SET IN STONE

ROY NEAL FOUND HIS CALLING THROUGH TROWEL AND ERROR.

When it was finished--although, typically, it won't ever be completely done, since Neal will continue to expand and modify his work unless someone stops him--Neal moved on to a new mission. Pope John Paul II was coming to Denver in August 1993 for World Youth Day, and Neal intended to build the altar from which the Pope would address the masses. Denver's World Youth Day organizers seemed interested in his plan. "I got a letter back when I sent in my design," Neal says, showing the official-looking missive. "They were concerned about the cost, but I told them not to worry; it would be my gift. Because it was a secret desire of mine to be more of a religious man. Religion has carried me through some dark spots."

Inspired, Neal found some consecrated marble salvaged from an old Archdiocese of Denver building and began stockpiling flagstone. All he needed now was an official papal blessing.

"So I took off to Rome to see the Pope," Neal says. But after he arrived in Italy, he discovered that an audience with the Pope was not easily arranged. Not knowing what else to do, he staked out Vatican City.

"I went to where these Swiss guards were standing with swords," he recalls, producing the obligatory photo album. "I started lickety-splitting up the stairs, and I just hopped on in the door. When one of the guards stopped me, I told him all I wanted was a blessing. He said, `Impossible,' so I just stood there in this hallway, with Raphaels everywhere and beautiful marble tables and a gold-inlaid desk. I stood and stood. Then I began to talk. I may have even begun to ramble, and all the time thinking this big ape is going to fling me out the door. Then he tells me, `Okay. We send you invitation.'"

Much to his surprise, an official invitation to the Vatican arrived at his hotel a few days later. Neal's photo of the august occasion shows the Pope holding a blond toddler while a crowd of twenty or so petitioners presses in around him. Neal's nose and hand are barely visible, but there is no mistaking his hair.

Satisfied, Neal headed for home, where he read in the newspaper that the World Youth Day Committee had awarded the altar-construction contract to a large Denver decorating firm.

"That was a birth and a death for me," he says. "I got a blessing out of it, anyway. And I'm sure there's a worthy parish out there somewhere that will want this work."

In fact, Neal was becoming increasingly spiritual, even religious, about his craft. While he continued to work on jobs for the money--building a display for a traveling dinosaur exhibit, for example--he began to see his tools as religious symbols.

"I get on my knees before I start my work," he says. "Think of the stonemason's tools. Virtually, they haven't changed. I have a hammer, a chisel, a straightedge and maybe a piece of line. Even in the dark, I would know the handle of my own trowel. It's an old, simple kind of work."

But his next job was anything but simple.

"It took the better part of a year," Pinkola Estes says. "It was supposed to take eight weeks."
"I had to talk to Clarissa over and over again. Go around and around," Neal remembers. "I had never been into the Meso-American thing. She didn't want Greek or Roman. She wanted Aztec, Mayan, Peruvian."

After months of talk, though, Pinkola Estes surrendered to Neal's vision. "The best thing you can do with an artist," she recalls telling herself, "is leave him alone."

The job, located in the front yard of a small house Pinkola Estes had remodeled into a writing studio, was intended to be a little pond. "And I mean little," she remembers. "After a few weeks, Roy Neal had made a well lined with flagstone, mosaic on the bottom. That was great, except then he ran into an enormous stump, so the pond got bigger. He followed the shape, which turned out to be like a pregnant woman's belly, which made me very happy. Then he said he had to make it perfect, and I wanted to know how much more it would cost."

The answer: Don't worry, not much. (Neither Neal nor Pinkola Estes will discuss the cost of the work, but neither feels cheated, either.) With Pinkola Estes's reluctant blessing, Neal set out to build an arch. Again, a few weeks later he summoned her to see the work, which turned out to be not a few pieces of adobe but a complete replica of the cathedral at El Tepeyac in Mexico. Beneath it were crushed human skulls made of sandstone, to symbolize the Indians who were killed building Christian churches in Mexico.

"I had that idea, and Clarissa said absolutely not, no skulls," Neal says. "I did it anyway, and she liked it."

So he broke the news: Her cement madonna just didn't cut it. He wanted to make an original sculpture. Pinkola Estes sighed and produced a Polaroid of her daughter Tiaja to use as a model. Neal retired to his garage and began sculpting. "Ideas just seemed to flow," he says. "They gave me a respite; I don't know why or from what." Surrendering completely to the muse, Neal began dressing in what a Mayan laborer might have worn and suddenly gave up a thirty-year drinking habit. Meanwhile, Pinkola Estes was having dreams.

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