Banker Mason



Fast forward to the nineties. I had finally discovered someone with a similar level of insanity, and the two of us moved to the UK after the mother of all weddings. People are always asking us why we did it, being as the flow is generally in the other direction; there is a selection of answers, depending on who's asking, but here and now I will confess that it was primarily to get away from our respective families.


At that time Britain had an immigration policy that allowed a six-month visa to be extended to artists and writers, provided that the only employment they sought was connected with their craft. My wife had written for American Television, besides working in Off Broadway theater, and I had been an artist for most of my life, perhaps unpaid but who's counting? So we felt we qualified. I did say we were insane, didn't I? We spent the first couple of years scratching around and taking any odd jobs we could get off the books.


Moving Furniture, or Removals as it is known in the UK, was not an option, then or later. The kind of dull professionalism that afflicted most job categories was fully in force here, which for me took all the joy out of it. I moved instead to landscape gardening, learning to build stone walls and lay patios for the first time. It was healthy outdoor work and the crews were sufficiently eccentric, especially the boss, a Rabelaisian character whose confidence in himself and his employees was limitless. He thought nothing of dropping off a load of stone, a pile of sand and a few sacks of cement with instructions to build a wall with it.


Which was how I came to be up in the Mendip hills in Somerset building my first ornamental stone wall. I'd seen it done, of course, and the principle seemed fairly simple. I was digging the footing that first morning when an old man ( so he seemed, he was probably only a little older than I am now) came by trundling a wheelbarrow that looked as old as he did, loaded with a shovel and trowel and other bits and bobs.


He stood and watched my earnest efforts for a bit. 'Building a wall, eh?' he said. I agreed that this was so. 'Rough bit o' ground, that,' he remarked, ' 'speck you'll be stepping the footing, aye, so's to get all level.' I looked at the terrain and saw what he meant, even a mortared wall needs the stones to lay level irrespective of the rise of the ground.


I started digging again, beginning at the bottom and creating steps to lay the concrete base on. The old fellow wandered over to the pile of sand and picked up a handful. 'Nice stuff, this, ' he remarked. ' you'll be using a six to one mix, aye? Needs to be stiff, mind, with stones that size, what with this weather we be havin.' ' The day was overcast with a light mist, rain somewhere thinking about making an appearance, 'Yup,' he continued as if discussing the job with himself, ' stiff as you can, and four courses up is all she'll take 'fore the joints starts to weep.' I was later to discover that this was all too true.


Next my informant started poking about in the pile of tools I had been left with. He held up the trowel, brand new with a triangular blade a foot long, looking to me like a thoroughly professional item.


'This all they could find to give 'e? ' he said sympathetically. I admitted that this was no more than the truth. ' Yep, they'll do that.' He shook his head, with the air of one accustomed to the evils of the world. I made bold to ask what was wrong with it. ' Why, 'tis a Bricky's trowel, that is, break your wrist trying to lay them stones.' He rummaged in his wheel barrow and held up a stubby steel implement that looked about the size and shape of a bear's paw with an offset handle. 'What you do, see, you take that trowel you got and lay a file across it, cut it off short and round the edges. Fits between the stones then, see. ' I did as he advised and I still have the blessed thing I made and have laid many a stone with it since.


I spent about two weeks on that site, and often saw my self effacing tutor trundling his ancient wheel barrow around the neighborhood. I learned that he was the village handyman, and he was never without a suggestion or two, always delivered in an off-hand just-between-us-craftsmen manner.


One day as I was finishing up a fellow I knew slightly came riding up on his bike. Let's call him Ian. Ian announced that he was doing some building work for a 'Spiritual Healing Centre', and would I like to join him in the enterprise? This was typical British understatement; I soon found out that he was not only doing the building, but also the designing and contracting as well. To make a long and tortuous story short, we demolished the original structure, a large outbuilding, built up the inner walls , poured the floors and then a firm of master masons came in and laid the stone for the outer walls. It was a fun job, with all of the future Healers, the Family as they called themselves, pitching in and helping. Then Ian showed me a two car Garage built into the side of the 17th century farmhouse.


'The Family has asked me if I could build a meditation room here,' he announced. 'Have you ever done any stone carving?' I admitted that I had, once, in Art College, taken a one semester course in sculpture and had actually produced a limestone cat which when put into the garden had attracted the amorous attentions of a number of squirrels. 'We'll figure it out, ' Ian announced confidently. We cleared out the garage and then Ian showed me his drawings for the facade. I was aghast- it was a lovely gothic structure with pointed arched windows fitted with stained glass panels and a large oak door to match, far beyond anything I could imagine doing. 'Don't worry,' Ian assured me. ' I'll do the stained glass and the harder carving, I'll show you how to do the rest.' Still apprehensive I asked him if he had ever done anything like this before. ' Not really,' he admitted, 'had the odd stone carving course in Uni, you know,  always wanted to try something like this.'


The stone arrived, cut to Ian's exacting specifications, various sized rectangles of a honey hued oolite limestone , beloved by builders because it has no bedding plane and therefore can be carved or cut in any direction. For this reason it was once called 'freestone' , which is the actual origin of the term 'Freestone Mason' which gradually morphed into – yep, you guessed it. What did you think that compass and square was all about anyway?


This was my introduction, first into the mysteries of 'setting out' – whereby a two dimensional drawing becomes a three-dimensional object -- then to the craft of architectural stone carving. The tools we used were of ancient design: square, compass, stone saw, mallet, claw chisel, flat, point, rasp, drag- made of modern materials, but the same hand tools used by sculptors and stone masons down through the ages. Carving a dust covered piece of stone into what would one day be a windowsill, I felt a curious sense of connection with the material; stone perhaps millions of years in the forming at the bottom of the sea, composed of tiny grains of sand, bits of shell, all cemented together under extreme pressure with a calcium carbonate binder.


When the little meditation chapel was done it was truly a thing of beauty. Ian had outdone himself on the stained glass, abstract flower shapes in muted rainbow colors. The door was of seasoned oak, hand made, with thick iron hinges, and opened into a bright space with individual meditation stools down both sides, a beautiful carpet imported from India, and an alcove at the back which was a sort of altar. I was and am proud to have been a part of its creation.


During all this time my wife and I had managed to have two children, and providentially the British Government decided to allow us permanent settled status. I was now a family man and needed some kind of steady employment, but in spite of a lifetime drifting around from job to various job I had no qualifications for any kind of career. I managed to get a part-time post as assistant gardener at a local public garden, then cast about for something else to fill up the week. All this while I had been experimenting with stone carving on my own, and one day I took a bas relief of a faun I had made to a local Architectural Reclamation yard to see if the owner wanted to buy it.


The owner, let's call him Hayden, was enthusiastic over the thing, so much so that he offered me a chance to work in a shed on the site, doing stone work that he could then sell to homeowners who needed period touches for their listed properties. Being 'Listed' meant a house could not be modified or repaired except with the materials with which it had been built, a godsend to local craftspeople.


In short order I had a workshop of my own. It was rather like living in a medieval village recreation, with me in my apron and cap chipping away industriously and the various products of my industry on display outside. (There's a photo of yours truly at work on a sundial base, posted in my home node). Gradually I acquired some power tools; a large electric circular saw to rough cut things like fireplace lintels, and an air driven chisel device to speed up production on large projects. I learned that the proper term for what I did was 'banker mason'- which is a branch of the building industry that encompasses architectural stone work, from cornices to gargoyles . I also learned a great deal from the stones that I used, most of them blocks from old buildings that had been torn down, where plain to see on the inner surface were the tool marks made by the original masons, even the symbols used to identify each man's work.


This was not, I have to say, Sculpture. What I did was to imitate traditional forms and objects d'art, and the idea was to make the pieces so that they did not stand out as new stonework, but looked ancient. To age stone is easily done, I used a high pressure hose to remove the dust from the carving, then a liquid mixed with soot scraped from old chimney pots to create the patina of age. To customers asking if the pieces were really ancient, Hayden would reply that of course the stone was thousands of years old.


It was, taken all in all, a time of change for me. For years I had taken a perverse pride in leaving no mark wherever I went; now I had not only fathered two children quite against the odds, but was adding other permanent additions to the environment. There were, for certain, homes warmed by fireplaces whose surrounds I had carved, stately old mansions guarded by stone lions, even gargoyles spouting rainwater away from the walls, all my own work. ' To everything there is a season, and a time for ev'ry purpose under heaven' as Ecclesiastes wrote and the Byrds sang.

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