Inside the capacious DIY art venue, The Space Gallery in downtown Jacksonville, concrete artist Josh Gaston’s starting to sweat as he furiously polishes a heavy, concrete slab, which is pulsing chemically induced heat and now approaching 200 degrees Fahrenheit. “Oh, yeah. You could definitely cook an egg on this right now!” he says, breathlessly.
Trim in his cut-off sleeve, American-flag T-shirt and blue jeans, with his tattoos and close-cropped hair, the 39-year-old Gaston looks a bit like a model portraying a blue-collar worker. But over the past two years, he’s parlayed his lunch pail-style education in a variety of trades into a highly specialized career creating functional, though highly distinct, concrete installations for residential homes and commercial properties. He’s even earned a starring role on the Web series “Concrete’ns.”
Gaston grew up in a family of tradesman in Georgia. By the time he was a teenager, Gaston was adept at a variety of vocational skills, from plumbing to trim carpentry. But after identifying an aptitude and general love for imagining, then executing wildly unique concrete structures, Gaston has made cement his main muse, earning national exposure for his functional creations and more notoriety as he’s ventured into abstract, fine art sculptures for gallery shows in Northeast Florida.
Though he’s shown he’s fully capable of bending and twisting his desired medium to evoke emotion, much of Gaston’s work still centers around creating utilitarian pieces, like the bar tops and floors he designed and installed in Springfield’s Main & Six Brewery.
Due to an untimely permitting issue that’s threatening to shutter his Phoenix Arts District studio, Gaston has ad hoc’d himself a makeshift workspace here in the Space Gallery to walk us through the process of creating a geode-encrusted, concrete table top, which he’ll donate to be auctioned off at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Funding Gala in November. He’s actually never built a table top with geodes before, and he’s certainly never done one in this space. But when you work with concrete, improvising a workspace, we discovered, is just one among a litany of ad-libs.
“You never know what you’re gonna get when you work with concrete. It could be a present, or a pile of shit,” Gaston says with a mischievous smile. “Either way it’s going to be heavy.”
Useful Experience or Expertise
Cement, of course, is only fluid for so long, so some planning, as well as expertise in carpentry, engineering, and fabrication. Gaston spent years perfecting his craft. “I don’t want to give the impression that you can just go home, buy some chemicals and make something like this,” he cautions. “The chemicals can be dangerous to work with, but just the sheer weight of a project like this–I wouldn’t recommend trying this unless you’ve got rock solid skills.”
Tools and Materials
Gaston uses a litany of specific and improvised tools, but a shortlist would include an auger drill and mixing paddle, a silicone round-over tool, miscellaneous hand tools (hammer, chisel, etc.), an orbital polisher with 50-grit, 100-grit and 200-grit diamond polishing wheels, a rub brick and files.
Step 1: Build and Prep your Mold
Before our arrival, Gaston had already prepped a two by four foot rectangular mold from a 3/4″ melamine sheet, hot gluing the pieces together to form a nice framework. He rubs the mold with wax and uses a small round-over tool to outline the edges with silicone, all of which is designed to prevent the concrete from sticking to the mold.
Step 2: Arrange Geodes (and Geode Fragments)
Gaston’s holding a couple of larger fragments of geodes, each one glimmering in a vast spectrum of purples, he’d extracted from a riverbed in his native Georgia. He smashes a few of the smaller pieces and scatters them around the bottom of the mold, then places the two large fragments in opposing corners, spraying their edges with foam insulation to keep them from being overwhelmed by the concrete.
Step 3: Mix and Pour Face Coat
In a large, plastic tub, Gaston uses an auger to mix several bags of rapid set non-shrink concrete with a citric acid additive, plasticiser, and water, creating a fairly fluid concoction. The face coat, Gaston says, is the more malleable of the two layers he’ll pour in. Once mixed, Gaston uses a small plastic container to pour concrete into the mold, stopping every so often to spread it with his hand, but generally moving quickly as the mix will soon begin to set.
Step 4: Mix and Pour Backer Coat
The second layer, the backer coat, is essentially the same composition as the first, but Gaston adds handfuls of 3/4″ Alkali resistant fibers–which look a lot like fiberglass–as this layer is designed to add integral strength to the structure. Once he flattens the mold with a trowel, Gaston lays sheets of the alkali resistant mesh, which will act as a kind of rebar, keeping the structure from cracking under its own weight (roughly 200 pounds!).
Step 5: Kick it!
Now we sit and watch as the concrete, which–due to the witch’s brew of chemicals Gaston concocted to create it–is beginning to “kick,” steaming and heating up to somewhere north of 200 degrees.
Step 6: Flip it, Polish it (and Polish it and Polish it)
After a half hour of watching concrete dry, the top has turned a lighter shade of grey and Gaston decides it’s time to flip it over and see what we’ve created. He uses a hammer and chisel to extricate the concrete from the mold, then turns the piece over, revealing a rough surface, already gleaming with iridescent purple specks. The corner geodes affixed perfectly, in that they’ve created an appealing dissonance between the smooth the tops two smooth concrete corners and its opposing rough, shiny, purple ones. Gaston uses squirt bottles to soak top and begins the process of hand polishing, using diamond polishing wheels–a process that takes him another half hour and an amount of elbow grease that would leave a lesser man quite sore. The finished product is a distinctive, heavy, modern table top with unique purple accents.