KETCHIKAN - When people wander the shores of Southeast Alaska's many islands, most see a lot of rather plain rocks on the beach; Gary McWilliams sees art.
The Craig artist has been collecting rocks from Prince of Wales and surrounding islands for the past decade, turning somewhat-pretty beach rocks into gleaming marble sculptures, many dotted with fossilized traces of creatures that lived millions of years ago.
McWilliams offers his work through the Craig-based Stone Arts of Alaska, with another location in Washington state. Although he started the business in just the last decade, he said always had an interest in rocks.
"I collected rocks as a little kid, 2 to 3 years old," McWilliams said. "I always collected rocks."
His interest in rocks took an economic turn when, in his 20s, he worked at a mine in Colorado. That mine extracted gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper, he said, and when he wasn't collecting ore, he gathered crystals, selling them to museums and private collectors.
McWilliams later migrated west to the coast, and bought a charter boat, he said. His knowledge of geology eventually gave a focus to his expeditions, and for about 12 of 19 years on the boat, he ran a specialized operation, taking geologists out for survey jobs and exploration.
Some of those travels led him to Prince of Wales and surrounding islands, McWilliams said, and he found some beautiful marble in that area. He also had met some sculptors in the Seattle area, he said, and in the late 1990s, McWilliams decided to sell his boat and collect marble to sell to artists.
"Then I started thinking I'd like to (carve stone) myself," he said. Now, he not only sells raw rock to other carvers, he makes his own sculptures.
The stone McWilliams collects all comes from Southeast Alaska, most from the Tongass National Forest. He said he has a special-use permit to harvest the stone, most of which he gets by boat with help from an employee.
"I don't know of any other stone supplier who collects stone by boat," he said.
Some of the rocks are "attached to the world, you might say," and have to be chiseled away. Others are loose on the ground. If he has driven to a site on Prince of Wales, he said, he can collect up to several tons with his truck. With his boat, though, there's a different limit.
"It has to be (small) enough for two not-very-smart guys to get it into a boat," he said, laughing. He added that he and his cohort sometimes even pack rocks down mountainsides.
Most people would walk right over these potential works of art, McWilliams said; he's got an eye for rocks, though.
"I know what I'm looking at because I've been doing it a long time," he said. "My eye is trained for stone."
Back at his shop, McWilliams uses a water-jet cutting tool to shape the stones, which become birdbaths, benches, tabletops, freeform art, animal sculptures and more.
Ketchikan resident Linda Abbott has a collection of McWilliams' work, and said she loves the pieces that decorate her North End garden. She has benches, stepping stones, freestanding stones and numerous "zen pools" that collect water.
The zen pools often are a gathering spot for thirsty birds and squirrels, she said, and also have quenched the thirst of passing ravens, neighborhood dogs and a few bears.
"Each piece is different," she said. "You have the green stone, which is a very beautiful color, and then you have the different conglomerates that have the fossils in there. ... So when I sit on my conglomerate bench, it's not only beautiful, it makes you think of what that rock has been through. It's been through time. We're here for a short period of time, but these rocks are here to stay.
"They're like hidden treasures in my garden."
McWilliams said he enjoys revealing the beauty of the stones he finds in Southeast.
"I like working with rocks, because they're tactile," he said. "I like that there's an immense amount of beauty in stone. The way a person would see beauty in a sunset or a flower garden, you just have to see it."
The work also is mentally stimulating, McWilliams said, because each rock has a geologic story to tell.
For example, he said, a chunk of conglomerate is made up of a bunch of pebbles held together by sand, all compressed by sediment over time into a solid piece.
"It looks a bit like nature's concrete," he said, describing a piece he was looking at.
The piece wasn't just pebbles and sand, though. He said it also was shot through with streaks of orange and bright-green mineral deposits left by water that had run through the cracks.
"It's just a completely compelling thing to look at," he said. "You can look at this stone and if you understand what you're seeing, it tells, really, quite a story."
McWilliams had a show of his work July 2006 at Abbott's home, and said he might have another show in Ketchikan this fall, when he plans to be here for a book signing. In addition to his stone art, he also is an author, and wrote "Hot Coffee and Other Wild Goose Tales," a collection of travel stories. He is scheduled to give a presentation Sept. 16 at the Ketchikan Public Library.