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Constance Alexander: Exhibition celebrates mason’s gift of coaxing stones into telling their stories

Stones are a reminder of our mortality. Beneath their silence lies the possibility of continents shifting imperceptibly for eons, with the potential to reshape the universe in one dramatic eruption. You just never know.

When a stone reveals its secrets, a master mason like Russ Dawson knows how to listen and observe. Scott Shupe, who served as a helper on a few of Dawson’s earlier projects, remembers Russ gathering huge stones and carrying them by hand from rugged hillsides to the roadway for transport to a job. Dawson was tireless.

“He insisted on walking the creeks, woodlands, or stone yards, handpicking every stone,” Shupe said.

For another project, the stone was imported from Oklahoma. Russ, meticulous in his work, “insisted that each stone be unstacked and laid out in a field where he could examine them individually. In the end,” according to Scott Shupe, “there were thousands of stones spread across a field of several acres.”

Rocks are the palette of a stonemason, so sometimes — even after a huge one had been placed — Russ removed it because it was just plain wrong.

The current photographic exhibition of Russ Dawson’s stonework at the Murray Art Guild shows work designed to endure. He has crafted stairways, walls, porches, and benches that are likely to outlast generations. Hundreds of years from now, his chimneys will stand amidst the rubble of the houses they warmed.

Russ Dawson didn’t get into working with stone masonry until his thirties, but for the thirty-plus years after that, he created stone constructions that have been featured on Kentucky Educational Television, and in various newspapers, journals, and magazines. While a student at Murray State University, he earned bachelor and master’s degrees in art. After a stint of teaching, he began to dabble in stone around the porch foundation of his house.

The aesthetics of rocks appealed to him. Besides shapes and sizes, there was the beauty of color, texture, patina, and how they reflect light. The more he learned, the easier it got to concentrate on laying stone for a living. That led to creating a series of artworks in stone, each one unique and timeless.

Photographs of Dawson’s many masterpieces – Poetry in Stone — are on display at Murray Art Guild until August 31. MAG is located at 500 North 4th Street inMurray. The phone is 270-753-4059. Email  murrayartguild@gmail.com. Web address is murrayartguild.org.

An excerpt from “The Stone Mason,” a poem by Jan Schreiber, captures the essence of the age-old art form Russ Dawson has mastered.

He builds from local rocks that come to hand –
craggy, irregular, or water-worn –
and guided by a form he has in mind
but nothing like a plan, nothing so stern.
 Colors and sizes join haphazardly
except for some that draw themselves together;
some likely stones he has to throw away
a few so small they are not worth the bother…
…A century from now all will be changed
except the pile of rocks that he arranged.

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Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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