Interview: Pascal Mychalysin, master mason

10 January 2020

To become a good craftsperson, you must love your material

My vocation was decided for me. I was born in a medieval hospital, Les Hospices de Beaune, in the historic town of Beaune, in Burgundy. Although I always had a passion for history, craft, stone, design, and drawings, I was lucky to meet my master, who sent me on my way to train as a journeyman in the craft guild Les Compagnons du Devoir.

My name, literally Michaelson, comes from Galicia — not the Galicia in Spain, but the Galicia in Western Ukraine, part of Poland when my father was born but annexed to the Soviet Union after the Second World War.
 

My mother is French, but when I did a DNA test — it was a birthday present from my wife — I have only two-per-cent French genes. The rest are Jewish, Baltic, German, East European, Russian, Polish, and Czech. The ancestors of my mother’s family had Eastern European roots, and they look very Russian.
 

I had the blessing of a happy childhood, in a house full of love and laughter, rows and bickering, animated chats, vibrant and noisy. Retrospectively, I really pity our neighbours. They coped because they were fond of us.

I’ve got the privilege of speaking all languages very badly. Even French, because I’ve been out of France since 1984. As a journeyman, I worked in France and Germany, where I settled for a few years, and then I arrived in Gloucester, in 1990, and got a job straight away; settled here, married, and have a family of my own.
 

Les Compagnons du Devoir is as old as anyone can remember, with archives kept in Paris, and it still exists, as the German guild does. The English guild passed away, sadly, though we know that one Gloucester mason in the 1920s was a member. When they created the Tour de France, they took the name from the journey each medieval journeyman had to do to learn his trade. Nothing to do with Freemasonry: I respect what they do, but I have no opinion about their work.
 

Craftsmanship started to decline even before the Industrial Revolution; so, no, we are not numerous. Sadly, we are an elite by default. But, that said, even then not everyone became a mason, or a cathedral mason, and then a master mason.

To become a good craftsperson, you must meet and love your material. There has to be this epiphany. For me, it is stone. For other people, it will be wood, clay, metals, leather, glass. . . Each of these will have a particular resonance. After that, you have to accept the discipline of learning, and accept to become another person, because you will be changed at every level. Not everyone accepts. Ego can get in the way.

Limestone is where I feel at home, to the point where it would be difficult for me to live in a granite or sandstone landscape. It can be in Greece, in the Burren, in the Peak District, or the Yorkshire Dales — always limestone. No other material plays with the light of the sun like limestone. It is unique, be it in landscape or building.

A master mason should be able to lead. “Managing” is just not the right word at all. You have to lead by example, and earn the respect of your peers. You have to become the first among equals, respectful and appreciative of all your colleagues. No lies. It is inconceivable in a craftsperson.

It’s quite complex, the repairs of a historic building. The stones have a complex unity for a start, and they are part of a complex building which has shifted. When you replace it, you have to follow stringent parameters. When you fix it, there’s a telling moment: either it will fit or it will not fit. There is no lie possible. It’s not always easy: we have to adjust a bit, but we know when it is catastrophic — there’s no possible lying.

Essentially, we use the same medieval techniques: repairing, conserving, replacing. We’re not obliged to follow the economic logic — AI, computerisation, machines — of the stone industry nowadays. We’re not working in a competitive environment. The historic environment keeps us in touch with our humanity and heritage, with the wit and genius of people in the past, and it should be looked after with the wit and genius of humans now.

Not that I put myself on the same level as the master masons of Chartres, Gloucester, or Lincoln. But, today, these should be centres of learning to perpetuate historic techniques, and we’ve had great success with our foundation-degree course. We’re promoting all training to keep alive the traditional knowledge and know-how.

Restoring Notre-Dame — there’s big danger, because the stone industry in France, like England, is fully mechanised. Most of the work is done by robotic arms, computerisation. It would be a unique opportunity to offer young craftspeople from Europe and beyond to gather like in medieval times: an Erasmus programme. That would be such a vibrant opportunity, under a master mason — not necessarily French. It would be such a fantastic opportunity for Europe.

The working of new stones is a relatively small percentage of our activity, but we are making six gargoyles for Gloucester Cathedral now. There are a few other projects in the pipeline, and I hope to keep fit, and die with a hammer and chisel in my hand. It’s more than a job: it’s a way of life.

Gargoyles are fantastic beings and creations for craftspeople. The first ones took ample opportunity to take the mickey out of their contemporaries; so we tried to emulate that satirical aspect, also reflecting modern life. It’s good that they’re about people living now. The scheme we were given was to illustrate districts of Gloucestershire. There’s a rugby player for Gloucester, because of the city’s proud rugby tradition; Cheltenham has a jockey, because of the races; Stroud has a suffragette, because of its women mill-workers; there’s a miner for the Forest of Dean, and so on.

It’s the support of our community and visitors — that they love the stone that we offer to them — that gives me pride.

The most beautiful man-made creations were and are made to give us a place to elevate our spirit to the mystery of the great. It is just not as easy to see, as there are not many cathedrals built any more. But any good work done with a good heart for the benefit of others is a little cathedral in itself.

God was always there. My work is my prayer. I’m an agnostic, in the sense that I will not start pretending to understand something which we cannot understand, and which was explained in many different ways along the history of mankind. I do not believe in religions: they are man-made, and are always imperfect. But I am a Christian. A wild one. I believe Christ is more important than the religions which call themselves Christian.

What takes most courage from me? To pardon.
 

I will always love learning, always try to open my horizons. I know I’ve not done the best work of my career yet. Most of all, I’ll always try to love better.
 

We need anger more than ever, in terms of positive energy. It tells us what to do and what not to do. Many, many things make me angry.

The best sound can be the drone of French bagpipes, the sound of the theorbo or the viola da gamba, the resonance of the harpsichord, the clarity of the grand piano. Crickets on a summer night might be the best, though.
 

Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg, all the young people demonstrating for Extinction Rebellion, give me hope. My children, too, who grew up without all the prejudices I had to grow up with. They do not have them. It is a blessing.
 

I could have chosen to be locked in a church with St Bernard of Clairvaux or Hildegard von Bingen; but it will be an anonymous painter from one of the prehistoric caves of Lascaux, Pech Merle, Altamira, or the Cave Chauvet. They are still, to date, the most beautiful and mysterious art ever done — and the first.
 

Pascal Mychalysin was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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