To the untrained eye, Saskatchewan may seem an odd choice for an award-winning master in the ancient craft of stone carving. After all, there are no medieval buildings in the middle of the prairie.
But Robert Assié, one of the few master stonemasons in the world, is happy to carve a niche in the province in which he was raised.
"There's actually a lot of stone carving in Saskatchewan," says Assié, who was born in St. Brieux, a small town near Melfort in east-central Saskatchewan. "The University of Saskatchewan has probably the best collection of neo-gothic architecture on the continent ... Our legislature building is quite ornate. There are a lot of architecturally carved buildings here."
Assié, owner of Tesella Stone Carvers in Saskatoon, graduated in 1998 from the college of stone carving in Weymouth, England, and has gathered no moss since.
|Photo courtesy of Colleen MacPherson, On Campus News|
|Robert Assié shows the crest he and his student carved for the University of Saskatchewan's College of Kinesiology.|
He trained under France's premier master carver, Claude Chevenement, became the first non-European winner of the Munzien stone-carving competition in Germany, and has worked on numerous chateaus and cathedrals in Europe, including the famous 12th-century St. Antoine l'Abbaye in France.
Although Canada may not be home to structures as old as some in Europe, there are many designated heritage buildings in the country.
"There's no shortage of work," adds Assié, whose resumé of projects in the province includes the legislature in Regina and the University of Saskatchewan's Thorvaldson and College buildings, which he says are only a few of the structures that date back to the turn of the century.
However, he notes, "just because a building reaches a certain age doesn't mean it's going to be restored. We see that all over the world."
But Saskatchewan, he says, and the university in particular, are taking an active role in preserving significant buildings.
"We have a responsibility under legislation to provide for the care and conservation of heritage buildings and historic places," says Carlos Germann, director of the heritage resources branch for Saskatchewan Culture, Youth and Recreation. "Heritage conservation is contributing in really meaningful ways to the sustainability of Saskatchewan communities. There are clear and demonstrable economic, environmental and social benefits for heritage conservation work."
Steve Bata, building supervisor for the legislature in Regina, has experienced the quality of Assié's work first- hand. In the basement of the building, a tiled fireplace was hidden in a room that was originally called the members' smoking room.
Bata says he believes sometime in the '70s that fireplace was "sealed between two walls and sort of forgotten about."
But rediscovered during renovations, "we decided it was time for the fireplace to be what it is supposed to be. So Robert (Assié) came in and redid all the tiles for us. We actually found this old, same quarry."
Now, says Bata, the fireplace is priceless. "It's just irreplaceable. I suppose we could get something (new) that looks similar to it, but it was part of the building originally, and it's a heritage piece of work in the building. It deserved to be re-lifed. It's a very nice piece of tilework and we actually found some articles on it. It was never really (under) consideration to get rid of it."
Stonemasonry is not only about architectural restoration, says Assié. "There are several different branches of work for carvers, and there's plenty of work in each area.”
One, for example, is new construction - making pieces such as ornamental entranceways, decorative fireplaces or fountains.
He says there is so much demand for work, that he can choose as many (or as few) projects as he likes, in whichever discipline.
"They all have their benefits and their opportunities to learn. Any time you're doing a new piece, you get to design it, so there's a different set of skills that goes along with that. If you're doing restoration work ... then essentially your job is to carve as close as you can to what the original was, using the same material and in the same manner."
Assié also opened the Tesella School of Stone Carving in Saskatoon in 2000. Accepting only a few students at a time, the school's program is two years long. The current batch of three students has just finished Year 1.
"If they finish the curriculum in two years, it's easy for them to find work," Assié says. "Just by default they'll be well-trained. And well-trained stone carvers are in shortage."
He says a lot of his students want to go to Europe to travel and carve, but it won't be the diploma from his school that will help them find work; they'll have to rely on their talent. "Really, it doesn't matter what piece of paper you have. From country to country they don't recognize them anyway. They (clients) want to see pictures of what you've done. And then it'll be quite evident pretty quickly if you can do what you say you can do."
He says some of his protégés have found success across the globe. "One of my former students is in Switzerland right now. A couple people that have trained here are out east in the Ottawa region. One guy is out in B.C. You'll never be short of work if you're a good carver."
In spite of almost unlimited opportunity, stonemasons are a rare breed, and getting rarer still - not enough carvers are being trained to keep up with demand.
"Even when I was in England and went to school," says Assié, "we started with two groups of 14 students. Less than six of us graduated. And that was out of thousands of applicants."
So why aren't more people scrambling into the stone business?
Assié suggests the reason is because a good carver must have two skills that few people possess - patience and persistence. "It's all hammer and chisel. If you aren't swinging the hammer and hitting the chisel, then nothing's being done. It's that simple. So if you aren't there, or you can't get motivated to be there ... then nothing happens."
He says frequently, even though a carver may be in a room with other people, he/she is often in solitude. Even a very small project can take 300 hours, and that's a long time to be by yourself, he says. "It's just one of those things that doesn't lend itself to everybody, I guess."
Assié has found his niche, feeling perfectly at home with a hammer and chisel. Sure, there may be more sophisticated tools out there, he says, but that would be missing the point.
"If you're going to take a piece out of a historical building, recarve it and put it back in, (then) in order for it to have the same heritage value as the one you're taking out, it has to be done in the same manner as it was done originally," he says.
"The value of it is that the people now and in the future are going to be able to come look at these buildings, see how they were built, and why they were built. That tells a lot about a culture. That's why you preserve them. So it makes sense that you preserve them in the same way that they were built so that you're preserving what's important about them."
(Nicole Strandlund can be reached at email@example.com)