A Dying Art

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

Aug 16, 2000 at 4:00 am
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."

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."