The Earlynn Miller Project: Life Changing Work

Meet Dr. Earlynn Miller: Dancer, teacher, visionary, lover of life.

Image 1: Dr. Earlynn Miller, left, and my dad Don Albright, in front of her home in Harrisonburg, Virginia, overlooking the Shenandoah Valley.

Earlynn came into my life as my fathers’ partner. She passed in the spring of 2021. Earlynn Miller was an incredibly creative and artistic soul who retired from a 30 year career as full time dance faculty at James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Art of Stone Gardening’s opportunity to work with her inspired us and our company to stretch and be creative. The project at her home that we started for her is now a transformative space belonging to JMU. Her home was about a 9 hour drive from North Georgia. Jason went up for 2-3 weeks at a time over several years to work on the project.

Image 2: A large house with mature landscaping, Earlynn dreamed of a home on grounds that would inspire and allow people to wonder at and celebrate all that is possible.

Beginning

Earlynn’s two-story, brick ranch-style home sat on the crest of a long sloping hill on a narrow 1.5 acre lot. It overlooked the Shenandoah Valley. She wanted to put in walls, pathways and gardens, none of which were drawn; they were in her head. She had 7 tractor trailers of stone delivered to the bottom of the hill and then asked Jason to arrange them. She gave him an idea of what she wanted and let him go to work.

Image 3: Starting big. One of many pallets of rocks delivered to Earlynn’s property, these boulders were the building blocks of The Earlynn Job. Note also the view of the Shenandoah Valley in the background.

Before The Earlynn Miller Project, Art of Stone Gardening did standard landscaping and stonework. This was the largest and most artistic project we had ever done. Earlynn was a VERY detail-oriented, super-inspired person. She worked directly with Jason and could often be found telling him to move a boulder this way or that way or around or don’t use it. It was collaborative work requiring a great deal of patience and flexibility. 

Image 4: The Earlynn Job was an opportunity for Jason  to try his “hand” (notice large, crane-shaped hand) at creative stonework and landscaping, one boulder at a time. This is actually the excavator with a ‘thumb’.
Image 5: This staircase illustrates Earlynn’s attention to detail. How do you get from point A to B with a staircase? What stone do you use for the stairs? Which one goes where? 

Jason had never taken on a project like this, with someone directing and correcting him. Nor had he had so much leeway – a huge amount of stone and an open hillside with no structural plans or layout. Every inch of it was custom work, one large boulder at a time. The Earlynn Miller Project helped him  develop his creativity. Because Earlynn trusted him, he learned how to work with hands-on creative people, how to see their vision and bring it to life.

The Project

Jason did the stone work while I decided on plant selection with Earlynn and completed the weeding. We worked on this project on and off for 7 years. Once we could no longer travel there – Art of Stone Gardening had gotten too busy – Earlynn found a wonderful landscaper that added more plants and took great care of the garden. 

Image 6: Work in progress. Individually placed stones made up the walls, the stairs and the landing areas. Bench seats were added to the walls (in the background) and also placed in different areas such as the one on the middle right. Our trusty plate compactor was on the job for all of this. The gray limestone stone is local; however, Earlynn added some marble and other types of stone.

Earlynn did not want any concrete used, so we installed many, many tons of gravel, compacted it and placed all the boulders using large equipment on top of the gravel. Gravel was also behind the walls for drainage. This style of stone wall building is called ‘dry stack’ stone or ‘dry stone walling’. Many of these boulders were over a ton in weight and Jason became very proficient in using an excavator with a thumb to place them.

Image 7: Shaping up. This shows the landscaping when part of the project was finished in 2011. Compare this to Image 6 to see the white steps to the right in both photos and the freestanding bench that can be seen to the left in this photo.

Details

Earlynn also loved sculpture, so one of the first things she did was add handrails anywhere they were needed. She hired local artist Spencer Yates to create them in iron (she liked the rusted look). The upright supports have stainless cable running through them.

Image 8: The custom designed handrail posts can be seen above one of the first walls, with built-in benches, that Jason constructed. It contains boulders that weighed over 1 ton.
Image 9: Earlynn loved perennials! Once the stonework was in place, I added the plantings with Earlynn’s direction. Note also the red, sculptural pieces that support the wire hand guides throughout the garden.
Image 10: Earlynn’s love of dance is brought to life by the kinetic sculptures that she commissioned and “planted” in the garden. This colorful mobile was created by Andrew Carson.

Finishing

Following Earlynn’s death, the house and property were donated to JMU for use by the university and as a living museum. The interior of the house is even more spectacular than the grounds. Enjoy this article and the images at the top that give a sense of the exciting interior decoration.

Image 11: This shows the wall from Image 8 in the background and two of the pathways that interconnect. Earlynn’s canvas was a steep, open hillside on which we created beauty at all levels.
Image 12: Completed. Our loving and inspired relationship with Earlynn lives on in the work we did for her, which in its completion is a space that serves to inspire and celebrate the creativity that is within all of us.

Thank you, Earlynn, for having inspired us to stretch and use our creative talents. The seeds of Art of Stone Gardening’s success were planted and nurtured in your garden project. Those who knew you took joy in your life and work. We will remember you from that time and in this place.

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