Most mornings, among the chickens, the bright aluminum sculptures, a workshop full of curiously angled furniture and the wild, vibrant masses of flowers, Jeff Freeman is dumping a bunch of rocks, dirt and mud into a bucket and making art.
Freeman, a Trenton-based artist, makes vessels of all shapes, sizes and textures out of hypertufa, a light concrete that can be made easily, quickly and relatively inexpensively. He started making the vessels in earnest last summer, cranking out 15 to 20 pots a day, which can be used to grow any number of plants and other organisms.
Hypertufa has been around for decades, and yet, as far as Freeman can tell, few people actually go out and buy the stuff you need to make it.
“It’s a classic do-it-yourself kind of project, and yet hardly anyone ever does it,” said Freeman. “The recipe I use you can get off the Internet. As simple as it is, though, it’s pretty versatile.”
Freeman’s true passion is watercolor painting, and he’s also an accomplished sculptor and maker of furniture from aluminum and concrete. But the hypertufa has become both a new creative outlet as well a lucrative business — just two weeks ago he opened a new studio store, Side Effects, on Main Street in downtown Bar Harbor.
He began making vessels for his wife, Beth, a master gardener, so she could grow flowers in them. Turns out, he really liked working with the stuff.
“Five years ago I made hypertufa pots for Beth, and treated them with moss and buttermilk, to grow moss on the outside. I really liked working with it,” said Freeman. “I think the soft lines of it go well with the harder lines of my aluminum work. I like the fact that it’s very organic looking. It blends in with a garden. It’s a nice complement.”
There are four ingredients in the mix. The first, Portland cement, is your basic, common cement, the stuff buildings and sidewalks are made out of. But it’s the second ingredient, perlite, that gives the hypertufa its lightweight quality. Perlite, a volcanic glass, similar to obsidian, is superlight and absorbent. Those little white things you see in potting soil? That’s perlite. The last ingredient is peat moss, also very absorbent.
To make a batch of hypertufa, Freeman follows a 4-3-2 formula. Four parts perlite, three parts peat and two parts cement. Add water — enough to make it the consistency of gritty mud — and stir vigorously until all parts are well combined.
His secret ingredient? 100 percent organic, locally grown human hair. Yep, you read that right: every hypertufa vessel Freeman makes contains a bit of human hair.
“You need some sort of binding agent, and typically, you use propylene fiber, like you see in building insulation,” said Freeman. “I didn’t want to use petroleum products, so I decided to use hair. I’ve got a friend that works in a salon, and she gives me all her clippings that she sweeps up. It’s no different than horsehair plaster. It works great.”
One batch of hypertufa nets anywhere from five to 10 vessels, which Freeman makes by taking globs of the wet, chunky mix and forming them around premade bowls, pots, buckets and other things he’s got laying around. To give the outside of the vessel a cool texture, he’ll put bubble wrap around it, giving a kind of honeycomb effect. To color it, he’ll dump in a few small cans of latex paint. And there are many more possibilities for variation.
“It is pretty slow-curing. You need at least a few days to let it dry and harden,” said Freeman. “But what’s amazing about it is that it feels like you could snap it in two with your hands, but it’s really super-durable. It’s just lightweight.”
In addition to making a lovely planter, Freeman’s hypertufa vessels are especially well-suited to growing two shade-loving organisms: moss and mushrooms. All Freeman’s vessels are treated with “moss milk,” a blend of moss and either buttermilk or beer that, within a month or two, sprouts several different species of moss.
Mushrooms also grow well, since the vessels are so porous and hold water so well. All hypertufa vessels come with a bag of moss, to get the growing process going, and several varieties of mushrooms are available for an additional fee. You could even grow a small low-bush blueberry plant in one.
“I think that would be a great thing to bring home from Maine,” said Freeman. “A Maine-made piece of functional art, with a blueberry bush in it.”
A vessel retails for anywhere from $25 to $125, and they’re available at Side Effects all summer long. Freeman continues to make his distinctive, imaginative furniture, sculpture and paintings, all of which he sells at his store, but hypertufa has quickly become a favorite creative outlet.
“No matter how many of them you make, it’s still fun,” said Freeman.
Side Effects is located at 119 Main St. in Bar Harbor. For more information, visit www.jefffreemanart.com.