Conversation: Stone Carver Nicholas Benson, 2010 MacArthur Fellow

BY Tom LeGro  October 8, 2010 at 4:25 PM EST

If the MacArthur “genius grants” are like a bet on the future potential of its fellows, one of this year’s honorees is being recognized for his preservation of an art form mostly relegated to artists of the past.

Nicholas Benson is a stone carver from Newport, R.I., a third generation craftsman who runs the John Stevens Shop, a business that’s been in operation since 1705.

His carving and hand cut lettering can be found on family memorials and the facades of art museums and national monuments around the nation, including the forthcoming Martin Luther King Jr. monument, which he’s currently at work on here in Washington, D.C.

Benson stopped by our studio last week to talk about his work and the award.

 

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: If the so-called “genius grants” awarded by the MacArthur Foundation are like a bet on the future potential of its fellows, one of this year’s honorees is being recognized for his preservation of an art form mostly relegated to artists of the past. Nicholas Benson is a stone carver from Newport, R.I., a third generation craftsman who runs the John Stevens Shop, a business that’s been in operation since 1705. His carving and hand cut lettering can be found on family memorials and facades of art museums and national monuments around the nation, including the forthcoming Martin Luther King Jr. monument, which he’s currently at work on here in Washington, D.C. Welcome and congratulations.

NICHOLAS BENSON: Thank you so much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Explain first a little bit more about what it is that you do and how it works.

NICHOLAS BENSON: It’s really wound up in the idea that the design of letter form and the carving of it in stone are a single unit. My grandfather, who bought the business from the Stevens in 1926, decided that he would go back and study the colonial gravestones in Newport. He loved the way that there were these beautiful vernacular pieces of work that were absolutely tied up into designing both ornamental work, letter form and a singular unit of design that just worked harmoniously perfectly. So we endeavor to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: So it’s a shop with this long history. Now, how much of what you do today is exactly what people would have done several hundred years ago and how much of it has this developed along the way?

NICHOLAS BENSON: Well, you can not mistake the imprint of the sort of typographic standards and those types of mechanical standards that have come into being since the colonial era. The colonial folks were extremely aware of human mortality and they worked at quite a quick rate to get these stones out, you know. People didn’t stick around too long then. So our work has a much tighter and finer finish to it, but it still adheres to that basic principal that one man’s vision is taken to this final form.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to bring up an image of what you call the alphabet stone, and it’s a way of helping people understand this. So this has some importance to you right? Explain what it is.

NICHOLAS BENSON: The interesting thing about it is that when one is learning to carve lettering in stone, typically one carves a master’s layouts because the execution of the letter form itself is a very difficult process. And so the apprentice will toil along trying to produce their own letter forms according to these exacting standards of proportion and beauty, and then at one point the master will say, Ok, I am no longer going to lay these things out for you that you will carve, you must lay out your own letter form and carve it to this standard. And so the alphabet stone is an apprentice’s stab at becoming a journeyman.

JEFFREY BROWN: And where in this does the art come in? It’s an ancient craft, but it’s also an art form, and you’re talking about an individual learning it.

NICHOLAS BENSON: Art is an extremely broad term, because it’s a complicated thing to nail down. The execution of these letter forms done with a broad-edged brush, as on the alphabet stone, come from the classic Roman, and there are so many forms that you can study from back in that time and a very, very broad range of them. And as one familiarizes oneself with the use of the tool, more and more of the imprint of yourself gets transferred onto these forms. The problem is …

JEFFREY BROWN: …The individual marks.

NICHOLAS BENSON: Exactly. Yeah, it truly is an individual mark. And so that’s where the artistry comes in. But it’s a very, very subtle thing, you know. It’s a difficult thing to …

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what is the most difficult part of this for you or the part that constantly challenges you?

NICHOLAS BENSON: I think it’s the reflection of my work within the legacy, because my …

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean the broad history of this …

NICHOLAS BENSON: The broad history of it and not only classically but more immediately for me in terms of both my grandfather and my father’s work.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because you learned directly.

NICHOLAS BENSON: I learned directly from them, but to learn more and more and produce more and more work and get better and better at what I do, to look back on their work is to realize just how good they were.

JEFFREY BROWN: People must ask you this all the time, but the sort of obvious question is, Isn’t there an easier way to do this? You could use power tools. Why bother, I guess?

NICHOLAS BENSON: I try and use I use an analogy about oriental rugs. I say, you know, when you go and you look at a machine woven rug it has absolutely no life to it at all. And when you see a hand-knotted rug there is all of the inconsistency and all that beautiful intrinsic value from the hand that’s immediately obvious. And I think that holds true for what we do, you know. Everything about the effort of just the two hands making these things and producing these objects without a machine involved at all, so many people can understand that, you know.

JEFFREY BROWN: The value of the of hand even today.

NICHOLAS BENSON: And how they are beautiful. Yeah, exactly, even today. People really do appreciate them.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Nicholas Benson is one of the winners of the McArthur Award this year. Congratulations and thanks for talking to us.

NICHOLAS BENSON: Thank you so very much.