Two new fifth grade students arrived at the West Tisbury School. One, Ram Wingood, was a boy who had just moved to the Island from Lowell, Mass. The other, Ben Taylor, was a boy who had recently moved to the Island from New York City. As they tell it, it was a deep friendship and connection at first sight.
Their friendship now has 33 or so years of driving the backroads of Martha’s Vineyard listening to “hours and hours of Jimmy Hendrix and Taj Mahal,” conversations, travel, basketball (Ram says, “We should both be much better given the amount we have played.”), Kung-fu and Qigong practice and, in the last four or five years, work making utterly sensational — in every sense of the word — fire pits.
On one sunny fall afternoon, Ben Taylor sits on what he and Ram call Stone Benge, a giant sculptural fire pit fashioned out of boulder-sized uncut stones that sits in his front yard near a spectacular yellow, orange, and red maple. “This was our first project,” Ben says. “We wanted to make a fire pit that an archeologist might find years from now and wonder if giants made it.”
While we’re waiting for Ram to arrive from work — his other job is working as a caretaker for a property on Paul’s Point — Ben walks over to work the wooden wing chun, a practice dummy for Qigong that he and Ram have made. As Ben explains, a wing chun serves as a stand-in for another person, “like a heavy weight bag for a boxer,” so that one can practice arm and leg moves without a live practice partner. Their wing chun is maybe a 5 or 6-foot piece of a foot-and-a-half in diameter tree trunk, stripped of its bark with strategically placed wooden “arms” extended out of it. Ben makes a few easy, fluid moves with his arms and legs to show how it works. “Our wing chun is bigger because, well, we are bigger.” He laughs.
He then moves on to stretch before he kicks a large purple tether ball attached to a 20-or-so -foot tree post. “I tore my groin doing this a while ago. Gotta stretch.” He laughs again.
Ram arrives on a souped-up red-and-white dirt bike and parks it next to Ben’s. They each grab a beer and head over to the “cafe,” another one of their early stone construction projects.
This, unlike their first project, is fashioned out of cut stones, and serves as an outdoor seating area for the property’s music studio/barn. The original sign for the Hot Tin Roof, which Ben’s mom Carly Simon, started with Herb Putman and George Brush in 1979, hangs inside the studio. Ben has now expanded on his mom’s work, screen printing the Hot Tin Roof on recycled jean jackets, sweatshirts, and T shirts.
Ram jumps up on the cafe’s stone table and says, “An elephant could dance on this and it wouldn’t move. Just weight holding it together.”
Ben shows off how they used the curve in a rock to create a deeper seat. “I’m tall, I sit here and then I’m not towering over others.” He then jumps over to show a bench that he calls the “croissant.” One can see why they call it the croissant. It’s an ellipse of a slab with another stone perched on top, serving as a clever ergonomic backrest. “I’m crazy about all the things we’ve done, but I really love this,” Ben says.
Ben’s dear family friend Tamara Weiss, who has stopped by for a quick hello, says, “They’ve done projects for Brooke Adams and Tony Shaloub, Amy Brenneman and Brad Siberling, and Linda Lipsett and Jules Bernstein. They’re incredible!”
“We try to pick stones we feel good about.” Ram says.
Ram credits Geoff Gibson, Steve Yaffe, and Gary Stead as the folks who trained him and showed him how to work with a very hard material. Ram and Ben source their stone from Adrian Higgins of Island Stone and Granite Inc., but some of the architectural granite they use is from places around New England such as New Bedford. Ben points out an arched stone in their “cafe” from an old bridge. And then points to another stone that is an old curb, “You can see the paint from maybe a school bus parking against it.” And another piece that was carved to hold a pipe. One gets the sense that Ram and Ben are themselves archeologists, listening to the history, experience, even vibrations of the rocks and then divining their new futures.
As we walk around the property that Ben shares with his mom, goats, dogs, a donkey, and Ram, who lives on a section of property as well, they talk about the guiding principles of their work. “We call our fire pits Five Elements,” Ben says. “Ram, you have been to China more than I have. You can explain.”
“The five elements are earth, water, metal, wood, and fire. And we weave these elements into each project. Each element has a direction. Wood is east. Metal is west. Water is north. Fire is south, and Earth is inward,” Ram says.
They bring us to a large stone bowl of water they made, which they’ve placed near the foot of a set of stairs. Ben shakes his head, “I am so new to this. I’m just learning. See that rock. I can’t tell you how many pieces of cardboard I cut out before I found the right shape. My mom actually was the one who finally figured it out. She said, ‘Maybe you flip the rock.’ She was right. I’m only four years or five years in.”
“Of all the guys I’ve worked with, Ben has learned the fastest. He inspires me,” Ram says.
“I spent years locked up inside some closet-sized studios, playing gigs. Now I’m outside with my best friend doing this. It turns out nature is the best inspiration,” he laughs.
As we walk down the farm’s driveway, Ben stops to recite a poem that he has written about the elements, this work, his experience. The meter is percussive. The meaning is deep. While it has all the elements, mostly, it is inward. Originally, Ram and Ben were going to etch the poem into a stone project in Chilmark, but then Ben decided he didn’t want it written down. And he hasn’t recorded it either. But, if you are lucky enough to know him, maybe sit down by a fire and ask him to share it with you, commit it to memory and pass it on.