His large planters greet visitors to Tooele High School’s front entryway. Another 26 once dotted Tooele City’s Main Street.
But customers will find his most recent work at the side of his Tooele home and it’s all for sale.
After 19 years at the Tooele Arts Festival, Phil Jones’ concrete fountains, planters, pavers and garden sculptures are readily recognized. He said his art is utilitarian, whimsical, colorful, theft proof — and truly unique.
Jones, 65, of Rockhard Designs, bills himself as an ornamental concrete artist. Through his membership in the Ornamental Concrete Association, he knows that in this part of the U.S., he is a bona fide, one-of-a-kind artisan.
There is only one other artist in the country that “does anything like this, [adding color],” Jones said. That artist lives in the East.
“It runs in the family,” he said of his creative flair. “I come from a family of artists. My brother is a painter. His paintings run for thousands and thousands of dollars. My daughter is an artist. They both have degrees.”
Jones came to Tooele in 1993 from the Salt Lake area to manage a pizza chain, not to fill a creative void.
“[But after three years] I decided I didn’t want to work for corporate,” he said, “I was confused about what I wanted to do …
“I had always owned my own business,” he said, referring to an auto parts store he had owned in Salt Lake City.
Jones said he started toying around with concrete as a hobby in 1996. In 2002, he received the commission for the high school planters. Then, the one from Tooele City.
From that side business, he grew and finally set up his own production area — a shop (which doubles as a chicken coop) where he and his young apprentice, Anthony Stratton, 16, decide which molds they will pour each day. It may be over-sized human foot-print-shaped pavers, large bowls (for planters) of varying sizes that can be stacked in tiers for different effects, or flat platter-looking shapes that can become multiple-tiered fountains.
Jones loves the fact that he can customize his work according to his clients’ taste.
“Seventy-five percent of what I do is custom,” he said.
Frequently his customers bring a brick from their home and ask him to match the color in their concrete piece.
“I pour everything here myself,” he said, nodding toward his displays. “These here are my own designs.”
The fountains, stacked in tiers of reducing circumference, can feature a variety of top pieces. The client can select an orb, a Buddha, a pagoda or a cluster of swans according to their own taste.
The color, he said, goes all of the way through the piece. It isn’t just a surface coat that will fade or weather away as the art ages. One planter on his lot, which has remained in good condition, is now 20 years old .
Jones came up with his own process. He said he adds fiber, a wetting agent he calls a water reducer powder, air “intration,” which adds air pockets, a plasticizer that makes the liquid form even more fluid so that it can be poured into a mold, and of course, the two ingredients that make up concrete — sand and gravel.
“The fiber looks like cut up strands of polyester,” he said. “The little strands bind the concrete together … The [wetting agent] makes little tiny microscopic bubbles that allow the [piece] to expand and contract. I put a number of different products in it so it will last our winters.”
Jones showed off the pavers in his backyard that meander in a serpentine pattern. The circular pavers interlock to flow in any direction.
The display in the backyard is a work in progress, Jones said. He has taken a master gardening class from the USU Extension Office and is proud of his bushes and trees. He has pruned the latter to take on unique shapes, and spread shade over his fence into the side yard. He hopes to expand his display of figures, birdbaths, steppingstones and sundials into the backyard area.
In addition to circular pavers, Jones also has small aggregate stone pavers, some of which feature both Chinese characters and bamboo, and a variety of other styles.
Unlike the more flat design of the pavers, there is an extra step for more three-dimensional types of pieces after it cures, Jones said. He must grind down the junction seams where the two sides of his shapes meet using a conical-shaped cement sander.
“We use a grinder and we take off the edges,” he said. As a last step, he seals all of the pieces.
Among his art awaiting this step is a young boy holding two bunnies. “Travis,” he called the boy as he gently placed it on his workbench.
The mold he said he really wants is Venus De Milo.
“The copyright has passed and I’d really love that mold,” he said.
Jones said he has close to $100,000 in molds. One of his favorite activities in the winter is going through mold catalogs and dreaming of his next investment.
You will see Jones’ designs not just at his Tooele shop, but also in stores in Salt Lake Valley.
“There are a number of garden shops in Salt Lake City that carry my stuff,” he said. “My favorite that I sell to is Noles Nursery. It is really unique.”
Jones said he sells his pieces to nurseries for the same price as he sells at his shop at 389 E. Vine St. So, it is best for locals to shop at his local store to avoid the stores’ markup.
This week, visitors will be able to purchase his work at the Tooele Arts Festival. So, what is new for Jones this year? His bistro sets, he said. He prices the sets the same as his round picnic tables with benches. The picnic tables have a hole in the center for an umbrella. But, he said, the bistro set has no hole and is meant for shaded areas.
The set’s chairs feature ornate scroll-like motifs, are small in scale, yet weighty and utilize straight, tufted-looking seat backs. Surprisingly, the chairs are very comfortable. Both sets are $575.
Another feature new to Jones’ artwork is a PVC pipe addition to the planters where a flag on a pole can be added as a centerpiece.
Unlike many planters or tables, Jones pieces are guaranteed not to blow away in a windstorm.
“For theft, it’s heavy, so it isn’t [easily] stolen,” he said.
Because Jones lifts heavy concrete bags and pieces frequently, he struggled with back problems this spring. After undergoing steroid shots and taking a month off, Jones feels strong again and he looks forward to showing his art at the art festival starting Thursday.
Although retired, Jones is going as strong as ever and finding joy in creating fun, colorful creations that will brighten yards all over the valley.
“I am loving this,” he said, “I really do. Having this creativity, this gives me an outlet.”