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Sculpting with fire

By Emilie Tavel LivezeyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 21, 1982

Quincy, Mass.

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.

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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.

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.