By Jack L. Sammons, March 26, 2015, Macon Georgia:
Mr. Roscoe Ross is a master brick mason specializing in historic restorations. His family has practiced this form of masonry in Macon, and around the country, for one hundred and twenty-three years. Any historic brick restoration work you see as you drive down College Street is likely to have been done by Mr. Ross. About a week ago, he completed work on the restorations of the main stairs and walkway in Washington Park, the most dramatic improvement to that park in at least forty years. A few days ago, the city wisely authorized an extension of his work on the walkway down to the lower stairs.
Even a casual observer of brick work can see that Mr. Ross’ work is exceptional. The corners are crisp, the lines straight, the bricks perfectly selected, the mortar work finely done: appropriately pointed, and with the width of the mortar carefully adjusted to fit particular locations and functions. Each of the recycled and well-worn bricks of the walkway was cleansed by hand, and then turned so that its previous face was now down.
In order to do all this well, the brick mason must be initiated into the five-thousand-year-old tradition of this craft by a master. There is no other way. And what the master teaches is not just the required knowledge, skills, and language of bricklaying, but the set of virtues excellence in bricklaying requires: self-discipline, attention to detail, patience, attunement to the world around the construction, and the humility required to let the materials of the craft – the bricks, the trowel, the mortar (or “mud” as it is called), and so forth — speak to you as you work.
After several conversations with others in the Washington Park and College Street areas about Mr. Ross, I discovered that his work is well known and equally well admired. But those who described his work did not describe him as a true craftsman, although that he is, or as a master within the tradition, although that he is as well. No, almost without exception, they described him as an artist. And this is what may be most interesting about Mr. Ross, the Washington Park restoration work, and about us.
Those who described his work as art were not, I think, using the word as just a substitute for describing how difficult it is to do this work well, nor were they trying to enhance their expression of appreciation for his work with a comparison to what others might consider true art. I think instead that they meant what they said: they meant that his work is itself a true art and perhaps one from which other arts, including the “fine arts,” can learn much.
Mr. Ross, as do most artists, works with assistants, including his son when he is not at college. But Mr. Ross’ art is an individual one. It is an art literally tailored to our hand – the original size of each brick was determined by the gripping distance between the thumb and the forefinger.
While it is clear that the work expresses something of the artist — good bricklayers can immediately recognize the particular style of another well accomplished bricklayer – it is not one in which the artist expresses something subjective about himself or herself or attempts to move an audience in some particular way towards some preconceived idea. There is nothing in the art of bricklaying resembling the mannered theatricality that so corrupts the art of our times; nothing in it catering to tastes, pandering to emotions, or just seeking to please, to shock, or to manipulate.
Instead what it offers is a form of beauty, one carried within the tradition as an ongoing conversation really, which it can teach to us if we attend to the work carefully enough and are receptive to its non-conceptual message.
This is art as art is supposed to be: something removed from our ordinary ways of thinking that can then become central to the way we think and, in doing so, central to who we are. This is the highest of “high art,” not because the cultural elite admire it, but because it offers something beyond itself. And this can be community creating art as we learn to share the experience of it . . . art well placed in a city park for all to experience rather than in a museum.
A dear friend of mine, a theologian at Duke now retired, often used bricklaying – his father was a bricklayer – as an analogy to what a church must become if it is to have the discipline necessary to be a church. It starts with learning how to pray together, which, he said, requires training not unlike that required for bricklaying.
I want here, however, to suggest something different, but related. What if we tried to think of other work, other public work, as an art in the way that Mr. Ross’ work is an art? What if, say, politicians, judges, new reporters, teachers of all kinds, school board members, church leaders, public administrators, and the many others who together can shape our community towards the good – which is their defining obligation as thoughtful people from Aristotle on have said – thought of their work in the way that Mr. Ross thinks of his?
What if they all sought this “good” in the same way that Mr. Ross’ work seeks the “beauty” it offers to teach? And what if we – you and I – started using this as a criterion for how we evaluate our leaders, that is, not by how they do or do not please us, but by what they might have to teach us through the excellence of their own work within the traditions of their own arts?
Jack Sammons, a professor emeritus at Mercer, lived in Macon for almost forty years, and now frequently returns to Macon from his residence in Tunbridge, Vermont.