photography: Kirsten Shultz
(page 3 of 3)
Tommy Richardson answers his phone every six or seven minutes. The conversations are short and to the point. His team is pushing to complete a stucco project because it’s the end of October and the forecast calls for plunging temperatures, which would keep the mix of sand, water, and limestone from spreading correctly.
When winter arrives, they’ll begin interior work, plastering walls to create the soft, rich, mottled surfaces that have appeared in homes and palaces for thousands of years.
The walls will serve as backdrop to antique French armoires, to Robert Kelly paintings, to 15-foot noble firs at Christmas. But, like a flawless complexion, a hand-plastered wall doesn’t need adornment to emanate sumptuous opulence—and, unlike perfect skin, the hand-plastered wall will last a lifetime, and then some.
The man who creates this sultan of wall surfaces is a no-nonsense fellow who’s been practicing the art of plaster for 28 years. Richardson hardly looks old enough to have been in the business so long, and the statistic conjures a vision of a five-year-old wielding a trowel. But he’s 45, and was 17 when he took it up, beginning in the traditional way: hauling bags of sand around and watching his supervisors closely. He left his native upstate Pennsylvania for New Jersey and then for a six-year apprenticeship with the Plasterers Union in the San Francisco Bay area.
Richardson’s hazel eyes crinkle with humor when I ask if that was long enough to learn everything. He relates the favorite adage of his old boss, a man named Franco DeFazio: “The day you think you know it all about plaster is the day you should quit, because that’s the day you’ll become ignorant.”
Most people are pretty ignorant about plaster. The short story is that it’s a mixture of lime or gypsum, sand and water, with pigments and sometimes fiber added. Plaster grew to popularity several millennia ago because it could be made of cheap local resources, and it lasted well. (The color is more in danger of being obscured by air pollutants than of fading—think of the Sistine ceiling.) It must be applied by hand, quickly and evenly.
These days, it’s not cheap, and the variations in color and texture stagger the mind. Richardson delights in experimenting with the new plasters that are constantly being developed. For a recent project in a home on Warm Springs Road, he came up with the idea of finishing the interior with base-coat plaster, which is usually, as its name implies, hidden by a finish coat. He and the homeowners were thrilled with the result; the surface was different from anything they’d seen.
“What I love most about plaster is the endless possibilities,” he says. “With time, money, and mud, you can make just about anything.”
Richardson left San Francisco in 1993 and ended up in the Wood River Valley as a result of “lack of work, divorce, and a stroke of luck.” Finding the jobs plentiful and challenging, he also took up skiing. He now skis over a hundred days a year, going from job site to slope and back again, with a cell phone constantly bleating at his hip as interior designers, architects, and contractors ask questions or discuss details. He grins impishly when he mentions his impressive slope-time, and I realize that I might be shortsighted in my practice of mentally cursing people who talk shop on their cell phones while riding the lift. Maybe.
When I asked him when we could meet, Richardson told me there wasn’t a good time—he was slammed with work, trying to get the stucco done. (According to Richardson, stucco refers to exterior plaster. With a shrug, he said that others would tell me different, but he didn’t care.)
His straightforward approach matches the honesty of his materials and the integrity he brings to every project. As head of his company, Peak Plastering, Inc. Richardson directs a team of fourteen, retaining maximum control by training his laborers personally and making all his own pigments, mixing the colors in his Hailey shop. He considers his personal involvement in developing the colors and textures used in every job the most important feature of his work.
What does he like most about the art of plastering?
“When a job is finished,” he says, “I’ve left something in the world.”
“Something beautiful?” I ask.
With a look that says, “What else?” he nods—and answers his phone, which is ringing again.
Betsy Andrews earned a degree in art history from Mount Holyoke College. Researching this story, she enjoyed learning about the art of craftsmen who are actually still living.