- Good Work: Masters of the Building Arts dir. by Marjorie Hunt and Paul Wagner
Sounds of the mandolin, fiddle, and double bass accompany close-up images of calloused hands and messy workspaces to introduce Good Work: Masters of the Building Arts by Marjorie Hunt and Paul Wagner. This documentary presents the commitment and skill of myriad building artists who produce aesthetic infrastructure throughout the United States. The diversity of craftspeople portrayed in the film indicates a transnational character not only within the occupation of the building arts, but also geographically across the United States. Good Work is the follow-up film to The Stone Carvers (1984), also co-directed and produced by Hunt and Wagner, and the recipient of 1985 Academy and Emmy awards. The Stone Carvers is about the life and artisanship of the Italian American immigrant artists who worked on the stone gargoyles and statues of the Washington National Cathedral. More diverse in content than its predecessor, Good Work encourages a greater appreciation for the skill and depth of knowledge of the building arts in general.
The vivid imagery and thoughtful interviews throughout Good Work provide detailed explanations of each trade in a manner that is informative and inspiring. Distinct cultural communities, local histories and genealogies, and varying spiritual significance are the film’s three most salient continuities. These inform the structure of this review.
While Good Work maintains a continuity of content throughout the film, each of the featured building arts have distinct histories, techniques, and geographic locations. The film opens with the Barthé family, who have worked as plasterers in New Orleans since arriving in the nineteenth century. Other craftspeople include the solitary German stained-glass artisan Dieter Goldkuhle, who explains his fascination with color and light as he works in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Nicholas Benson compares the arts of stone carving and calligraphy through various projects that he undertakes from his Rhode Island workshop. Decorative painting by father and daughter John Canning and Jacqueline Canning-Riccio demonstrates the passing on of skills in the United States with this first- and second-generation Scottish immigrant family living in Boston. The importance of the division of labor in the craft of terra cotta emerges through interviews with multiple craftspeople at the Gladding, McBean company in Lincoln, California. Stonemason Joe Alonso, also interviewed at the National Cathedral, discusses building and restoring the foundations of cathedrals, as well as the relationship to previous masons who worked on the structure. The significance of community and a contemporary connection to ancestors is highlighted in the film’s final chapter about adobe maintenance in Abiquiú, New Mexico.
As Good Work navigates different regions of the United States and presents the heritage of each building artist, music provides an extra interpretive layer for the viewer to engage with the cultural and historical context of each place. The first chapter starts with Earl Barthé, who talks about his family’s history in New Orleans as he walks the film crew around the city, showing them his work on public buildings and sharing how generations before him would leave small marks underneath a shingle or behind a shutter as a form of signature. The music of the late Lionel Ferbos, a Dixieland jazz trumpeter active in New Orleans until the age of 102, plays in the background, creating a romantic sound-scape of a historical Big Easy. The following [End Page 102] chapter provides a stark musical contrast to Dixieland with a choir performing “Magnificat,” one of the oldest hymns of the Christian church. The late Goldkuhle’s interview is accompanied by an organ concerto composed by fellow countryman J. S. Bach. This kind of attention to soundtrack detail continues throughout Good Work, but one final example is especially worth noting. In Abiquiú, New Mexico, Albert Parra and members of his Hermanos de la Piadosa Fraternidad de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno (Brothers of the Pious Fraternity of our Father Jesus of Nazareth...