One Brick at a Time
The texture of properly mixed mortar, the weight of a masonry trowel and the perfect touch needed to place a brick at an awkward angle is the kind of expertise that comes from years of experience. It’s knowledge that Carl Thomas (foreground) and Artie Lucas (green shirt), USC’s master masons, have in spades. But their know-how wasn’t easy to come by. It took years of trial and error.
Artie Lucas grew up in Gaston, S.C., where his father worked as a mason. While in middle school, his dad brought him into the business. “I was looking forward to a fun summer,” he says. “The morning after school closed, my father woke me up and said, ‘Boy, get up. You’re going to work with me.’”
That summer Artie did finishing work, tooling the joints between the bricks. The following summer was much harder: he mixed between 35 and 40 bags of mortar a day. And in between hauling wheelbarrows of mortar and bricks, he found time to grab a trowel and try his hand at spreading mortar for the masons. “At the end of that second summer, I’d learned to lay brick well enough not to work as a laborer again,” Artie says.
In subsequent summers, Artie’s father taught him some of the finer points of the craft. “He taught me how to build fireplaces, various shapes and gables. I remember working on a house in Fort Jackson that needed a little gable on the front wall. He sent me to build it on my own. Afterward, he inspected it and showed me what I did wrong. Then he said, ‘Knock it down.’ I built that gable three times before I got it right.”
After high school Artie struck out on his own, working as a subcontractor for various homebuilders across the Midlands. He often built multi-million dollar homes with very complex designs.
In the early 70s Carl Thomas, a native of Elgin, S.C., began his training in much the same way. He learned from the bottom up. “I started as a laborer too, mixing mortar and hauling bricks for the masons,” he remembers. Carl then apprenticed with a master mason at Carolina Eastman, and for several years he learned to lay all types of bricks, including glazed tiles. “That guy was one of the best masons I ever worked with,” Carl says of his mentor.
And like Artie, Carl was a subcontractor, working on both commercial and residential sites. Over the years he’s encountered all types of projects, his trickiest being a curved wall made with glass blocks. “There’s no room for error when working with glass,” Carl says. “The measurements must be precise, and every glass has to be exactly placed. You can’t break a glass block to fit. It’s either all or nothing.”
With nearly 100 years of experience combined, their knowledge has become second nature. One brick at a time, their artistry keeps the historic Horseshoe and other parts of campus welcoming and attractive. Mostly they build small concrete pads for emergency call boxes and bike racks. They also repair cinder block walls and sidewalks around campus.
Their most elaborate masonry is on the Horseshoe, where they repair the brick paths. Recently, Carl completed two brick garden boxes at the entrance of Harper College, home of the South Carolina Honors College. The boxes mark the retirement of two long-time Honors College employees, Jim Burns and Patsy Tanner.
When asked how they feel about their work, the pair said they are humbled knowing their craftsmanship is admired daily and their brickwork will touch generations of scholars and campus visitors well into the future.