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SET IN STONE

ROY NEAL FOUND HIS CALLING THROUGH TROWEL AND ERROR.

Neal may have run wild, but his work is carefully documented in organized photo albums, the kind you get as a bonus at a film-processing store. After showing the evolution of the Reiver's job, he produces evidence of his audience with the Pope, then some black-and-white self-portraits in a Fabio-meets-the-Marlboro-Man mode, and finally, an 8 x 10 color glossy of himself shaking hands with Wellington Webb--because they happened to be in the same room together, Neal says--which he plans to have autographed in the near future.

These treasures are carefully inventoried inside Neal's modest southwest Denver house, which is plain white clapboard on the outside and crowded with salvaged angels, pillars and swords on the inside. A twentieth-century surfboard leans against artifacts that seem more suited to the tenth; there are just two electrical outlets and more than twenty crucifixes. But Neal is comfortable here, perfectly organized. In seconds he can lay his hands on things that matter--the arrowhead in the tiny silver box, the candelabra he found in a dumpster, the pocketknife he used to carve a Mayan face.

"I have to really fight all this," Neal says, "or it piles up. I try to keep my house half Spartan and half full of interesting things."

That Neal's life isn't all Spartan--among other things, he owns this house, a vintage Oldsmobile and a 260-acre ranch in Wyoming--would surprise the clients who see only his ascetic image and his all-consuming interest in his work. On closer look, though, Neal's denim shirt is perfectly pressed, his Levi's hang just so, and his steel-toed work boots are polished. His hair is long and always deliberately coifed--in braids or a Japanese laborer's bun, or loose and Breck-like. His face is scarred, sunburnt and somehow pained. And he has a barely perceptible limp.

"I caught polio when I was six," Neal explains. "My parents were very poor. I shouldn't say poor, because that implies a state of mind. But we didn't have much money. When I got sick, they couldn't take care of me, and that was the end of that."

In other words, Neal never saw his parents again. Instead, he says, he bounced from orphanages to foster families, eventually straying far from his hometown of Eureka, California, and gaining an approach/avoidance type of interest in religion.

"I was taken in by everyone from Jews to Seventh-Day Adventists to Catholics," he remembers. "Some were saints and some were definitely...not. They had various theories about my affliction and why it might have been visited on me."

At twelve Neal was taken in by an uncle who lived in North Carolina and employed an older black man as a full-time mason on his farm. "I'm not sure that was the exact moment I got interested in the craft," he says, "but I did seem to have a connection with it. It was hard and it was simple. I could take the isolation that the craft requires. I wasn't a team player, not from day one."

At sixteen, Neal graduated from high school and found work as a mason's apprentice in Washington, D.C. "The old-time masons were very serious," he says. "There was a right way and a wrong way, period. If your work wasn't right, they would literally kick it down. You had to prove yourself every day, and don't get me wrong--I was fired often. But you had a proud feeling if you could please them."

For five years Neal worked on everything from "mansions to housing developments," laying brick, carving marble, setting flagstone floors and smoothing cement, before he was drafted into the Army in 1964. His two and a half years in Vietnam changed his life in a way he does not always feel comfortable discussing. "I was your basic grunt," he says. "It all happened so long ago that thinking about it is like watching a movie."

By 1967 Neal was out of the Army, living in Colorado, and in the middle of a marriage that lasted only two years. He'd gone back to work but found that the mason's role had changed irreparably.

"The demise had started with all the Levittowns," he theorizes. "They were the first to kill the crafts. I began to see jobs where one craft had stopped caring about the next, where the mason left mortar splattered on the wall for the painting crew to handle."

Neal decided to keep working as a mason--but only for the money, which was good, and not the artistic satisfaction. His ex-wife had taken their infant son and left town; without those ties, Neal led a semi-nomadic life. He'd work until a job was done, then take the money and go to California to surf or to the Wyoming ranch he bought in the late Sixties. In the Seventies he became increasingly attracted to Europe, where, in the perfect example of a busman's holiday, he'd spend his vacations working with stone.

"I never had any trouble working over there, in Greece and Rome," he says. "I got along really well, actually. They seemed more accepting of stone as art."

Neal's two worlds--his work and his art--stayed separate until the summer of 1992, when drunken inspiration led him to convince the owner of the Pearl Street Grill that Neal had to build an elaborate stone fountain in the restaurant's backyard. Working on that fountain, Neal found a mental peace that had eluded him for years. "I became engulfed in it," he attempts to explain, "and nothing else mattered."

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