A Milestone: It Looks Like Stone, But More Versatile, Less Costly

It's attention-getting when a new material makes life easier for artists. Milestone, a new material developed in Seattle, is doing just that.

It looks sometimes like stone, sometimes like plaster, but is far lighter than either. It can easily be carved or cast or colored. Because Milestone requires less labor, pieces made from it tend to be less costly than comparable stone sculpture.

Sculptor Jeff Day uses it for "stone" sculptures with surfaces so smooth they're near lustrous. Linda Beaumont created a movable mosaic wall of Milestone and has used it like a fresco, to surface a 15-foot-long "Oasis" painting for the Crocodile Cafe in Belltown. She also inset it with spiral shells to cap the arched entry to the Bailey-Boushay House, which will house AIDS patients.

Lynn DiNino, noted for whimsical animal sculptures, is experimenting with Milestone for a series of birds to be placed outdoors. Sculpture students at the University of Washington also are beginning to use it.

Milestone was developed by Don Miles, who works out of the bottom of his Capitol Hill split-level house and says firmly, "I don't call myself an artist. I'm an artisan. A plasterer by trade."

Trained in ornamental plastering by old-time craftsmen who did freehand sculptural work, Miles became frustrated with the limitations of ordinary gypsum plaster. "It stains easily. It doesn't hold a true color. It's soft, and if it gets damp, it rots," he explained.

Portland cement, sometimes called stucco, will hold color, but Miles says, "you can't get really bright color, or the really smooth finishes possible with gypsum plaster. You can get it smooth, but only in gray, and it's very tedious." In addition, portland cement is brittle. It cracks under stress.

In 1980, Miles developed an acrylic additive for portland cement. Called Cement-Mate, it makes cement lighter and allows acrylic color to be incorporated into it.

Six years later he developed Milestone, a portland cement dry blend to be combined with Cement-Mate liquid.

"It allows us to do things with cement that were unheard of before," he explains.

Milestone surfaces can be rough, or smooth as polished glass. It can take colors in a full range from bright to subtle. It can be sculpted as easily as soapstone. It can be used outdoors. The full range of its possibilities for uses such as freeform furniture are still being explored.

"I had to retrain myself to use it," Miles says. "In the beginning, I couldn't grasp what I had. I was still using it in conventional ways."

So far, he's used it to create an "adobe" floor, "stone" walls, a black waterfall for the Marriott Hotel, and a waterfall in exotic colors for Dave's American Kitchen in Bellevue. Recently, he built several feature walls and two domed ceilings for the Warm Springs Museum in Warm Springs, Ore.

A black Milestone floor and "stone" wall designed by Larry Rouch for the Zen-style offices of Tim Girvin Designs was featured in the February issue of Interiors magazine.

"We've done stuff that people say looks like leather, but it can be cared for like stone," Miles says. "I've even left muriatic acid on it, and it didn't stain."

One of his three formulations for Milestone produces a cement that is slightly flexible. Miles expects that in the future, toothbrushes and similar items could be made of Milestone, because unlike plastics, Milestone is biodegradeable.

Miles explains that's because it's made with water-emulsifying acrylic. How can a product that's safe to leave out in the weather also be biodegradable? Miles says the key is whether or not a piece is resurfaced from time to time. The breakdown is slow, but Miles says that over the course of 100 to 200 years, Milestone will yield to the elements.

Other acrylic-finish plasters are on the market, but they are very different from Milestone. "Basically, they're just a thick paint, with no cement in them, although some people call them cement finishes," Miles says. "They all have a very monochromatic color." Milestone has an organic look.

Stores don't yet stock Milestone. Artists call Miles and bring their own buckets to his door to be filled. A five-gallon bucketful costs about $10. The dry blend must be mixed with Cement-Mate to make it workable. Cement-Mate is available from Salmon Bay Sand & Gravel.

The future of Milestone is uncertain.

"I'm a hands-on person," Miles says. "I'm the kind who conquers empires then doesn't know what to do with them. I'm the wrong type to try to run a business."

Wisely, he has a partner: Anita Victor. Together, they operate Cementics, 2430 E. Valley St. For more information, call them at 322-3717.