Skills of modern stonemason bring ancient art back to campus
By Colleen MacPherson
The ancient art of stone carving left an indelible mark on the architectural detail of the University’s great buildings almost 100 years ago, and it continues to be relevant on this campus today.
At the Museum of Antiquities, a new exhibit called The Stone Carver’s Craft examines the traditions of carving and its modern adaptations by placing, side-by-side, replicas of some of the world’s most important statues and the work of a young stonemason named Robert Assié. Assié is an award-winning, European-trained carver in what he describes as both an “unknown” and “the most in-demand trade in the world”. And in Saskatoon, he may be more in demand at the University of Saskatchewan than anywhere else.
The most visible result of Assié’s association with the U of S is a large round piece of Tyndall stone carved with the crest of the College of Kinesiology. The crest, with its delicate wheat sheaves, deep relief and precise lettering, was commissioned by Gillis Quarries Ltd. of Garson, Manitoba as a gift to the University, recognition of the Tyndall stone supplier’s long relationship with an institution that has used millions of pounds of its product over the years. Carved by Assié and his student Colleen Wilson from a single piece of stone about three feet in diameter and 10 inches thick, the crest will soon adorn the exterior of the college’s new building.
Along with the new carving, Assié’s particular skills are being put to use as consultant and architectural archivist on campus, part of the University’s effort to preserve and protect the unique features of its beautiful Collegiate Gothic buildings. For the carver, it is an opportunity to examine close-up the work of those who have gone before, craftsmen who have earned the admiration of this gifted carver known to have an eye for detail.
For some time, Assié has been photographing the exterior stonework on University buildings to create an archive. But he’s been asked to go one step further – to create a template for every molding, carving and architectural detail, a process that shows “a lot of forward thinking on the part of the University”. Without the templates, future restorations would be difficult “if you don’t know what the buildings used to look like”.
“You really get to know a building when you go over it that closely”, said Assié, who encourages people to look more closely at the incredible stone work. In modern construction, there is a lot of repetition in moldings, he explained, but on the Thorvaldson Building, “nothing was repeated. It’s an exceptional building.”
That description is high praise indeed considering Assié’s credentials. Raised in the St. Brieux area, he, like most people, “found stone interesting, in any form, but when you add carving into that, it becomes feasible to make your living”. Trained to the level of European craftsmen at the prestigious college of stone carving at Weymouth, England, Assié went on to make a name for himself as the first non-European winner in the history of the Munzien carving competition in Germany. He then moved to France to work under that country’s premier master carver.
On returning to Saskatoon, Assié established Tesella School of Stone Carving. There, he has eight students in an intensive two-year course that also teaches the teacher. “I’ve learned as much or more since I started teaching as I did in my training because the knowledge you need about a piece in order to teach it is greater than what you need to just carve it.”
While Assié calls himself a mason, that term has different meanings on either side of the ocean. In North America, mason most often describes someone who does block or brick work. In Europe, a mason is “capable of doing anything related to stone – carving, design, drafting, installation”. Either way, it is both an art and a craft – “Restoration work is the craft and design from scratch is the art.” Having all the skills of a mason however, does not a master mason make, he said. That title is elusive “and I think you only achieve that a few days before you die.”
Being a mason has always been a living trade in Europe where stone continues to be the material of choice in new construction and where most buildings of any note are under renovation. Here, Assié and his students are benefiting from a resurgence of interest in stone work. Thanks to institutions like the U of S, “one of the few doing really high quality construction in North America”, there is work enough for all.
And some of it is in the College Building. Assié was called on to preserve the terra cotta tile wall ornamentation in the building’s First World War memorial. He removed and stored loose tiles before restoration began and will soon begin reinstalling them. He added that PCL Construction, general contractors on the project, did a superb job protecting the remaining tiles by essentially building a wall around the memorial wall.
Another of his contributions to the building is a unique stone wall piece destined for the restored boardroom. Now in the design phase, the piece will incorporate a stone lintel from a now unused doorway in the building. What it will lack, though, is any indication it is Assié’s work. He learned the art and craft of stone from the very best and he shares their modesty about their work.
“Does it matter who carved it? In 200 years, no one is going to ask who the carver was. As long as people appreciate it and are fond of it, that’s enough for carvers.”