Rock and blue makes man some green
When Ralph Mullican first discovered several massive, blue boulders on his property, he wasn’t sure what to make of them.
The rocks didn’t seem to be good for much, serving only as large impediments in the quarry business he ran on his 62-acre property in Smartville, Calif., about halfway between Marysville and Grass Valley.
But these days Mullican feels a little like James Marshall, who touched off the California Gold Rush when he discovered a shiny nugget at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma. In his own way, Mullican has also struck it rich.
“It was the strangest sort of rock I’d ever seen, so one day I decided to take a closer look at it,” said Mullican, who has worked his property for close to 30 years supplying rocks and boulders for landscaping firms. “What I discovered was a strange sort of rock that was so tough, a chisel would bounce off it without making a mark. It takes a polish like jade, and looks a lot like marble. But it’s much denser (than marble), and actually is much prettier.
“I began looking into the possibility of making art objects with it, and that’s how this whole thing started.”
And that’s how “Yuba Blue” was born. Mullican named the rock himself due to the fact that experts haven’t been able to fit it into any known category. It is indeed a geological anomaly – most likely some exotic form of basalt found only in small pockets in the Sierra Nevada range.
Mullican found himself with tons of the stuff. And when he finally found a saw that could cut the material – a nine-foot-high silica carbite rock saw is the only one that will do the job – he began selling chunks of it as art objects. And once word got out, he hasn’t been able to keep up with the demand.
A recent customer was the city of South Lake Tahoe, which purchased a Mullican design as part of its Ski Run Redevelopment Project.
“I’ve had orders from all over the country, and even one from Japan,” said Mullican, who has made monuments, tabletops, sculptures and other art objects out of Yuba Blue. “It’s really beautiful and unusual when it’s polished, with a sort of marbled-color scheme of reds, blues and silvers. No two pieces look the same. It’s really jewelry on a massive scale.”
Oracle founder Larry Ellison recently hired Mullican to design two pieces for his new home in Woodside, Calif., ordering 64,000 pounds of Yuba Blue – including a 36,000-pound chunk that will be formed into a hot tub.
And when the city of South Lake Tahoe put out the call for public art sculptures as part of its Redevelopment Project, Mullican was one of 20 original applicants.
“I really didn’t think I stood much of a chance,” he said. “After all, I’m not an artist, I’m just a rock man. And when they chose me, it was really exciting.
“It’s Yuba Blue really, not me. That stuff sells itself.”
Mullican’s design will be displayed on a nature walk trail behind the Embassy Suites at the bottom of Ski Run Boulevard. The site should be completed by Dec. 1. The design itself will be a free-standing rock sculpture with a waterfall.
A second sculpture, by local artist John Fellows, will also be part of the Ski Run Project. Fellows’ piece will be a landscape relief in steel and granite, and will be placed on the median on the road to Ski Run Marina.
Mullican formed his piece from a 16,000-pound boulder, taking more than two weeks to cut the individual pieces with the rented carbite saw. As for future projects, the sky’s the limit – there’s seemingly no end to the supply of Yuba Blue on Mullican’s property, although he is careful not to disturb the environment a great deal while excavating the rocks.
“I’m really sensitive about that,” he said. “I treat my land like a park. Really, the stuff sort of excavates itself. As the surrounding hills erode away, the Yuba Blue is left behind because it’s so hard.”
Indeed, the original 49ers mined around the strange blue rock to get at gold, leaving boulders of Yuba Blue in their wake.
And now, 150 years later, Mullican is involved in his own version of the gold rush.
“I’m just struggling to keep up with the demand these days,” he said. “When people get a look at it, they fall in love with it.”
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