Sculpting with fire

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Was it Stonehenge revisited? Certainly the hooded form crouching atop a 10 -foot-tall slab of granite enveloped in billowing steamlookedm like a man from Mars blasting his other-world initials into it with a roaring, flame-belching lance.

But no, it was gentle, rugged Edward Monti, the self-taught one-of-a-kind sculptor from Quincy, Mass., putting the finishing touches on a new granite fountain.

This 75-ton grouping of 20 massive granite elements through which will cascade 400 gallons of water a minute, is due for dedication in Coe Park, Torrington, Conn., this month. It is not only the first sculpture in the Nutmeg State to honor veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars, but it is also the high point to date of Ed Monti's original technique for sculpting in granite, one of the most obdurate of stones.

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He likes to do big, creative things. And this is the whoppingest piece he has carved so far. ''This thing is monstrous,'' Monti exclaims. ''It's so big I get scared of it.''

Great fountains from little mushrooms grow. The $31,000 commission from Torrington is many a league from the day 17 years ago when Monti returned from a favorite pastime -- picking mushrooms. He set a mushroom up in the workshop of Monti Memorial Company, his late father's stone-carving business here in Quincy. As a change of pace from carving headstones, Monti wondered if he could fashion a simple shape like a mushroom with the jet torch he had begun to use to prepare stones for finished carving by hand.

''Everybody was laughing at me then, saying, 'You can't mix fire with stone,' '' Monti remembers. But he knew better. The granite quarrying industry, which used to drill granite out of hillsides, has long used a kerosene and compressed-air lance to wrest huge blocks of granite from quarries. Monti simply developed a technique for using the flaming lance to shape granite artistically.

''I tried carving the mushroom and it came out,'' he says. ''It was rough, but it was there. That was the beginning.''

Today, Monti claims, he is the the only sculptor in the world using this technique. He has a thriving thermal-burning sculpture business catering to the needs of building and landscape architects, stores, universities, and homeowners.

He sculptures to order just about anything a client wants, from garden ornaments and benches to splashing fountains that fit into urban settings or woodland scenes. If you want a 900-pound elephant trumpeting on your lawn, or a two-ton dog or cat, or a recycling brook tumbling over a series of carved granite boulders, Monti will make them. He can set up on your property an Easter Island face that looks just as enigmatic and weather-worn as the real thing.

Watching your conventional sculptor tediously at work in some secluded studio silently snipping a soupcon of clay from here and adding it there, bears no resemblance to the jet-engine roar on Centre Street when Monti closets himself in his chamber and attacks a five-ton hunk of granite.

In his full protective rubber regalia, he is as colorful as a macaw: blue jeans, black boots, yellow jacket, brown floor-length apron, green gloves, and orange earmuffs - the noise-reducing kind worn by airport personnel. To this get-up he adds a breathing apparatus and a coolie-hat shaped helmet and a heavy cloth veil that shrouds his face and neck.

''If you're not covered,'' Monti notes, ''all you need is one second and you get cooked.''

Despite these precautions, occasionally a piece of hot granite will fly up his sleeve. What does he do then? ''I yell,'' he responds.

His lance is a three-hose mechanism whose high-velocity, intensely hot (3,600 degrees F.) flame is produced by burning a mixture of oxygen and vaporized kerosene in a small, internal, water-cooled chamber.

When he lights up and starts the ear-splitting process of burning the stone, the normally unyielding granite spalls like butter before a stream of boiling water. Chips fly off in all directions and pile up on the floor of his studio -- if you could call it that. It's a high-ceilinged cinder block cubicle equipped with a huge ship's fan that changes the air three times a minute.

''One thing,'' Monti quips, ''in the wintertime you're never cold in here.''

He prefers to work out in the open where the light is better for carving. But the torch's jet roar was so disturbing to his neighbors he had to move inside.

By regulating the flow of kerosene and oxygen, he gets the kind of flame he needs - from a ''blobby'' one for carving away large areas to a needlelike flame for cutting into tight spots.

The spalling action gives his granite pieces the appearance of having eroded over time.

From mushrooms, he moved on to Japanese lanterns, then animal and fish forms suitable for garden decor: squirrels, turtles, bunnies, bears, hippos, rhinos, grinning crocodiles, leaping dolphins.

''They are hand-me-downs,'' Monti says, ''something to pass on to future generations. They aren't going to rust or corrode.'' He smiles when he says it, but he gives his customers a 1,000-year guarantee on all his work.

Quincy, once the granite capital of America, has honored her native son by placing one of Monti's major works in front of the city hall. Strictly symbolic , its free-form modern design commemorates the US Constitution and three leading Massachusetts patriots: John and Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. has decorated several of its shopping malls around the country with Monti's massive stone animals so that people can tell their friends: ''Meet me at the bear in 20 minutes.''

Four of Monti's fountains, plus a two-ton cat and several other works, enliven Boston University's mini-parks scattered around its urban campus. The great advantage in using granite in fountains is that ice doesn't crack it, so fountains can play all year long. The colder it gets, the more intricate is Jack Frost's frozen handiwork. And every day the fountain changes its appearance, from lacy frosting to thick cocoons of ice.

Ed Monti comes from a family of Swiss-trained stone carvers in northern Italy. It was his father, Angelo Monti, who headed the crew of sculptors who carved the four 22-ton, 25-foot-high granite eagles on Boston's old Custom House Tower, tallest building in the Hub until the 52-story Prudential Tower shouldered it out of top place in 1964.

Monti is self-taught in the sense that he has developed and perfected his thermal burning process through years of experience. But he is a trained sculptor. He grew up in his father's stone-carving business, spent three years at the Barre (Vt.) School of Design, and for the last nine years has continued his studies with Bonnie Borandi, a sculptor instructor in Mystic, Conn., who has improved his skill in carving animal forms. But he says there was no one in the world he could ask to show him how to carve granite fountains so that water would bounce over them like a natural stream. This he had to learn on his own.

Monti is very eager to share knowledge of his thermal technique with other sculptors. He doesn't want what he has learned of this process to become a lost art.

Right now he is trying to set up a school at one of the two remaining granite quarries that made Quincy famous in its early history. At one time there were 35 quarries here. Out of them came the granite foundation of Bulfinch's Massachusetts State House, the granite for the Bunker Hill Monument, and the huge columns of the Custom House Tower.

But with the advent of concrete and of large-scale mechanized quarrying and manufacturing, the center of granite shifted to Vermont, Minnesota, and Georgia. Now all but two of Quincy's strikingly beautiful quarries have been filled in, and the city is trying to acquire the last two for dumping purposes.

Quincy Mayor Francis X. McCauley supports Mr. Monti's idea of a sculpturing school that would draw artists from all over the world to this city. But he cautions that legal questions regarding the quarries' future will have to be settled before such a school could be considered.

Dimitri Hadzi, a sculptor and studio professor in visual and environmental studies at Harvard University's Carpenter Center, is another person who hopes Monti will succeed in establishing a thermal-burning school in Quincy.

Hadzi, who has had one-man shows in America and -Europe for more than 20 years, is especially noted for his bronze sculptures. His works appear in museums in many parts of the US. In recent years he has returned to his first love, stone. He is currently completing a colossal 250-ton, 40-foot-high fountain of granite and gabbro for Owens-Illinois in Toledo.

''I'd certainly like to help Ed Monti with that school in any way I can,'' Professor Hadzi says, ''because I see a great potential in the use of a tool like that, since granite is so difficult to work.''

The other reason for Hadzi's interest, he says, is that ''there seems to be a big revival in appreciation of granite. Suddenly people are much more aware of its beauty. More and more of it is being used in construction. Architects are using it for complete coverings of buildings, such as Philip -Johnson's AT&T building in New York.''

In sculpture, too, he says, ''I actually feel a reaction against minimal types of works. One senses sort of a return to raw materials. Granite is forever -- very permanent material. Unlike marble and limestone, it reacts very little to atmospheric pollution.''

Granite is challenging to sculptors, he says, just because of its ornery hardness. And granite has richness in color and textural interest. Sculptors, he says, enjoy mingling its handsome blacks, grays, and pinks, and contrasting its rough quarry-faced facets with highly polished surfaces.

From a strictly economic point of view, Professor Hadzi sees Monti's firey lance as a boon to sculptors because of the speed with which he can manipulate granite.

He says he is looking forward to working with Monti on a commission he has received for a sculpture to be erected in 1984 in Harvard Square. ''When you are doing a sculpture,'' the professor explains, ''there is so much material that you just have to keep taking away. I'll be working on a very tight budget myself on this job so that Monti would be a big help to me in eliminating much of the material and getting close to the form. The finishing, obviously, will have to be done by hand.''

One way to attract students to Monti's proposed school would be to bring his technique to the attention of teachers and students of sculpture around the world. He has submitted a proposal to the International Sculpture Center in Washington, D.C., to demonstrate his technique at the next International Sculpture Conference that the center sponsors each year in different parts of the world.

The center now is collecting ideas and proposals for this year's conference, scheduled Aug. 6-l5 in the San Francisco area. Decisions will be made by May. The center says Mr. Monti's proposal will be considered.

Professor Hadzi says he hopes such a performance can be arranged. ''In the meantime,'' he adds, 'I am just looking forward to a very happy collaborative future with Monti.''

Down in Scituate on Boston's South Shore, Marilyn Cahill is lyrical in her praise of the naturalistic series of waterfalls Monti has designed for her backyard.

''You just can't describe the sound of this babbling,'' she murmurs. ''In the summertime you can sit out here and it's peaceful and tranquil. And in the winter, oh, it's pretty! I think sometimes it's even prettier in winter. You come out here and it just seems that the whole world is beautiful. . . .''

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