Pushing Boundaries: Stone Lettering as Fine Art

Nicholas Benson’s art is the sculpted word. A third-generation stone carver, calligrapher and designer, and recipient of an NEA Grant and a MacArthur Fellowship, Benson’s hand-carved work can be seen on memorials and buildings throughout the United States, including the National World War II Memorial inscriptions and the The National Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial inscriptions in Washington, D.C. and Maya Lin’s The Meeting Room inscriptions in Newport, RI. As owner and creative director of the renowned John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island, Benson follows in the footsteps of a family legacy while expanding the traditions of stone carving with his own designs.

He recently began pushing the boundaries of tradition even further, with an eye focused on the art world, creating work that is a departure from the style of inscription carving which must be easily legible for monuments and memorials. The first piece, entitled AIR, was carved during his “artist-in-residence” at the Yale University Art Gallery. Using text as texture, Benson’s inscriptions transcend the individual words which become part of the sculptural “presence” of the piece.

AIR by Nicholas Benson
“AIR” by Nicholas Benson. Hand-carved slate. Copyright © Nicholas Benson

The second tablet in the series, Slate M was created for the Slate as Muse exhibition at the Slate Valley Museum. “The tablet is from an 80-year-old piece of Monson (Maine) black cleft slate that belonged to my grandfather,” says Benson. The original slate vein is no longer mined, so this stone carries a special significance for the artist.

Nick Benson installing Slate M at the Slate Valley Museum
Nicholas Benson installing “Slate M” for the Slate as Muse Exhibition at the Slate Valley Museum.

Benson’s process for Slate M began with a brown paper and red pen line drawing, very quick and rough, inspired by the natural texture and materiality of the slate. In this piece, the artist pushed creative boundaries with a more gestural interpretation of the letters. “It’s my own calligraphic layout run amok in free expression,” he says. “As in the piece, AIR, I wanted to use text as texture with the block of text filling the stone.” He made a tracing paper overlay, refining the layout extensively while keeping all of the liveliness of the pen work.

Pen work for Slate M by Nicholas Benson
Pen work for “Slate M” by Nicholas Benson. Copyright © Nicholas Benson

He then transferred the line drawing to the slate and then carved each letter inscription in v-cut lettering, by hand, with a mallet and chisel.

Slate M (detail) by Nicholas Benson
“Slate M” (detail) by Nicholas Benson. Copyright © Nicholas Benson

At first the inscription seems illegible, but Benson explains how to “read” it. “If you begin by trying to pick out individual letters, you’ll then start to see the words,” he suggests.

Slate M by Nicholas Benson
“Slate M” by Nicholas Benson. Hand-carved slate. Copyright © Nicholas Benson

The quote in the inscription is from the modernist painter Tony Terenzio on the subject of art as a constant source for inspiration rather than a simple linear progression:

Of course no so-called style can continue forever because then human consciousness would have to remain static. But, on the other hand you can’t pretend nothing ever happened. – Terenzio

Being in the presence of this work of art invokes a certain reverence, not only for the technical ability of the carving work, but for the overall effect the entire piece has on the viewer. Even without the translation of the text, the work stands firmly on its own, with a visual integrity that is breathtaking.

Nicholas Benson will continue to push boundaries in this series as more pieces are planned for the future.

For more information on Nicholas Benson and his work, visit his website at: The John Stevens Shop

Benson’s “Slate M” was exhibited at the 2014 Slate as Muse exhibition at the Slate Valley Museum in Granville, New York. The exhibition was curated by Serena Kovalosky who challenged artists from throughout the United States to push the boundaries of how slate is perceived today. Nineteen artists presented twenty-seven works of art not only in sculpture, but in painting, photography and mixed media. For more information on the exhibition, visit Slate as Muse.

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