A Dying Art

When monumental stonecutter Alec Mackie retires, St. Louis will also mourn the death of his craft

Alec Mackie stands in the small brick-lined alley beside Pohl & King Monument Co., motioning to the driver of the flatbed truck to keep backing in, slowly, all the way to the garagelike studio. The truck bears the name Weiss Monument, and it has come from Belleville, Ill., carrying a 5,000-pound block of granite for Mackie to sculpt. Philip Weiss shuts off the truck, throws the emergency brake back as tight as it will go and joins Mackie on the cargo bed for a look-see at the stone, resting staidly on a mound of gravel. The block sits on two thick canvas slings that Mackie attaches to a movable overhead pulley securely mounted to a girder. Mackie starts pulling the chain that should lift the stone from its bed, but there is some catch down below, and the extrication process ends up taking a half-hour. Finally the block is free from the bed, and Weiss pulls the truck forward, leaving the stone suspended in midair -- a rather amazing sight. Mackie lowers it carefully onto a heavy-duty wheeled wooden cart where he can work on it.

This is not just any stone but a prime specimen from the renowned Rock of Ages Quarry in Barre, Vt. Cemetery-bound sculptures typically rely on this traditional stone, which has a finer grain than most types of granite. This particular stone block will, over the course of the next few months, become a "weeping angel," destined to stand permanent watch in a Dardenne, Mo., cemetery.

It may be one of the last large-scale sculptures that Mackie, 63, will do. After 47 years as a monumental stonecutter, he's hoping to scale back, not quite hang up his hammer and chisel but at least lapse into semiretirement. "I'd like to play a little more golf," he says, cap down over his brow, a hank of silver hair poking out. "Isn't that the definition of retirement -- more time on the golf course?"

Mackie and the game of golf have something in common: Both originated in Scotland. Mackie became a stonecutter apprentice at age 16 in his native Aberdeen, "the city of granite." He entered the trade without undue deliberation -- his mother decided for him. "In Scotland then, if you didn't get a trade by the time you were 15 or 16, you went into military service," he explains with a soft burr. "I wanted to be an artist, but my mom had different ideas. She took me down to the unemployment office, where the guy says he is looking for a monumental stonecutter. As I wondered what that was, my mother pipes up, 'That sounds good. Where does he go?'"

Mackie returns to the job he'd been doing before the big granite block arrived, a headstone of black Indian granite, one with a blank face. He is only shaping the stone; the names and dates will be chiseled in later. He lifts the 3-pound hammer with his right hand and brings it down on the big stone chisel in his left. Another chunk of granite falls free. "You don't try to beat into it," he says. "Let the hammer and the chisel do the work themselves. You're just guiding the instrument."

Back in Aberdeen, as a wet-behind-the-ears novitiate to the trade, he was given "a six-month trial to see if you had anything in you." Accepted as a full-fledged apprentice, Mackie spent five years chiseling granite -- finding its grain, learning its qualities, shaping it into monuments for the dead. He worked under the eye of one G.M. Stalker, who, he says, was "an old-timer who didn't believe in using the latest machines. You had to learn the old way. You had to cut it by hand." Sometimes he went home with broken fingers and bashed-up hands. "You've got to miss a few times," he comments, "to make you concentrate harder."

He doesn't miss as much nowadays, but he's still doing it by hand, and it seems he's the only one in the Midwest outside Chicago employing the old-country methods of stonecutting. In nearly five decades, Mackie has cut and carved more stones than a cemetery can hold. He would have liked to pass on the torch, but as yet he's found no takers -- not his sons, not any of the students from the Washington University sculpture department who occasionally seek him out. Concedes Mackie: "The work is just too hard for anyone to want to keep at it."

Even if he were to find an eager subject, he says he's too busy working to take time to train an apprentice. "In the old days, there were gangs of stonecarvers, the work was more spread out, and it was easier to train somebody. When it's a one-man studio like this, you're the only show." It sounds like a bad pun, but cutting and lettering headstones by hand truly is a dying art. "Monuments are machine-carved these days, programmed by computers," says Mackie, bright blue eyes peering out of a pair of safety glasses. "There's even a computer that will scan your photo and laser-etch it on to the monument." Does it bother him that his craft is becoming obsolete? "Guess it had to happen eventually," he shrugs. "And it has gotten rather expensive, though there are still a few people out there who want the hand-cut stuff. Even in Aberdeen, where there once were dozens of stonecarvers, now there's only two or three. Ah well, too late now to worry about it."

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