When I first began working on the Close of the National Cathedral in 1995, a rather shabby looking building occupied a small space between the Cathedral and the school building in which I worked. There was a gravel parking between them that was used by school’s faculty, and the building was called The Carver’s Shed. Oh, it was a shed! Because of its shabbiness, many folks connected to the Cathedral found its appearance offensive and wanted it removed. But I liked it for what it was—a shed in which carvers for the Cathedral practiced their ancient art. In that plywood structure the gargoyles, pinnacles, parapets, crockets, finials, and so much more functional, but artistic parts, of the grand gothic National Cathedral were created. In that shed, carvings of Darth Vader and Medusa were imagined and then created out of limestone blocks; and now they decorate the Cathedral’s exterior while serving an architectural function. In that shed form and function merged in an art developed over years.
However, I also liked the building because after each Friday’s Cathedral Service, I would stop in and chat with Vincent Palumbo, the last carver for the Cathedral. Sometimes he would stop his work when I entered his space and at other times he would continue working, all the while talking and explaining his work. Vince was always patient and gracious with me, and he smiled when I gave him a handmade roof slate, complete with wooden peg that anchored it to the roof, that I had collected from a 14th century building of Pembroke College in Oxford. But my Friday visits with Vince in his dust-filled, creative, and magnificent work space ceased when leukemia worsened, and he had to quit creating for the Cathedral; Vince died in December 2000.
I hold close these memories of Vince and a bit more. The Cathedral’s head mason, Joe Alonso, gave me two of Vince’s chisels and a dove that he was carving before his death. The chisels have the small initials VP cut into them, and the dove is outlined in the small block of Indiana limestone, and it was to have one more piece to grace the Cathedral, had Vince been able to finish carving it. His craft is evident in the small carving, and I treasure it for the spirit and hands that began to create it out of a block of stone. Now it and the chisels sit on a low boy in our living room as a reminder of him and of those Friday visits and of the Cathedral.
While my days of working on the Close are gone just as is the Carver’s Shed, the memories of my Friday visits with Vince are some of the many that carry me on. And the art of the Cathedral carries still, like the memory of Vincent Palumbo, the last master carver.