Nicholas Benson almost never stops moving. Even now, stalled in morning rush hour traffic in Providence, Rhode Island on a bright winter day, he sits behind the wheel of his truck talking a mile a minute while his hands sculpt the air in front of him, as though the truth were there to be plucked and captured.
He’s trying to explain how his family came to be so blessed with artistic talent. Going back three generations, Bensons have succeeded as painters, sculptors, photographers, and stone cutters. Both Nick and his uncle, the late photographer Richard Benson, have received MacArthur genius grants—the Benson clan is one of only two families in that category.
“It’s a genetic soup that has somehow managed to yield some pretty successful people,” he says, staring at a line of traffic stalled as far as the eye can see. “And not in the ways we think of success today but as guys who made really great stuff.”
Like his father and his father before him, the 53-year-old Benson is a stone carver and, yes, a maker of pretty great stuff. For almost a century, the Bensons of Newport, Rhode Island have owned and managed the John Stevens Shop, which the Stevens family ran from 1705 until 1927, when Nick’s grandfather bought the business. Since then the Bensons have carved gravestones, ledgerstones, cornerstones, alphabets, inscriptions, and the lettering and decoration for some of the nation’s most prominent public buildings and monuments, including the John F. Kennedy burial site at Arlington, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the Vietnam memorial, and the Pei wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Whenever someone has a big job of letter carving to be done, the Bensons get the call.
“Benson is first a master of typography,” says Art Presson, vice president of design and landscape at Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery. “His stone carved forms are worlds apart from average stone cut lettering, the fluidity of line is more akin to a calligrapher than a stone carver. His deep understanding of type and spatial relationships are evident in every letter form he carves. For me, he is a master without peer in this country.”
Barry Owenby, the project executive for the National World War II Memorial who hired Benson to do the memorial’s inscriptions, makes it personal: "If I were going to have someone carve my gravestone, it would be the John Stevens Shop. They are the most professional firm in the United States."
This morning’s summons that has Benson on his way to Providence is not so grand: He’s been hired to carve a stone for a family plot in Swan Point Cemetery, a sprawling 19th century garden cemetery that’s full of the work of three generations of Bensons. The stone he will carve is a blond marble rectangle two feet by six inches by two inches. And that stone will then be anchored in a boulder that dominates the family’s plot. Benson has to figure out the precise positioning of the smaller stone in the boulder. For about thirty minutes, he consults with Jack Afonso, the man who shapes and preps the tombstones that Benson carves. After they’ve agreed on how the boulder will be cut to seat the carved piece, they go back to Afonso’s shop and transfer the smaller stone, along with a larger headstone for another job, to Benson’s truck.
Then it’s a quick goodbye and Benson is back on the road to Newport. And right there is a morning gone. Like most of what he does, this errand takes a lot of time. Too much time, some people say. Like the man who saw Benson carving an inscription on a wall at Yale University. “Isn’t there a machine for that?” the man asked. “You’re looking at it,” Benson replied.
Traffic is light on the return trip, but it’s past noon before he can unload the stones from the back of his truck into the modest wood-framed shop in Newport. The building, where Stevenses and then Bensons have carved stone for three centuries, is small, with a little office up front facing Thames Street and a roomier but crowded workshop in the rear where the carving gets done. Upstairs there’s an office and an apartment, and every room, including the workshop, looks squared-away and ready for a white-glove inspection.
“I’m like my dad in that I can’t work if things are out of line,” Nick says, coming to rest briefly in the front room. “ I’m obsessive compulsive. I’m not a multitasker. I’m a monotasker. I cannot juggle too many balls at once. Times when I’m really feeling tired and overworked and stressed out about too much stuff, [my co-workers] say, ‘Watch out, he’s doing laps,’ which means I’ll go from here to the back room and back and forth trying to get my head squared away. I don’t even realize I’m doing it.”
Indeed, even to the eye of a stranger, the tidiness seems at best a frail bulwark against the avalanche of stones, big and small, some cut, some not, that crowd the floor and walls of the studio.
“I have a year’s worth of work ahead of me at any given time,” says Benson, who began working in the shop when he was 15 and, with time out for college (SUNY Purchase and the Schule für Gestaltung Basel in Switzerland), has worked there ever since and run the business himself since 1993. “People say, A year? Wow! But that’s standard for any artisan. It takes us a long time to get the stuff done, and it’s an awful lot of effort. There is a line of people patiently waiting for their work.”
In everything he does, Benson maintains a steady, unwavering intensity, like the measured tap of mallet on chisel on stone. Some of this comes to him naturally, and some of it arises out of the necessity of running a business. “There are realities in terms of becoming a stone carver, because you do have to work fast enough to support yourself.” he says. “You can’t just say, I’m gonna plod along at my own mellow pace and expect to survive.” He does all the design work and the calligraphy, but to help with the workload, he also keeps at least a couple of journeyman or journeywoman stonecutters busy in the shop.
The world of stone cutting is tiny. “Most people who do what we do have come through our shop,” he says. “There are a handful, and we all know each other well.” And lately there’s been an uptick of interest in the craft, inspired, ironically, by the interest in typefaces and fonts and lettering that’s an offshoot of the computer culture. “Folks have gotten into graphic design and lettering and they see what I’m up to and they say, Oh, this is interesting. I’ve had a lot of requests through Instagram to come and apprentice, and I can’t, I just can’t do apprenticeships. I don’t have the time to bring someone up through the ranks. At the same time I can’t really let it die. The onus is on me to pass along the craft.”
Heartened as he is by this new interest in his craft, Benson is never allowed to forget how out of step he is in a “point and click world. Everybody wants immediate satisfaction. I need it now, today. And that’s way out of sync with the way an artisan functions. It’s pretty depressing to see how the digital world has cut off our connection to the analog world.”
On the other hand, he’s encouraged by the concurrent boom in all things artisanal, because “one thing leads to another. The artisanal cheese maker needs an artisanal sign. It’s the return of craft. It’s all coming back. I’ve noticed more and more interest in what I do because of it.”
All the Bensons set a high premium on making things by hand. “The problem is that nobody does that anymore,” Nick’s father, John Everett Benson, once told a reporter for The New Yorker. “Two hundred years ago, a woman had to be able to start with grain to make bread, and a man making a wagon had to start with a tree. [My brother Richard] and I feel that too much of that has been lost. We think the density and complexity of a vision come from a single person making a single thing.”
None of this has anything to do with sentimentality. As Nick’s grandfather, John Howard Benson, put it when explaining why he stuck with carving stone by hand: “I don’t use the mallet and chisel because I’m interested in perpetuating Ye Olde Shoppe. I do it because the results are so infinitely superior.”
Excellence, though, is not the only criteria. There's another level: “Doing things by hand gets at some existential thing that’s very human,” Nick says. “It’s a big selling point for what we do. I say, we are human and this is a human process and so everything you see in this product I have made has to do with my hand. And you as another human can appreciate that. It’s who we are. We are imperfect. We strive for perfection, and this object is evidence of that reality. People get that and appreciate it, particularly when it comes to gravestones. Most of the people who come to me say, Look, I don’t want some mechanically made thing.”
Both stone carver and customer are out to give eternity a run for its money. In the wonderful documentary about Nick’s father, Final Marks, the older Benson nails the issue of timelessness when he says, referring to the inscription he’s in the middle of carving, “It’s there as long as the building is.”
Everything a thoughtful carver does—the size and spacing and style of the lettering, the depth of the cut, the ornament surrounding the lettering—depends on what is being carved and on the surface and substance of the stone into which it is cut. Benson rhapsodizes about the rock from played-out quarries the way some men moon over lost lovers. “There’s a beautiful seam of slate that comes from Buckingham County, Virginia. And there’s a granite that used to be quarried in Westerly, Rhode Island, that was pretty much the gold standard of granite in America. All the great figurative work done down in Gettysburg and Antietam for the Civil War memorials came out of Westerly, Rhode Island. It’s a very, very fine grain granite and it’s got a warm tone to it, so it’s not steely blue. Now that’s gone. It’s like a knife in my heart to think that they’re crushing all that into gravel.”
A lot of stone cutting’s intricacies can get abstruse in a hurry. “I often tell folks that to have a really deep conversation about the subtleties in inscription work,” Benson says, “you have to spend about a decade doing it, because otherwise you don’t have the context to understand. It sounds arrogant, like I’m tooting my own horn, but it’s the reality. And it’s true for all kinds of things. I can’t talk intelligently about The Goldberg Variations.”
What doesn’t take a lot of explaining to anyone with eyes is the difference between a hand-cut tombstone and one that has been inscribed with a sandblaster or laser cut.
Here is a mechanically cut stone:
Here is a marker cut by Nick Benson:
Benson is like a man unmoored in time. His peers include not only his father and grandfather but also those nameless 2nd-century Roman artisans who carved the inscriptions for Trajan’s Column, which is more or less the template for modern alphabets. Most of what we know about letterforms and typography flows from their example, so it’s no wonder Benson talks about those Romans as though they shared the workbench next to his. The standard they set has yet to be excelled, and it is the standard by which he judges himself and anyone else who carves stone.
After lunch, Benson spends an hour or so laboring over a pencil sketch of a bluebird, a piece of spec work for a tombstone. Then there’s time for a walk in the Newport Common Burying Ground, one of those old graveyards comprising the history of the country from the 17th century to the present. It also serves as a sort of open-air museum for the work of the John Stevens Shop, including stones carved by the original shop owners, their descendents, and three generations of Bensons.
Walking among the tombstones, Benson points to stones—some three centuries old, others freshly minted—that show the evolution of the work that has passed through the John Stevens Shop. Even now, he says, “there are residual elements of what the Stevens family did early on, particularly in the lettering. Those guys had a take on the lettering that was probably the very best the colonial carvers in America had to offer. And both my grandfather and my dad loved that work and injected a lot of it into their styles. And I have put it into some of my lower case Roman. I have used their example to build on.”
A major stylistic shift occurred when Benson’s grandfather returned to the Roman practice of painting the letters on stone before he began to carve. “My grandfather picked up the brush and he started making letters and he changed the proportions to how he felt they should look, which was not far off the classical mark but the letter became an entirely different thing. It became his.”
Even now, Benson says, his grandfather’s alphabet “would stand out the most. It’s the most cohesive artistically. He had such a strong, individual hand that everything he made had its imprint. And once you understand his aesthetic, you can can just see it drive through every single thing that he did—painting, wood engraving, metal—he was very prolific. My father’s alphabets and mine would look similar. Dad’s were inspired by typographic things going on with really great calligraphers in the ’60s and ’70s who became type designers. Dad manipulated the letter form to look much more refined. It almost looked like typographic form in its perfection.
“My grandfather’s style and my father’s style were very different. Grandfather’s style was tied to his artistic vision, and Dad’s is just this sort of otherworldly perfection. I’m bouncing back and forth between the two all the time. I haven’t taken some other direction and made it mine, although my dad will come into the shop now and then and say, ‘Wow, you really developed your own style.’ I can’t see it. I’m too close to it. That’s a good thing, though, because I just do it. I’m probably the better for that.”
One of the most remarkable things about Benson is how well he balances a respect for tradition (“Progress for the sake of progress is ridiculous”) with a deep engagement with the present: no Luddite, he’s computer savvy and maintains a robust Instagram account; and while he’s skeptical about certain trends in contemporary art, it’s a discerning skepticism—he’s a big fan, for example, of Martin Puryear and Ai Weiwei.
Lately Benson has begun using everything he knows about his craft in the service of his own art, which is to say, work that has no utilitarian purpose at all. It is stone cutting for its own sake, and it is like nothing you have ever seen before.
“One of the interesting aspects of this art I’m making is to take all this old world shit and make new stuff that’s in contemplation of all that,” he says.
When he received his MacArthur grant in 2010, he took it as a challenge.
“I think the MacArthur Foundation is interested in people willing to take a lateral move within their field. So I’ve started to make some art that’s in contemplation of the information age and turning it into a bit of a commentary on what information is now and how abstract it’s become. But it’s couched very squarely within the principles of the craft. So I’m using the craft to make this artwork, which is stone work and specifically inscription.”
For inspiration he has drawn less on traditional letterforms and more on sources as disparate as calligraphy, computer code, graffiti tags, and even the work of Jackson Pollock—and all of these influences merge in work that to the untutored eye looks as unintelligible and abstract as a Latin inscription, but no less beautiful for that.
“At a residency at the Yale University art gallery, I was asked to produce a piece inspired by something in the collection. One of the most inspiring was a Jackson Pollock piece, because it really is all about the mechanics of the arm. To me it reads as calligraphy. So I’ve been making text that’s like that in terms of strokes that are interwoven and not immediately legible. You see a big body of text that I’ve designed and carved and say, ‘What the hell is it?’ I don’t even know what it is. It’s all crazy, thickety stuff.”
The bulwark between all that and chaos is Benson’s “decades of practice of making really refined forms,” such that even when “you cut loose, the practiced hand is always there. You can’t avoid it. And I love that aspect.”
The piece of art he’s carving while he explains all this is a big expanse of interwoven, calligraphic lettering that flows in row upon row across a broad slab of slate almost double the size of a jumbo big-screen television. He’s a few rows from the end, but he’s been working on it for a year, not every day, just grabbing time where he can. Still, a year.
Staring at the carving, it’s easier to say what it isn’t than what it is. It’s not traditional calligraphy. It’s not really anything like those old Roman inscriptions, or the lettering on tombstones. It’s not even much like the work of his father or grandfather. But what it really, truly, deeply doesn’t look like is what it actually is—a piece of computer code.
A few years ago, Benson was sitting at his computer typing away when the computer had a hiccup and suddenly the screen was filled with a computer code called Base64 that’s used for encoding photographs.
“I’ve spent 30 to 35 years of my life designing bodies of text that have to be carved in stone,” Benson says. “And when I looked at this thing on my screen, I thought, what an interesting design of a body of text. It’s entirely foreign. I can’t read it. I don’t know what the hell it is. But it’s really appealing. It was sort of like ripping aside the curtain of the computer that we know and love, this easy, friendly machine, and seeing the mechanics of it and realizing, holy shit, this is what drives the machinery, this is the life blood of a machine that only programmers really understand. So I was amazed by that. I thought, man, I’ve got to carve some of that. I’ve got to play on the idea of my ridiculously old craft, which goes as far back as… as… man, as far as human kind goes back—this idea of grabbing a tool and carving something into stone in perpetuity.”
What intrigued Benson the most was the tension between the ephemeral and the timeless. “We think at any given time in human history about the things we do lasting forever. We think, this specific piece of computer code will go into this database and it will last forever. I doubt that. I doubt it will. It’s here and gone. But I’m recording it here in a piece of slate, and this will last a really long time. So there’s an interesting interplay on that.
“I got into carving a lot of computer code because the world is changing so much in terms of technology and the way we communicate. So my old-world way of carefully designing a letter by hand with a paintbrush and carving it with a mallet and chisel is really slipping by the wayside. And that’s the nature of evolution. That’s the way things go, and we may lose stone cutting. People will say, there’s no point in doing this.”
The problem, the slow death of what may be man’s oldest art form, is global, Benson says, noting that for centuries Tibet, China, and Japan all boasted stonecutters capable of carving “amazing inscriptions, but now, not so much.” Those cultures still revere calligraphy, and in China at least there is some interest in reviving the art of stone cutting. “But so much skill has been lost that when Robert A.M. Stern recently designed a building in China, no one there was capable of doing the carving necessary for the inscriptions. So Stern said, ‘Get Nick.’”
“Today there’s this digital filter that everyone looks through,” Benson says. “It’s even become the way we interact with the physical world. Planners and designers immediately go to the computer and the digital realm to play with parameters in terms of design and then they apply that to the physical world, which is really odd, because it’s not taking the physical world into account and understanding materials and the way in which they work. There was a big lament on my part about that. Because I’m a craftsman at heart. I’m interested in physically making these things with my hands.
“So I decided to make something in contemplation of that. It’s like a flower or a species know that it’s the last of its kind and it sends out one giant blossom to hopefully maintain its species. And that’s another thing—passing along this skill of carving lettering in stone. There are not many people doing it, and if I can make some art that gains a little attention, maybe people will think, hey man, I’m going to carve some stone. So that perpetuates things. I hope.”
As for the future fortunes of the Benson dynasty in particular, Nick makes no predictions. He has two teenagers, and his son, he says, is “not suited to the work. My daughter on the other hand is a tremendous artistic talent, so she may get involved, I don’t know.” The uncertainty doesn’t bother him too much, for, as he points out, his own father might have expressed similar doubts when Nick was young. “When I was kid,” he laughs, “my penmanship was atrocious.”