Bringing stone craftsmanship to life

August 16, 2001
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Members of the Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers gave demonstrations illustrating how to lay tile
Rich in history and culture, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, offers visitors the opportunity to broaden their imaginations and learn more about the past through its numerous museums and attractions. But for two weeks during each year, the institute goes one step further by offering a truly interactive exhibition in an outdoor arena. Visitors are encouraged to expand their minds as they witness live demonstrations and speak one-on-one with highly skilled craftspeople and other knowledgeable experts in numerous fields and traditions. And this year, the Smithsonian offered an in-depth look at the building trades, including stone carving and stone masonry.

Now in its 35th year, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is an effort to bring exhibits to life, according to Development Director Josh Silver, who explained that the festival was established in 1967 by Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley. "It's something interactive," he said. "We usually do a country, state and occupation." In addition to focusing on the skill and artistry of master craftspeople in the building arts, this year's programs also spotlighted the vitality and diversity of New York City and the cultural heritage of Bermuda. The festival, which is held on the National Mall between Seventh and Fourteenth Streets, took place from Wednesday, June 27 through Sunday, July 1 and Wednesday, July 4 through Sunday, July 8.

And judging by the crowds of people that filled the grounds, the Folklife Festival was another success. Adults and children flocked to the many displays that were available to absorb as much knowledge as they could about each focus. With the Washington Monument and the Capitol building standing as bookends on either end of the National Mall, the setting could not be more appropriate for such an historical and learning experience.

Referred to as the Smithsonian's "museum without walls," the Folklife Festival celebrates folk culture by bringing together people from all over the U.S. and the world to share knowledge, artistry and skills with visitors to the nation's capital, according to its organizers. Musicians, cooks, craftspeople, storytellers and workers in many different occupations speak about their experiences and present their creative talents in concerts, demonstrations, workshops and panel discussions. More than one million visitors attend the festival, which is co-sponsored by the National Park Service.

Other demonstrations included showing how to build a natural stone column.

Masters of the Building Arts

"Masters of the Building Arts" was the name coined for the building trade portion of the festival. The program included over 125 artisans in the building trades from across the country, according to Marjorie Hunt, who headed up the Masters of the Building Arts. Among the highly skilled craftspeople were stone carvers, stonemasons, mosaic tile artists, terra-cotta artisans, brick masons, adobe workers, ornamental metalworkers, plasterers, timber framers and others. Included in this group were some of the many artisans who crafted the Washington National Cathedral, restored Grand Central Station and built the scaffolding for the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty.

Compiling the list of participants wasn't a simple task. According to Hunt, it required extensive research, which took several years to complete. "I started looking for people who were not only highly skilled, but willing to teach," she said. "It is important that they could communicate [with the visitors]." Hunt explained that she headed up a team of workers to go into the field to find the most suitable craftspeople. The final participants were chosen after a series of observations and interviews.

"We went out and made hand selections," said Hunt. "Our goal was to increase the depth of the skill. It was three years in the making. The StonExpo/MIA [Marble Institute of America] really helped make this happen. Without their support, we couldn't have done this."

In addition to taking great lengths to investigate the credentials of prospective participants, Hunt and her team also put a great deal of thought into the presentation itself. "We had to think about how to best convey these messages," she said. "Also, where possible, we wanted to explain how these trades are learned and passed on."

Children visiting "Masters of the Building Arts" were given the opportunity to experience "hands on" what it entails to be a stone artisan.

The artisans

Among those who exhibited their work at Masters of the Building Arts was sculptor and stone carver Robert J. Alger of Spencerville, MD. Alger, who does work for the Washington National Cathedral, explained that he first learned the trade when he was only a young boy. He received instruction from Vincent Palumbo, who was the stone carver at the cathedral and recently passed away. Masters of the Building Arts was dedicated to the memory of Palumbo.

"Vincent taught me how to carve, since I was 11 years old," said Alger. "I worked on many projects, from small scale to large scale." Alger explained that Palumbo encouraged him to study at the Fine Arts Academy in Carrara, Italy, which he attended for five years.

At the festival, Alger displayed a bust of Palumbo, which he had been working on. He had first sculpted one which he was using as a model for the carving. Alger explained that a carver has to really be tuned into the mind of the sculptor. "Stone has its own personality," he said. "You have to be able to hone in and focus on the same frame of thought as the sculptor."

Working along with Alger at the Washington National Cathedral is Joe Alonso, who was also present at the festival. Alonso has served as the cathedral's stonemason for 16 years. Currently, he is the mason foreman in charge of maintaining and restoring the cathedral's monumental stonework, preserving the craftsmanship of the generations of masons and carvers who built the cathedral over the course of nearly a century.

Frank Baiocchi, a marble mason from Mt. Airy, MD, demonstrated how to install a floor pattern made of natural stone. Baiocchi has worked in the business for 40 years, and has worked on many buildings throughout the Washington, DC area, including the elaborate marble floors of the Washington National Cathedral. The stonemason has been a long-time member of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, which had its own booth at the festival. Various stone and brick masons gave demonstrations of different types of applications, and even allowed visitors to try their hands at the craft.

Continuing the tradition

With intentions of keeping the skills of the building trades alive, John Paul Huguley has started the School of the Building Arts (SOBA). Presently, the school runs two-week seminars, but has plans to open as a four-year school within the next few years.

"About four or five years ago, we started noticing that there is not an arena to train these artisans," said Huguley. "We knew in Europe that apprenticeship is alive and well." So Huguley went to Europe to do some research and find out how he can revive the craftsmanship in the U.S. "In Europe, they said that we needed to find a town with architecture [as a location for the school]." As a result, Huguley researched towns throughout the U.S. and decided on Charleston, SC.

The objective of SOBA is to engage future generations in training, discussion and the desire to preserve and promote our mutual interest and common endeavor in preserving the past, thereby creating better communities of tomorrow. "There are those artisans out there that want to do this [work]," said Huguley. "[And], there are buildings worthy of extra time and money."

In addition to taking classes in mathematics, design and other core courses, the students will be expected to work on real jobs in the field. Huguley and other members of SOBA were at the festival to meet and discuss ideas with the participating artisans. "We are here to capture this energy," he said. "We want to use these people to help set up a curriculum."

The Masters of the Building Arts was produced in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation of National Building Museum, the American Institute of Architects, the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, the International Masonry Institute, and the Preservation Trades Network. Major funding was provided by the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers and the International Masonry Institute, Homestore.com, the Marble Institute of America, Allied Stone Industries, Building Stone Institute, Indiana Limestone Institute and the National Building Granite Quarries Association. Major contributions included Associated General Contractors of America, National Association of Realtors and the Smithsonian Women's Committee.

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