Nicholas Benson is Carving Out Appreciation for Handcraft in the Digital Era

Posted inDesigner Interviews

It’s not uncommon for children to follow in the professional footsteps of their parents. Sometimes it just makes sense to practice the same career as your father, or get into the family business. But what’s more out of the ordinary is when that family business is hand-carving letters into stone— especially in 2022.

John Benson, hand carving the central title of the Dallas Museum of Art, 1982.

Nicholas Benson is a third-generation stone carver who owns and operates The John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island, just like his father and grandfather before him. This operational monument to an all-but-lost craft was founded in 1705 by the titular John Stevens before Benson’s grandfather John purchased the shop in 1927. It’s one of the oldest continuously operating businesses in the United States.

Nicholas Benson in front of the Eisenhower Memorial inscriptions, 2019 – Photo credit, Tom Pitch.

“There were five generations of Stevens before the Bensons,” Benson told me, recounting the history of the shop. “The first three generations of the Stevens family produced some of the most beautiful colonial headstones in America. They’re all up and down the eastern seaboard, and actually someone once sent me a photograph of one in Jamaica.” Benson inherited the helm of the shop from his father in 1993, and has served as the creative director ever since. He is a master calligrapher and designer who brings a breath-taking precision and artistry to each and every headstone, inscription, and letter. 

Benson spoke with me recently in between chisel strokes, reflecting on the family business, societal shifts in appreciation for handcraft, and a tongue-in-cheek NFT project he’s embarked upon. 

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

National Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial inscriptions, 2010.

How does it feel working in a medium that is so long-lasting and that can endure in a way others can’t?

I’m getting very close to about 40 years of stone carving, and what I’ve noticed is that some pieces remain, and some pieces don’t. The idea that that stone is forever isn’t quite true. 

It can be, but it’s the luck of the draw. You have certain circumstances like in Egypt where you have this incredibly arid environment that is ideally suited to keep stone lasting for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, even thousands of years. Here in New England, over in Scandinavia, in some parts of Europe, UK, not so much; the weather’s really brutal. 

Newport Common Burying Ground headstones carved in the eighteenth century by the Stevens family.

Oftentimes folks with old colonial stones will come to me and say, “We’re doing our very best to conserve this stone, we want to repair it so that it will last longer.” And my immediate response is, “Don’t do that! It won’t last.” Ideally what you should do is pull it out, put it in a museum, and make a new one. Just replace it. People don’t understand that people have been replacing inscriptions for hundreds and thousands of years. There are really skillful craftsmen who will replace pieces like that, so that people don’t even know that some of these fillings are replacements; they think they’re originals. So I take “eternity” with a grain of salt in a very big way. 

Nicholas and John Benson in the John Stevens Shop, 2007 – photo credit, Tom Pitch.

What was it like getting involved in the family business as a teenager, and then eventually taking it over? 

I was not at all interested in going into the business when I was 15. I was actually excited to get the hell away from it. By the time I was going off to college at 18 years old, my dad had trained me up so quickly, and I had taken to carving very quickly. I remember basically on the eve of going to college, he dragged me down the National Gallery of Art in D.C. and put me on the wall and said, “You’re going to carve these headings on the west building interior.” And I said, “Are you insane?” But the minute I sunk the chisel into the wall, it was absolutely fine. 

But then I went off to college, and I was like, I’m gonna go be an artist. You can’t tell a 19-year-old that their future is mapped out. So I had the benefit of doing a couple of years away from the shop, and in my second year of college I decided to go back and really get involved in the family business. That’s when I transferred over to the School of Design in Basel, Switzerland to do a tutorial program to give me a foundation to come work with my dad.

Nicholas Benson hand carving the Pledge of Allegiance in the Capitol Building, 2009 – photo Michael A. Dunn.

Interestingly enough, my daughter who’s 22, wanted to come in and do some stone carving a couple of years ago. The minute she started I was like, Oh my God, this kid has crazy talent. But everybody in town was like, “Oh, you’re the fourth generation! Get in there! Get it done!” She had all this external pressure, all these people coming down on her like a ton of bricks. So she said, “No, I gotta’ get the hell away from this,” and she stopped stone carving a couple months ago. She needs to get away from it right now. She may come back, I don’t know, but she’s  tremendously talented. She can certainly keep the shop going, but I don’t know if the world is willing to support it. 

How have you seen society’s appreciation of stone carving change over the course of your career?

What I’ve done at The John Stevens Shop is I’ve carried on the arts and crafts ethos that my grandfather began when he ran the shop back in 1927. He and his business partner, Graham Carry, were really wrapped up in the arts and crafts movement, and they wanted to take The John Stevens Shop and perpetuate all of the good that came from not only the colonial era in terms of design and execution, but earlier. So they were looking backward while the world was looking toward modernity, throwing away all of the tradition and instead making the modern and the new.

John Stevens Shop exterior, circa 1910.
John Stevens Shop interior, circa 1927.

The fact that I’m carrying on that perspective is so incredibly out of sync with the times. What’s really occurring now is that there’s very little context for people to truly understand what I’m doing in the way in which my grandfather did it. When my grandfather was making stuff—80 years, 100 years ago—so many people back then knew how to make things. There were woodworkers, blacksmiths, women were sewing beautiful quilts. There was so much hands-on connection to the physical world, that most people would look at what my grandfather was doing and say, “God, he’s a great craftsman.” But now, what I see more and more each year, is the fact that people understand this craft less and less.

Today, there’s so little context and connection to the physical world that we once had, so people don’t really understand what we’re doing. That’s a problem. That’s a problem in terms of looking at this business and thinking, Where will it go from here? If there aren’t people who understand it, there’s not a lot of support for it. That’s the thing that I lament the most: the loss of the entire public’s perspective on craft. It’s not a publicly shared perspective anymore; that’s gone. And that’s upsetting. There’s this disconnection between the physical world and the digital realm. We’re all about the digital realm right now, and that has nothing to do with The John Stevens Shop route.

Exterior of the John Stevens Shop, 2020.

Do you think there’s any hope that as we become increasingly digital that the bubble will one day burst, and we will go back to what we can actually touch and feel?

I’d like to think that the pendulum will swing back toward the physical. There have been plenty of instances where I’ve seen younger people getting into things like letterpress printing. There are all these young kids in Brooklyn who are into sign painting, the way it used to be done in the ‘40s and ‘50s. 

Central title inscription on the Dallas Museum of Art.

But on the whole there isn’t the same appreciation for these crafts anymore. If some business people come into The John Stevens Shop to talk to me about a civic memorial they’re putting together, they look at what I do and they’re like, There’s no point to what this guy is doing whatsoever. There are digital typefaces out there, there are CNC machines which are all very quick and effective and will do what we need practically.

Then I have to tell them, “That’s all fine and dandy as far as practicality goes, but where’s the soul? Where’s the humanity in this? Because all of that mechanical stuff is soulless.” There’s the very obvious physical result of a human being picking up tools and trying their best to make something as fine as they possibly can make it. And all of the idiosyncrasy that goes into their handmade object, no matter how fine it is, speaks to the humanity. It’s the soul of the object. 

I know you’re working on a personal project that addresses the juxtaposition of the digital and the physical, the old and the new. Can you describe the project?  

I was typing away at my computer one day, and the computer glitched and this huge body of computer code popped up. I was like, that is the lingua franca of the day; this is the language of today. I saw it as extremely symbolic and decided to carve similar algorithmic code into stone. So I’m making a strong artistic statement about this disjunction between these two worlds by creating these very carefully carved, complex inscriptions that are bodies of code. 

Mintable App listing for ‘The Token of the Non Fungible Token’, 2021.

I also just made an NFT called, “Token of the Non Fungible Token.” It’s a highly conceptual piece that is well outside the purview of the John Stevens Shop craft. I made it as a response to the complexities of the NFT system; the way it immediately blew up into a model like the subprime mortgage model. This bubble of generating income for the sake of generating income, and how art has absolutely nothing to do with it. So I made an NFT that’s a photograph of a rai stone—which is an ancient form of currency from the Yap Islands of Micronesia—and then I made a physical stone coin that’s in the same vein as the ancient stone coins. It’s one of my ways of trying to highlight this shift so that people will talk about it and understand it. 

The whole project is so performative that at one point, there was a woman at Sotheby’s who was going to include it in an auction entitled The History of Blockchain, but as the NFT market totally imploded, that auction was taken off the table really quickly. The idea of auctioning off the NFT is the perfect performative aspect of making the statement all the better. I definitely wanted to auction it off. The NFT is meant to push the perceptions of human value. What does value mean in this instance? Where is the value in the digital item?

Detail of slate gravestone ornament for Charles Ryskamp, 2010.