The afternoon sunlight shines through the windows of The John Stevens Shop, dancing on the multitude of hand-drawn inscriptions and elegantly carved alphabet stones that fill the room. A beautifully painted piece of calligraphy stating “All things are difficult before they are easy” hangs on one of the walls, along with several old gravestones. In the back room, a variety of stone blocks—pieces of slate, limestone, marble, and granite—lie stacked against walls and on top of work benches; chain hoists and heavy ropes hang from the massive wooden beams that line the ceiling; and dozens of mallets and chisels of different shapes and sizes form a neat row along a window sill.
In the midst of all the letters and light, the calligraphy and carvings, Nick Benson leans intently over his drawing table, painting hand-drawn letters on paper.
“I’m doing a version of the Roman capital letter that the Romans, two thousand years ago, established with this broad-edged brush,” Nick says as he works. “It takes a lot of skill and time to understand the movements of the hand and arm, and the subtleties that go into all these strokes. Each step of the process is a step of refinement. And the final word is the mallet and chisel.”
Nick Benson is a third-generation stone carver and letterer who specializes in hand-carved gravestones and elegant architectural lettering for public buildings, memorials, and monuments. He is the proud owner and creative director of The John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island, which was founded in 1705 and has been operating as a stone carving shop continuously for over three hundred years.
Eight generations of the Stevens family ran the shop, going back to early colonial days. Today, the hand-carved gravestones of John Stevens and his descendants still stand in the Common Burying Ground in Newport.
The beauty of these carvings, especially the work of John Stevens II and John Stevens III, so inspired Nick’s grandfather, John Howard Benson, that he bought the shop from the Stevens family in 1926 and revived the art of the hand-carved letter, raising it to new heights of artistic excellence.
Nick’s father, John Everett Benson, followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a master of large-scale architectural inscriptions and leaving his mark on such national treasures as the John F. Kennedy Memorial, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, and the National Gallery of Art.
Nick learned the art of letter design and carving from his father, apprenticing with him in the shop at an early age.
“He got me in the shop at the age of fifteen, and he was not interested in me dillydallying,” Nick says. “He got me carving work that he laid out, and he got me doing it very quickly. It was so valuable to spend eight to ten years of my life carving his designs because what I ended up doing, by osmosis, I learned so much about the letter form.”
When Nick’s father retired in 1993, Nick took over the shop, designing and producing carvings in the tradition of his father and grandfather.
“My measuring stick, my standard, is my father,” he told me. “And he had his dad to measure up to. Their work is what inspires me.”
A master in his own right, Nick designed and carved the inscriptions for the National World War II Memorial and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. He has created inscriptional work for the Washington National Cathedral, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and numerous other architectural projects, as well as finely carved gravestones for clients across the country. In 2007, he received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s highest award for excellence in the traditional arts, and in 2010 he was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.
What excites Nick most about his work is the ability to combine both the design and the carving of letter forms in a unified and meaningful way.
“The thing about The John Stevens Shop is that we not only do the physical carving of this inscriptional work, but the design, too, and that is not typical,” he says. “But we are convinced that if you have one person who understands the entire process of both design and carving, you’re going to end up with the best work.”
Nick’s deep working knowledge of his raw materials, his keen understanding of the qualities of many types of stone, is a key factor in designing and executing successful inscriptions in stone.
“The limitations of what you’re able to do in any given material dictate the approach to any given inscription,” he says. “When working in slate, we can carve incredibly refined heraldic achievements, very detailed work, because I know the stone can do that.
“When lettering in granite, what I end up doing is I make the letter quite heavy because I know the granular quality of the granite needs a heavy character in order to carry visually. The funny thing is, when you look at the finished inscription, it doesn’t look particularly heavy. It looks right.”
As a third-generation carver and calligrapher, Nick strives to keep his family’s tradition of craftsmanship alive, yet he also continues to experiment and grow as an artist, developing his own personal style of lettering, a distinct mark of his own.
“My style is a combination of my father’s and my grandfather’s, and it’s constantly evolving,” he says. “That development is what keeps the passion alive.”
For centuries, master craftworkers in the building arts have brought enduring beauty to our built environment. Much depends on their workmanship and skill, their deep understanding of raw materials, their careful selection and use of tools, their mastery of technique. The final product is the result not only of their knowledge and abilities, but also their creativity and care—their will to excellence.
Nick Benson exemplifies this centuries-old legacy of craftsmanship in the United States. His story will be told, along with the stories of seven other artisans from a variety of building trades, in an upcoming documentary film I am directing with Paul Wagner, based on the Masters of the Building Arts program at the 2001 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Nick and two of his apprentices from The John Stevens Shop participated in the program, generously sharing the art of the hand-carved letter with thousands of Festival visitors.
The Masters of the Building Arts film celebrates the extraordinary artistry of craftspeople in the building arts and explores the traditional skills, knowledge, and values that shape and give meaning to their work. The film is being produced by the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and American Focus in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Institute of Architects, the National Building Museum, the Associated General Contractors of America, and the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers and the International Masonry Institute. Its expected completion date is spring 2015.
Marjorie Hunt is a folklorist and curator with the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Her grandfather, Pasquale Peronace, was a stone mason who immigrated to Philadelphia in the early 1900s from a small village in Calabria, Italy. Conducting research and fieldwork with artisans in the building trades is one of her great passions.