Cairns Garden, 2020. - CODAworx

Cairns Garden, 2020.

Client: Canopy by Hilton, Tempe, AZ.

Location: Tempe, AZ, United States

Completion date: 2020

Project Team


John Randall Nelson

Nelson Public Art


Scott Talbot

Art Solutions


Ron Ruff

R.J. Ruff and Co.


Matt Kosednar

Allen + Philp Architects


“Cairns Garden” is a public art installation sited at Canopy by Hilton in Tempe. A cairn is a human-made stack of stones. Cairns represent a broad variety of purposes from the prehistoric to the present. In modern times cairns are often erected as landmarks to represent the beginning of a trail. Inspired by the history engraved landscape, nine cairns mark a metaphorical trailhead. They conjure the Sonoran desert while referencing the language of ancient petroglyphs.


The goal of the project was to create a contemporary trailhead that carves out a space for travelers to explore, rest, look around and engage with the multi-layered history of Tempe.


The cairn’s stones were quarried in central Arizona and the striped rock is Black Canyon Onyx, a stone variegated with unique hues of desert blush, ridges of amber and veins of jade green. All were quarried along Big Bug Creek in Mayer, an old cowboy town about 85 miles northeast of Tempe.

It takes about 1 million years to create 12” of the Onyx. Each layer reflects the sediment left when water flowed in and out of the area.

After discussing a concept and direction with the developers and the City of Tempe, we presented several ideas. With feedback from the stakeholders, the desert cairns theme was chosen. Cairns Garden is the end result of a collaboration between Tempe Public Art, Hilton Hotels and Nelson Public Art.