A plaster artist and his ornamental craft
By Ray Owen
Photos by Brandon Williams
There is an abundance of talent in the Sandhills and craftsman Patrick Webb is a fine example. An artisan of international note, he plies his craft of heritage in the form of ornamental plaster — from the Governor’s Mansion in Raleigh to the great halls of Europe.
A regular contributor to trade journals, such as Walls & Ceiling and Traditional Building, he is a professor for the Classic Planning Institute, drawn to our region by the Academy of Classical Design in downtown Southern Pines.
He was raised by a father trained in the decorative arts of painting, plastering and wall covering in England. Important life lessons were learned at his father’s side, and Webb found himself drawn to plastering for creative expression.
An art form as old as civilization, our ability to raise a shelter and coat it with earthen plaster enabled man to build dwellings close to fresh water, fortifiable positions or fertile land, leading to the formation of the first cities. Plaster is utilized today as decorative ornamentation, such as crown, cornice and frieze mouldings.
“I was born in Manhattan,” says Webb, “although my upbringing kind of bounced from that concrete jungle to the tropical jungle in Jamaica where my father’s from. I was introduced to decorative plaster at an early age. My father really believes in repealing all those child labor laws,” he says laughing. “By the age of three or four, I had tools in my hand.”
“Later, I spent some time under a vow of poverty and celibacy in a monastic environment for seven years, kind of separating myself from my father, from ages 23 to 30. After that, I returned to the craft with a real strong passion and did a lot of my studies in Venice, Paris, Morocco, and England.”
What Webb loves about his trade is that it occupies all of him — his physical body, the animal part — as well as the more spiritual, poetic and intellectual side. “It’s all of me,” he explains. “What I’m doing is at the limit of human capacity. When you’re working correctly you dissolve into the work.”
It was catch-as-catch-can in the early days of his apprenticeship. He’s now at the stage of his career where he can be more selective, only accepting commissions that are interesting. “Maybe I really like the person,” he says, “or it’s a fascinating place or historic property that’s really beautiful.”
“Since I live in North Carolina, I try and work locally. In addition to the Governor’s Mansion, I had a chance to work at the Lieutenant Governor’s Mansion, Duke University and the Universityof North Carolina at Chapel Hill.”
“I’ve worked in very old places, particularly in Venice and England. The buttery I worked on in Suffolk went back to the 18th century, a very interesting Gothic structure. In Venice, I’ve had an opportunity to work on buildings of six or seven hundred years old — that’s just common fair there.”
“Training in Morocco, I came back with a deep love for Islamic design. One of my most memorable projects was a hand-carved chisel dome I did for a very nice couple. I think of them as Islamic hippies, Sufis, and they were living on a place called the ‘Farm of Peace.’ They wanted a small chapel, called a qibla, just off of their bedroom.”
As a craftsmen, Webb sees himself as quite materialistic. He has a deep love and appreciation for the stone or plaster he works with. “You don’t get to tell it what to do,” he says. “It tells you how to behave and you submit to it and fall under its discipline. That’s where the spirituality of man and the materiality of plaster and stone come together.”
“For me, beauty is not an object. Beauty is something that permeates all of existence and reveals itself to you. Beautification is a more appropriate term. It literally means to make beauty and that’s what I do. I make myself and others aware that it’s there.”
Webb believes our lack of recognizing beauty makes us literally become depraved of something that is essential to nature and to life. This makes us less than what we could be. We ignore beauty at our peril, because deep down we know that we could be more than we are. It’s his belief that we will not be fully realized if we don’t embrace beauty in our lives.
According to Webb, harmony is just one of the manifestations of beauty. We hear that clearly in music, and when things are harmonious they resonate with us. We resonate with it and beauty becomes emergent to us — like the bird singing, just part of the natural world.
“I’m working on a book,” he says. “It has the provisional title of ‘Why Can’t We Build Things The Way We Used To?’ It will be picking up on these ideas of beauty and crafts. We used to build beautiful buildings and landscapes, and now that seems to be so hard. Is it just that we have no influence on this, or does the way that we think lead us to this place?”
“Principally, the one who benefits the most from writing a book is me,” Webb reflects. “It allows me an opportunity to collect my own thoughts into a coherent fashion, and it seems like my topic is a question that really resonates with people.”
“I totally live my life in the moment,” he says. “What change would I like to affect? The eternal now. I don’t have a strong agenda about things that I would like to see happen. I’ve been a beneficiary of people helping me to pursue my own path. If I could help people that are searching, that’s good enough for me.”