Union bricklayer carves a legacy

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Dust billows. Power tools screech. More than a dozen artists chip and grind away, centimeter by centimeter, at massive blocks of stone outside St. Paul College. In the middle of it all, union bricklayer Mark Wickstrom sees the antiquity and, he hopes, the renaissance of his craft.

Wickstrom, apprenticeship coordinator for Bricklayers Local 1, is also an internationally recognized master stone-cutter. That’s how he became one of the planners for the “Minnesota Rocks” International Stone Carving Symposium, which Public Art Saint Paul is hosting through June 30.

Wickstrom hopes the symposium opens the eyes and sparks the imagination of architects, builders, and his own members and apprentices as to what is possible with stone. “I want them to say, ‘I work with natural material, with tile – whether it’s stone or ceramic or brick – and I [cut] this stuff everyday. I never knew you could do all these other things with it.'”

The Cathedral of Saint Paul across the street symbolizes a renewed appreciation for authentic restoration and ornate work. But Wickstrom fears that much of the knowledge of the masons’ craft is being lost as members retire and can’t pass along the legacy of creating a landmark that can last hundreds of years.

“It’s a tough sell now days. It’s hard to find young people who find the value of working with their hands. I try to encourage them that it’s not just working with your hands – it’s working with your mind, too.”

Three years’ training in Europe
Wickstrom started in the trades as a construction laborer on the Iron Range. He moved to the Twin Cities in 1979; his interest in stone developed shortly after he completed his Bricklayers’ apprenticeship. “I had journeymen saying, ‘What do you want to learn that for? Nobody does that.’ And I thought, bingo! That’s why I want to do it.”

With backing from the national union, Wickstrom received scholarships to spend three years in Europe gaining certification as a master carver, stone technician and trainer. His time included 13 months working on a cathedral renovation in Reims, France, and two years as a student in a master-level training program in Wunsiedel, Bavaria.

“I figure I missed out on a lot of wages by doing that, but that kind of education you can’t buy.”

He became national stone-training coordinator for the Bricklayers, before returning to his home local as apprenticeship coordinator. “I have this desire to be able to preserve some of the qualities of our trade on a personal level.”

Duty calls
At the symposium, six artists from Minnesota and eight artists from other countries are crafting sculptures from stone quarried in the state. Twelve of the pieces will be displayed permanently in St. Paul; the other two will end up in St. Anthony Village and Vadnais Heights, which have connections to two of the international artists involved.

Wickstrom has been helping plan the symposium for two years, helped select the artists, and is making sure his entire apprentice class donates manpower while getting the opportunity to rub elbows with some of the masters of their craft. Wickstrom is also taping weekly interviews with artists; those are being shown on Saint Paul Neighborhood Network Channel 19.

Unfortunately, all those duties mean he can’t carve at the symposium himself.

“I would love to be a part of this event, but I’ve been kind of saddled with some responsibility.” However, he says, some of the artists have chosen some incredibly hard stone to work with, and he’s mentioned “if push comes to shove, I’ll gladly jump in and help you out.

“I think a lot of the artists are open to that. If I had the opportunity, I’d jump on it.”

Adapted from The Union Advocate, the official newspaper of the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly.

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