SET IN STONE
In the beginning, there was beer. "About three hundred beers," remembers Bill Jones, who owns and manages Reiver's restaurant on Old South Gaylord. "We got to chatting over at least that many drinks. I don't drink anymore and neither does Neal, but that was then."
Then was a culmination of the years that Roy Neal had spent leaning on Reiver's bar. How he got there in the first place still mystifies Jones.
"It may have been that he was working on a project right down the block, laying bricks or something," Jones says of the customer he knew only as a "workingman's" mason. "I'd see him every day for months, eating lunch by himself at my place. Then he started drinking here. It was one of those relationships where you don't realize a guy is becoming a regular until suddenly he is."
One day, this regular turned to Jones and, quietly slurring his words, announced that he intended to do him a favor.
"He took me out back to the patio and said, `I'm gonna build you the best fucking fountain you ever saw in your life,'" Jones recalls. "I said, `Yeah sure, that sounds great,' and forgot about it. A year later he showed up with drawings."
Jones liked Roy Neal's drawings. Though not terribly specific, they seemed to indicate that the back yard at Reiver's could be turned into a sort of turn-of-the-century secret garden. Not at all certain that Neal could accomplish what he'd sketched, Jones gave him a tentative okay--after stressing that he couldn't afford to pay a lot for it, and after receiving Neal's assurance that he wouldn't charge a lot. Neither man ever clarified what "a lot" represented in dollars. They were equally vague about the project's timetable.
"It was supposed to take two weeks," Jones remembers, "and it stretched out into two months. Actually, I wish it had taken a year. I sat out there mesmerized, watching it fall together. Neal showed up with his partner, a guy he was buddies with in Vietnam. They were joined at the hip from battle experience. Every day at noon, I'd take them out a big lunch and we'd start drinking. We went on and on till about nine at night. I can't remember the things we talked about, the suggestions I made."
Brick by brick, a floor took shape. Neal pried off a prefab fountain bolted to the wall and replaced it with water-spouting gargoyle faces he'd designed and molded himself. He put in plants and arches, a small sculpture of a naked mother and child, and a curved brick wall at a level no one can see unless they're on their knees hunting for a lost contact lens.
"And he is a total perfectionist," Jones adds. "He kept coming back for over a year. Adding plants, changing bricks. After a while, I just said, whatever you want, Neal."
By the summer of 1993, Neal's work was technically complete--and bore almost no resemblance to his original sketches. But that didn't matter to Jones, who says he was "pleased and amazed" with the outcome. The final bill came to $3,000, but Jones paid Neal $4,000.
"It wasn't enough," Jones adds. "I was embarrassed it was so cheap. I mean, talk about a surprise. A burned-out Vietnam vet who does work like this? I'd like to think he'll never finish. I'd like to think it's a work in progress."
By this past summer, though, embellishments to Reiver's patio had slowed substantially, because Neal had surrendered to a new project and an even more trusting client.
"The first thing I saw was the arch," says Clarissa Pinkola Estes, best-selling author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, who has been in the habit of lunching at Reiver's for years. "I mean, have you ever tried to build an arch? It's not easy."
Pinkola Estes contemplated the Reiver's arch for some time, and then began to covet it. Whoever built it, she thought, could bring one of her dreams to life. "I wanted a grotto," she explains. "A brick archway for a Virgin of Guadalupe statue, a little concrete thing I'd bought in Mexico." As for design, Pinkola Estes had in mind the half-buried bathtubs she saw in Mexican neighborhoods everywhere.
Jones thought Roy Neal could do the job, and Pinkola Estes put in a call. She waited several months for a reply--Neal, she later found out, was in Rome, working on a cathedral restoration with craftsmen who'd learned their skills from their fathers.
Roy Neal has a slightly different take on his work for Bill Jones. "He told me he wanted a mother-and-child sculpture," Neal says. "I made this one." He holds out a snapshot of the Reiver's bas-relief, with its slender, Botticellian mother and an almost-newborn-looking baby, both naked. "Bill told me he was afraid I'd come back with something modern, saying, `The big rock is the mother and the little rock is the child.' When I didn't, he was relieved. He let me run wild, really."
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."
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.
"One was that this statue Roy Neal was building should be called She who cannot be contained." Sure enough, the Virgin of Guadalupe that Neal built turned out to be "so enormous only her rear end would fit under the arch. She is too big for the church, and this I love," Pinkola Estes says.
On the virgin's chest, Neal hung a crucifix he'd pounded from an antique Mexican coin. This, too, Pinkola Estes loved. She loved it so much that Neal decided he needed to build a flagstone bench for Pinkola Estes to sit on while viewing her shrine. By then it was clear to both parties that the project was nowhere near completion. Steps on which to genuflect followed, along with a Mexican jug pouring water into a second pond filled with a particular strain of green algae. Then water plants, whose roots grew into the now-underwater skulls. Neal made copper lilies for the virgin to hold. After that he felt compelled to chisel two petroglyphs into the viewing bench.
Finally, one day this past summer, Neal summoned Pinkola Estes to view his work at exactly 9:15 a.m.--which is when the light hits the virgin in such a way that she appears to have a tear in her eye.
"I walked into my garden and heard Gregorian chants in the background," Pinkola Estes remembers. "I felt so happy and touched at the same time. Roy Neal had such an unruined part of him that he could think up all this."
In fact, he could think up more. This winter, between regular construction jobs, he is adding a wide flagstone path leading up to the shrine, an anteroom with a dome, adobe walls, an ancient-looking wooden door and a statue of Skeleton Woman, the subject of one of Pinkola Estes's most popular stories. Already the sculpture garden dwarfs the modest yard in which it is built and has passersby doing double takes.
"Eventually it will fill this whole yard," Pinkola Estes suspects. "And that will be fine. This is Roy Neal's version of a bathtub with a Madonna in it.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.