Nick in Shop

Nicholas Benson—Carving a Piece of History

Nick in Shop

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Martin Luther King Jr. 1963

Nearly 50 years later, Martin Luther King Jr.’s eloquent quote will be one of many on display for all to see in a memorial on the National Mall. Nicholas Benson, a third generation stone carver, led a team that carved King’s words—more than 2,200 characters in all—into the granite wall that makes up part of the memorial. “With Martin Luther King Jr., there are so many great quotes to carve and contemplate, things that are topical still,” Benson said.

Visitors to the memorial (it opened to the public on August 22 with the formal dedication planned for August 28), will be impressed, Benson said. “They are going to be bowled over by the culture of Dr. King,” he said. “When they wander around and they read the words on the memorial as a whole, it’s impressive.” There are sixteen inscriptions in all, arranged, not chronologically, but by length. “Shorter quotes went on the lower section of the retaining wall and, as the retaining wall got higher, larger quotes went on top,” Benson explained.

Benson, who spent more than two years on the project, was impressed that those working on the memorial, including a large army of contractors, came from many different ethnic groups. “Dr. King would have really enjoyed that, actually to see his grand concept for equality envisioned in the whole building of his memorial,” Benson said.

Benson, whose company, The John Stevens Shop, is located in Newport, Rhode Island, studied at the State University of New York, Purchase, before going abroad to study at the Schule fur Gestaltung in Basil, Switzerland. “Both my grandfather and my father were internationally renowned calligraphers and stone carvers, and I grew up taking their skill and tradition for granted,” Benson said. “So once I went out into the world, to college, I understood just what an amazing place The John Stevens Shop is. That is what got me hooked.” (Photo above, Nicholas Benson, right, with his father, John Benson).

Benson describes himself as an “oddity” in that he is both a designer and a carver. “Typically, those two do not go hand in hand,” he said. “What usually happens is that the inscriptional work falls under the umbrella of signage so oftentimes designers design inscription work which is really more of a two-dimensional thing. I have the benefit of understanding the three-dimensionality of it, as well as bringing my own particular approach to design.” Benson said that the design work is far more difficult than the skill of letter carving.

Benson, who also did the inscription work on the World War II Memorial on the National Mall, said he actively sought the inscription work on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. He first approached the Roma Design Group, the company that had won the competition to design the memorial, with his proposal. When Roma parted ways with the Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation, Benson went directly to Ed Jackson Jr., the executive architect on the memorial project. “He and I very quickly saw that we were coming from the same perspective on the design and execution,” Benson said. “He liked the idea very much and we just went from there.”

Atlantic Green Granite from Canada was used for the retaining wall. Benson said he assembled a team of about eight carvers to work on the project. “People think of stone carving as a blunt force activity,” he said. “It’s not at all that. It’s a very refined activity. You have to be gentle. Stone is delicate stuff and you really have to be careful with it. You have to move the material when you have to move it, but the initial interaction with the material is all about extending its capabilities and understanding its limits and how far you can push those.”

Benson, who studied calligraphy, type design, typography, and drawing in Switzerland under Andre Gurtler, Christian Mengeit, and Armin Hofmann, mentors young artisans. He admitted that talent helps when attempting to learn stone carving. “I have had apprentices who’ve had a very difficult time learning the skill of carving,” he said, noting that he now has an apprentice who is “carving beautifully right out of the gate.”

Seven years after the World War II Memorial opened, Benson said he still receives feedback, mostly from people who brought parents, World War II veterans, to see the memorial. He is continuing to work on the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, scheduled to open in the fall of 2012. “The World War II Memorial and the King Memorial are by far the largest jobs I’ve ever done,” he said. For the World War II Memorial, Benson’s team carved 3,875 characters.

Although the memorials are the more public part of Benson’s business, carving gravestones remains his company’s bread and butter. “They are very high end pieces that are developed very carefully with the clients,” he said.

In 2010, Benson was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant of $500,000. The foundation cited Benson for his “meticulously executed inscriptional works” that “are noted for their uncompromising craftsmanship and beauty in form and line.”

Certainly the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial will add to Benson’s reputation He said he has several projects in mind that the MacArthur will help him fund, but doesn’t want to go public just yet.

For now, Benson will enjoy watching others take in his work on the King Memorial. He plans to attend the dedication ceremonies, a Presidential event, with his wife, Alix Flood. “I think the public’s really going to like it,” he said. “And I’m happy with the work that we did.”

For more information on Nicholas Benson, go to The John Stevens Shop website.

For more information on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial go to the official website.

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