A Dying Art

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

Philip Weiss, the Belleville monument dealer, is one of the few people who really understands the loss of an Alec Mackie to the trade. "There is no craftsman like Alex left in this area," says Weiss, who calls him by another variant of his Christian name, Alexander. "You have to go to Vermont to find a granite sculptor of his abilities, and even the guys that are up there now, their work does not compare to his. Alex has the old-country training, and these new guys, they seem like they're too artsy. You know, most of the time artsy people are kind of eccentric, and you have a hard time getting what you want from them. You usually get what they want, and Alex isn't that way. When he decides to retire, the St. Louis area is going to be hurting for a craftsman."

Uncut slabs of gray and pastel granite, big enough to yield five individual monuments, fill his workshop, pallid with rock dust. In the adjacent courtyard, finished headstones wait to be shipped out. Some of them have been recycled -- that is, as Mackie explains, more kinfolk have died and so the family has decided to get a bigger monument to fit all the names in. The monument company buys the original for a nominal sum and has Mackie resurface and reletter it for another family. Well, "inscribe" is more the verb, because some of the characters are not letters per se, at least not the kind that make up the vernacular of this country. "I don't know what that one says," he admits, indicating a stone with Hebrew writing. "I get the inscription as a series of numbers. Each number corresponds to a character in my Hebrew alphabet. I do it by the numbers, and the rabbi comes by to approve it."

Being associated with the funeral industry hasn't made Mackie doleful or melancholy in any way -- quite the contrary. He sees humor in various facets of his trade, especially the incongruities of cemetery policy: "Once a Chicago dealer called asking if I could make a parking-meter monument with 'Time Expired' written on it. I planned on making it, but then the dealer called back to say, 'Forget it' -- the cemetery wouldn't allow it. Yet another cemetery has no problem with a monument in the shape of a golf bag with a set of clubs in relief.

"I don't read the obituaries," he offers, "and, no, I haven't made my own tombstone. My wife keeps asking, 'When are you going to make ours?' And I say, 'When are you planning on using it?'" Let the funeral directors and the monument dealers work with the grieving family. Mackie likes being a step removed from all that. Just give him the work order and let him shape rock. "I never meet anyone who's dead, you know. I'm just making the stone for the family, hoping they'll be happy with it."

He doesn't always shape and carve the stone from scratch -- occasionally he will repair the work of other stonecarvers. Take the decapitated doughboy of Edwardsville. For nearly 75 years, since Pvt. Frank Kahtz's death in 1918, the statue of a uniformed Kahtz stood in the cemetery -- until vandals knocked his block off. It was Mackie to the rescue. After a painstaking re-creation, the head was rejoined and Pvt. Kahtz resumed his watch. Six months later the vandals returned for another go at it. The family gave up. Mackie shakes his head sadly: "You can't have a nice monument with people like that around."

He once healed Jesus. The statue, that is. Again, vandals had invaded a cemetery, this one near Bethalto, Ill., and knocked off the marble head with a blunt object -- Mackie thinks it was a baseball bat. At any rate, the story, as it came to Mackie from a monument dealer, is that two brothers did the deed and then stashed the hallowed head in their home. Eventually the girlfriend of one of the brothers got ticked off (as girlfriends often do) and tipped off the cops. The cops got a warrant. They found the head and returned it to the cemetery. When it came to Mackie, it was a bit altered from its original state. "There was an upside-down crucifix etched into his forehead," says Mackie, summing up the damage. "There was red 'blood' dripping from his eyes, and the top of his noggin had been hollowed out for use as an ashtray. I sanded him, filled in all the broken parts, glued on the head. Got a letter a few years back -- he's still doing well."

Mackie's work is not always destined for graveyards. The young man who once yearned to become an artist but became a tradesman instead has gradually moved into the realm of artistic sculpture. Commissions have included war memorials for the cities of Wentzville and St. Peters, and something else that is a bit more noticeable -- the stone seal of the United States for the American embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. For Mackie, the line between monumental and nonmonumental work is thin indeed. Besides creating several classically elegant weeping angels, masterpieces in and of themselves, he has sculpted a St. George's dragon for Dressel's pub and has carried out architectural ornament work on buildings in New York City. As for the journey from artisan to artist, says Mackie, "It took me in a big circle, but I got there."

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