(Living creatively in your world)
Since 1996 Ken Ely has owned Good Neighbor Walls. He is in frequent demand for projects and presentations in Susquehanna, Wyoming, Bradford, Lackawanna, and Luzerne Counties in Pennsylvania, as well as Broome and Chenango Counties in New York. He received a 2009 Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship award in Folk and Traditional Arts.
“Although I view my walls as utilitarian structures, I find a certain artfulness in fitting stones of varying sizes and shapes together to form a functional, orderly whole. Many aspects of wall-building are rewarding to me: the contentment of physical exertion, the satisfaction of viewing a tangible result of my work, and the earthy, subtle coloring of our sedimentary rock and its mosses and lichens. It’s also important to me to know that I create these structures in the same way that our predecessors did, using simple human-powered tools.”
In Susquehanna County, stone walls are visible everywhere and exporting stone is the primary industry. As a builder and restorer of traditional dry-laid fieldstone walls, Ken Ely rarely uses cut stones; preferring the challenge of working with rocks in the shapes nature has made them. His walls are functional as well as artistic. The walls he rebuilt in his teens are now covered with moss and lichens but still standing. The walls he builds now will be here long after all of us are gone.
“I live in the county where I was born and raised, Susquehanna County, PA. My ancestors relocated here from Old Lyme, CT, around 1800. This county's predominant economy has been agricultural (dairy) for most of the last 200 years, but this culture has been fading as small farms falter and the land is parceled up for development as country properties for outside urbanites.
Susquehanna County's idyllic rural charm and natural beauty are important to me, and I strive to protect them by helping to raise others' awareness of our cultural treasures - rolling forested hills, clean, cool streams, quiet vistas, and old meadows bounded by stone walls.
Geologically, Susquehanna County is part of the Allegheny Plateau, resting on and composed of the up-thrust and fractured Upper-Devonian sandstone and siltstone, a sedimentary rock that was further exposed and fragmented by glacial activity in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Our topsoil and subsoil are consequently impregnated with stone, a blessing and a curse for every generation of farmers, builders, and gardeners in this corner of the Commonwealth.
The first European settlers opened the forest to create fields and pastures, and had to remove stones from the ground they cultivated. The sedimentary stones were generally flat, and could be easily stacked without mortar to form sturdy walls. This practice was not foreign to these pioneers, since many had roots in the British Isles. So a tradition of stone-wall building reaches back into the late 18th century in this region. Every year more stones appeared as by magic (not a mystery, but a result of freezing and thawing) as the farmers plowed their fields, and every year these stones were worked into more walls and foundations.
Although others claimed to have invented barbed wire years earlier, Joseph Glidden obtained a patent for his invention in 1874. The "devil's rope" became very popular almost immediately, as a rancher or farmer could contain his livestock quickly with a minimum of labor. Because of this development, stone-wall building probably tapered off dramatically in the late 19th century. Further, most of the fences had been erected by then anyway.
It is inspiring that the stone fences lacing our landscape are possibly the oldest manmade structures still standing in Northeast Pennsylvania. They are a testament to the skillfulness of those who built them.
I am a landowner in this county. My respect and concern for our local cultural treasures such as Susquehanna's natural beauty and pastoral landscapes motivated me to become a member of The Nature Conservancy's Woodbourne Forest Preserve Stewardship Committee. The 620-acre preserve includes miles of 19th-century stone walls as well as virgin timber and natural wetlands. I also served for about 12 years on Brooklyn Township's Board of Supervisors, and endeavored to influence the municipality's decision making in ways that would recognize, protect, and foster the area's aesthetic charm and well-being.
Since 2000 I have been a participating artist on the Susquehanna County Artists' Open House tour, an annual event, open to the public and free of charge, that allows visitors to view the works of the individual artists in their own studios, and to observe demonstrations of their crafts. I demonstrate building or repair of stone walls. The local appeal of my stone-wall work is twofold: to those who have roots in this region I provide a glimpse into a past that they have touched and that they know as part of their home; to more recent settlers in the area, I hope my demonstrating heightens their awareness of and sensitivity to a valuable, historic treasure of our county.
Additional Information about the Artist
From 1996 to present, Ken Ely has been the owner of Good Neighbor Walls. He has also completed many projects and presentations in Susquehanna, Wyoming, Bradford, Lackawanna, and Luzerne Counties in PA, and Broome and Chenango Counties in NY.
A sampling of exhibitions and presentations that he has made:
* Exhibitor and seminar leader at Endless Mountains Council of the Arts.
* Featured heritage craftsman at Susquehanna County's Harford Fair, annually since 2005.
* Featured artist, 2007 From Heart to Hand exhibit (Northern Tier Cultural Alliance). My participation at this month-long exhibit held in Susquehanna Boro and organized by Ms. Ruth Tonachel, consisted of exhibiting photos of local walls of note, talking with the public about walls and their structure, and allowing them to practice building technique using my tabletop collection of miniature wall stones.
* Featured artisan, 2008 Vosburg Neck Festival at the Endless Mountains Nature Center in Vosburg, Wyoming County. I spent 7 hours building a new flower-bed wall at the entrance to the Nature Center. Visitors asked questions about building technique, and I focused on the similarities between such a structure and the typical farm fences in the area. Later this year I will lead a hands-on workshop on the Nature Center's grounds, where the group will rebuild a section of fieldstone wall that has completely collapsed.
Susquehanna County Artists' Open House Studio Tour. Every year since 2000 during Columbus Day Weekend, I have demonstrated stone-wall construction or restoration as a member of this group. The 3-day event is heavily attended by the public, many of whom travel hours to enjoy the tour. Most of my time is spent talking to folks about the history and construction techniques of fieldstone walls in our region. More information is available at www.artiststour.com.