By Gail Greenwood Ayres
As a young man, Keith Phillips’ generous heart, artistic eye, dexterous hands and encouraging family and friends opened him up to a surprising occupation. However, it was his “can-do” attitude and years of discipline under the strict tutelage of Trial N. Error, that chiseled the raw stone of potential into a sought-after journeyman stone carver.
From the statue of a stack of books outside of the renowned Powell’s Books in downtown Portland to the intricate replacement cartouche stone for the Temple of Justice in Olympia, when people want an impressive stone statue or accurate replacement architectural element for an historic building they are often referred to Phillips. In addition, he enjoys working with homeowners and business owners to craft everything from statues to garden ornaments, coats of arms, signs and architectural fireplaces.
“It is very satisfying to produce something from natural material and create something that others want. I love the creation of something from nothing, seeing the process from the rough block – the raw material – to the finished work,” said the Tenino resident who works a 40-hour week creating from light gray sandstone at the Tenino Group Hercules Quarry. He has honed his craft there since 1990, working solo in a dusty shed with the towering sandstone quarry walls providing a majestic backdrop.
After graduating with a sociology degree from Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Phillips decided he wanted to become a vegetable farmer. While working on farms in Eastern Washington, he studied medieval farming to try to understand the basics of agriculture. During that quest he stumbled onto a picture of a stone on the corner of a farm in Medieval England that captured his interest. The book called it a “mere stone.” With Father’s Day coming up, he decided he wanted to make a mere stone as a gift for his father.
While visiting a great aunt in Tenino, a town that held three former sandstone quarries, Phillips ran into two little boys who showed him the way to where the quarrymen of the 1930s had thrown the rejected stones over a bank.
“So, I got a stone, hauled it back to Ellensburg and in my spare time after working on the farm carved my dad a mere stone for Father’s Day in 1984. I thought, ‘Golly, this is fun. I can do this!’ Carving in stone is very satisfying.”
Soon Phillips found himself carving stones for many of his relatives and friends as gifts. The next breakthrough came when his great aunt introduced him to a friend who offered to pay him to carve something. “She paid me $50 and I thought, ‘If someone’s going to pay me to do this, I may have something here.’”
Phillips left Ellensburg and got a farm job near Tenino so he could pursue carving stones. Providentially, he came at a time when Tenino was experiencing a renaissance in its sandstone quarry historical heritage. To begin to establish a historical theme, the city council passed an ordinance encouraging new businesses to incorporate sandstone as a feature in their buildings.
When the quarry’s new owner began to develop in 1990, Phillips worked out a deal where he could be the night watchman in exchange for a workplace at the quarry
and stone. One of his first jobs was to create a mortar and pestle statue for outside a local pharmacy.
“Everything to that date was more challenging and more challenging. So the mortar and pestle was way over my head. … So I did it.”
Soon after came a grocery bag in front of the grocery store and an arched sign at a doctor’s office. Then the library had him create a book with quotations on its open pages and the Presbyterian Church needed a pedestal for a cross.
“It was a real nice opportunity made in heaven, you might say,” Phillips says as he steadily chisels on a portion of a column that features a twisting vine.
When he began to learn the trade, there were still a few of the old carvers around who tried to give him tips, but they could only tell him – not show him – the techniques they had practiced decades before, Phillips recalls.
“Walt Scheel kept telling me ‘You got to cut toward the center and get the guts out.’ I learned almost 16 years later what he meant.”
Instead of having the ability to apprentice, trial and error was his main teacher. From his first project on, Phillips says, he purposely tackled jobs that were challenging in order to sharpen his skills. The strategy must have worked. When the Nisqually earthquake of Feb. 28, 2001 damaged the Temple of Justice at the state Capitol, Phillips was asked to carve a replacement stone with intricate foliage that would be placed between two existing identical stones.
“I had to copy the original one and match it. That’s a tremendous amount of pressure. When you do jobs like that it changes the color of your hair,” he says with a laugh, lifting his cap to reveal a thick crop of white hair.
It turns out that the quarry, which has had four owners since he’s been there and is now owned by the Marenakos Rock Center of Preston, not only provided him with a beloved vocation, but also his beloved wife, Sally, a librarian at Tenino Middle School. One day in 1998, the old stonecutter Larry Scheel, Walt’s younger brother, visited the quarry with his niece, Sally. And the rest is history.
But one thing the quiet quarry hasn’t provided – and the gregarious Phillips feels the absence deeply – is fellow tradesmen. While it’s considered “active,” he is the only one at the quarry all day long on most days.
“I’ve had recurring dreams of working with comrades in the shed,” he says, swallowing hard. “Years ago when I talked to Larry and Walt and the other stonecutters, they had lots of stories of friendships and camaraderie with the other men as they worked shoulder to shoulder,” said Phillips wistfully, as he kicks the dirt floor in his three-walled shed.
“Having read books about it increases my loneliness and makes me dream of working with other men. But Sally has helped a lot.”
Perhaps as a way of connecting to the hundreds of stonecutters who have come before him, Phillips often wears a tie as he works. He explains that at a quarry, with quarrymen, banker masons, sawyers and stone cutters, it was always the stone carver that was considered the highest-ranking worker and that they often wore a tie under their work aprons.
About 90 percent of his work is special order, but in between orders he makes a few items for retail sale. They are available at Lakewold Gardens on Gravelly Lake Drive in Lakewood. When he is commissioned to create something, “I like to go to the site and consult with them and get a sense of the perspective, the scale and type of stone that would work best,” he says.
To get an idea of price, a coat of arms that’s a foot square could cost as little as $400 and take about a week to create. However, one that is 40 inches square would cost about $3,000 and take about three weeks. Those figures are in Tenino sandstone prices; the cost doubles if it is carved out of granite, which Phillips also enjoys working with.
“I really, really like to work on a personal basis with my clients. My deepest desire is to give them exactly what they want in stone. I’m not in this for my own aggrandizement.”