Bringing the heart of the craftsman to the stone of the Capitol

Master stone carver
Master stone carver Mark Wickstrom selected a tool while working on exterior restoration at the State Capitol in St. Paul on April 6. Wickstrom, who has been working on the Capitol project for two years, trained as a master stone caver in France and Germany.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

Mark Wickstrom isn't a typical artist. Instead of brushes or clay, he uses an industrial air compressor. And his studio? It's five stories of scaffolding wrapped around the Minnesota State Capitol.

He's is one of a handful of carvers climbing around outside the building, restoring the stone on the Capitol, originally designed by architect Cass Gilbert. It's in tough shape after more than 100 Minnesota winters.

"We've got a very high bar that we need to maintain," he said "Because we have to keep our work to those original craftsmen. And that's no easy task."

Wickstrom took the long way to stone carving. "I grew up on the Iron Range. A little town called Meadowlands," he said. "And I grew up on a farm, and we were making the hay and milking the cows and all that kind of stuff."

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His dad worked in the mines, as an explosives technician. His mom was a cook and a janitor at the high school. Wickstrom himself grew up and became a bricklayer.

Shaping marble
Wickstrom shaped a piece of marble on the exterior of the State Capitol.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

And then his union asked if he'd like to go to Europe and try his hand a stone carving. He wound up in France, training as an apprentice on the 800-year-old cathedral in Reims.

"The stone carvers I learned from on the cathedral, they give you very simple tasks, like squaring a block to begin with. Then you might do an arch stone. But it's got to be perfect. One millimeter, plus or minus," he said. "And that's not much leeway."

But there's plenty of practice in Reims.

"Actually, when I was working on the cathedral, I asked one of my co-workers, 'How much work do you think we have left here?' He said, 'I don't know, maybe 85, 115 years.' Because its an ongoing process, considering all the coronations for the kings, a lot of them held there, they have to continually maintain it," he said.

Now Wickstrom lives in Eden Prairie. He's one of just three master cutter-carvers in the United States, certified in the ancient art of carving marble, granite and other architectural stone.

"What they say in the trade is there's a young man that got bit by the stone bug," he said. "After that you don't want to do anything else. It's hard to look at a concrete block and say, oh, yeah, I'm all excited about laying that. I would rather carve."

Wickstrom is 56 now, and has been doing just that for more than a dozen years, the last two on a carving crew with Twin City Tile and Marble. That's one of the companies doing stone work on the State Capitol.

Capitol restoration
Wickstrom carved a detail on an exterior marble piece at the state Capitol in early April.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

His job is to make models of the original stonework details and send them out to have rough copies made by machine. Another crew saws away the damaged parts and glues the new stone into place. Wickstrom comes along behind, smoothing the new into the old in a whole catalog of details, some no bigger than a postage stamp.

It all has do be completed by hand, with tiny grinders the size of a Tootsie Pop and air-powered chisels that are a little bigger than a smart phone. The chisels make about 30 taps a second, much faster than a hand-held hammer.

But there's a limit to how much machines can help, Wickstrom said.

"I'm kind of old-school myself," he said. "I think machines can do all kind of wonderful things. You can walk away from them and program them. But a machine doesn't have a heart. And a conscience. And it can only take you so far. But it still takes a craftsman to put the final touches on."

A conscience? For stone carving?

Wickstrom says it's about the work that no one — except maybe pigeons — might ever see up close.

Network of scaffolding
Master stone carver Mark Wickstrom walked through the network of scaffolding surrounding the state Capitol in St. Paul.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

"You really have to put that out of your mind, what it looks like from the ground," he said. "It has to look right right here. And that's the way they felt about their work, so it's kind of a code that we have to hold up."

Wickstrom and his colleagues will be doing that for about two more years, working their way slowly around columns and columns and pilasters around the building. They're retracing the most permanent of records, written in stone by hands long dead.

"It's kind of a strange deal," he said. "It's like seeing the same patient every day when you're a doctor. Basically, we've kind of adapted this attitude, where this is my target today. And this has to be brought back to what it was. And when I'm done with this one, I move to this one, and this one, and there will be another one. And you just meticulously go through day after day after day, and somehow it all seems sane."