcases an earlier version of the stone amphitheater, which took “six years to build,” Henry said. His latest creation/extension took only a year: He tore down three 40-foot hills and used several front-loaders to mold the soil into a concave, fanned “Wolf Trap-like” sitting area that can hold some 500 people — then laid 10,000 square feet of sod and used a chunk of his pond for irrigation to prepare for the upcoming performance.

“It was more than a facelift,” said Henry, taking a break from laying stone on his new 100-foot long, three-level “garden folly” for an interview, his body covered head-to-toe with Virginia red clay. The project is the structure’s “final extension,” he said.

When asked about incurred injuries from working with heavy stone (“stone, not rock,” he corrected this writer), “I get a massage once a week to stay together,” he replied, admitting that what he calls Phase Two was “a lot more complex than I thought when I started.”

Indeed, Henry — barring any catastrophic weather — will finish just in time for performance. “Nothing like a deadline to get one moving!” he quipped.

“We had a lot of dirt, uncertainty and surprises,” he said, and had to take out the swimming pool because “it was in the way.”

“Moving dirt since January,” Henry loves finding large stones (we’re talking mega-tons here) embedded in his earth, as if they were live creatures. He calls one oblong, slightly domed stone “Moby Dick,” and speaks of it adoringly, like a pet.

Henry says there is a type of “lithic conversation” between his amphitheater and his nearby Stonehenge-like circle of 12 standing stones, each weighing two to three tons and imported from the Island of Flores in Indonesia.

How did a Harvard undergrad/Columbia law student develop such an unusual obsession? “It’s very balancing,” he explained, particularly for someone with a stressful job in re-insurance. Working with stone shifts him from using the “left side of the brain to the right side” — the creative side — and exercises his “spatial intelligence.” He measures himself against Neolithic man, he said. “I am trying to be competitive across time.”

Taking up stone laying following an epiphany playing golf, Henry said of his art it feels “magical” when just the right stone will “fly into your hand, and out of your hand,” landing in just the right space and position in a structure.

The public can see Henry’s latest creation in James Reston Jr.’s “Sherman the Peacemaker,” to be performed by “The Stone Hill Players,” a group comprised of distinguished “citizen-artists” from across the political and professional spectrum (most of whom have roots in Rappahannock County). Along with returning U.S. Court of Appeals Judge David S. Tatel and conservative strategist Richard Viguerie are retired Brigadier General John Douglass, former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton Sidney Blumenthal, and veteran actor John Lescault as General Sherman.

The play tells the story of the last days and immediate aftermath of the Civil War as General William Tecumseh Sherman completes his famous March to the Sea, securing the less-celebrated, more controversial surrender of General Joseph E. Johnston.

“This is an entirely original look at General Sherman which turns the Southern mythology about him as ‘the scourge of the South’ on its head,” Reston explained. “And to my knowledge, it is the only event that marks the complexities of the peacemaking process at the end of the war, as part of [this year’s] 150th anniversary of the war’s end.”

Reston said, “I’ve revised the play a number of times over the years, but most dramatically this time with our actors and our amazing venue in mind.” Director Rick Davis, executive director of George Mason University’s Hylton Performing Arts Center, said he has incorporated the varying levels and heights of Henry’s amphitheater into the performance, at times setting the actors teetering high above the audience for dramatic effect.

Hopefully they’ll all be wearing sturdy shoes.

‘Sherman the Peacemaker’

The James Reston Jr. play, “Sherman the Peacemaker,” starts at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 6 at Stone Hill Amphitheatre (40 Spring Wish Lane, off Crest Hill Road about two and a half miles east of U.S. 522 in Flint Hill). Gates open at 5 p.m. for picnickers. (Rain date: Sunday, June 14.) Bring blankets as seats are limited to elderly and physically impaired. Performance is a benefit for Kid Pan Alley; suggested donation, $20. More details at shermanpeacemaker.com.

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