Stone artist carves his way into Duluth

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Sean MacManus is a stone carver who loves his artisan stonework so much that it's difficult for him to part with it.

"It's hard to surrender my creations," he told the Budgeteer News. That's understandable, since so much time, talent and care goes into them.

But he felt comfortable, in 2006, building a stone-facing header and legs frame around the fireplace at Carmody Irish Pub & Brewery at 308 E. Superior St. That's because he and owner Eddie Gleeson share a special kinship: Both are proud of their Irish roots.

"With a name like Sean MacManus and his artisan stonework, how could you go wrong," Gleeson said of commissioning MacManus to create several limestone accents in the pub.

MacManus' pattern around the fireplace is an ancient Norman and Celtic design. Some of his work also accents the bar.

"The designs are traditional for the area that was settled by the Gauls," Gleeson said of the stonework on the fireplace.

"Moneygall is the town my dad was born in, and that's the land that the president's people are from," Gleeson said. "Actually, they are from a little crossroads known as Clughjordan, a mile and a half from Moneygall."

President Barack Obama's maternal third great-grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, emigrated to America after the Great Famine in the mid-1800s.

MacManus grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. He attended Northern Michigan University in Marquette and earned a bachelor of science degree in philosophy. He founded "The Marquette Poetry Society," but later sold the publication.

After attending university, he helped gut out a large building in Marquette and discovered his love of stone.

MacManus attended trade school as a bricklayer at Bricklayers and Allied Craftpersons, Local 9, Mich. "In 1996 I became a stonemason. I hesitate to call myself a mason," he said. He prefers to call himself a stone carver.

MacManus moved to Duluth in 2002 with his wife, Alexis MacManus, who creates fiber arts. They live in a modest home in the lower Kenwood neighborhood of Duluth.

"Alexis is a very fine artist herself," MacManus said. "And she can cook food that will make your taste buds dance on your tongue. She's highly supportive of my stone carving and she's my first model for a stone figure."

A freshly cut, undecorated Christmas tree, which MacManus searched for in the woods and chopped down, stood in the living room during the Budgeteer interview. A cat named Smokey and musical instruments, including a couple of dulcimers, also occupied the room. Both Sean and Alexis are musicians.

"The first people I ever met in Duluth were at Wendy Grethen's Dulcimer Club," MacManus said.

Speaking of music, local musician Terrence Smith, who is known for his folk singing, storytelling, and leading or calling participatory community dances, was the first Duluthian to receive a stone carving from MacManus.

"I gave Terrence Smith a stone carving for all the years of service and all the people he has put together," MacManus said.

His first commissioned stone carving was a fireplace for Terrence's daughter, who lives in Twig.

About two years ago, MacManus said his friends helped Santa Claus give him an old pool table for Christmas because it contained slate.

"Only the older ones are made from slate and they are very heavy," he said.

He is currently working on carving a map of Lake Superior on a large piece of slate from that pool table.

MacManus also donates stone-carved bowls to the Second Harvest's Empty Bowl fundraiser soup luncheon. John Bergstrom volunteers in the kitchen during the event, and said, "I just marvel at his work. I like the symmetry. He uses tools from hundreds of years ago. It feels like those stones want to be bowls."

MacManus works with hand tools his father, who is a jeweler and a machinist, built for him. His favorite tools include a simple hammer and a Rondel chisel. "It allows me to cut curves very nicely," MacManus said of the chisel. He also explores the use of newer tools. Recently, he began working with pneumatic tools, which are easier to work with, he said.

MacManus just installed his largest exhibit to date at the New Scenic Cafe on Old Highway 61. The exhibit will run now through February. He has also exhibited his work at Hillside Whole Foods Coop, the Lake Superior Harvest Festival, and the Two Harbors Art Festival.

He has been the recipient of two Arrowhead Regional Arts Council grants to attend the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center in Rutland, Vermont. Beside Carmody's Pub, he has permanent displays at Kara Conry Dentistry, Superior Hiking Trail Headquarters and Gift Shop in Two Harbors, and Energy Plus in Hermantown.