The Brush, the Mallet, the Chisel, the Letter
The good and true story of The John Stevens Shop
by Richard Pelletier
“John Stevens, Stone Cutter Takes this method to inform the public and his former employers in particular THAT he carries on the stone-cutters business at his shop the North end of Thames Street where any persons may be supplied with tombstones, gravestones, hearths, and printers press stones, and where every kind of work in stone is performed in the neatest and most elegant manner.”
Newport Mercury, October 27, 1781
29 Thames Street, Newport Rhode Island
Late afternoon. A warm September day. Autumn light drifts down through the windows and skylights of Nicholas Benson’s stone carving shop on Thames Street in Newport, Rhode Island. High on the wall, a likeness of Nick’s grandfather. He is John Howard Benson, whose creative fires stoke this place like the light of an endless sun. Nick Benson is at his workbench. Overhead on a wooden shelf, a row of mallets and wood planes, smoothed and worn, register the yawn of time, gathering dust.
The space is intimate, glorious. Thick, exposed, load-bearing beams; mallets and chisels and wood planes and ropes. Small blocks of stone carved with the letter R. Shelves and drawers and walls are lovingly filled with old tools, drawings and sketches, letters and photographs, books and letterforms. There are thick slabs of granite, marble and slate. It’s the studio of an artist of the Old World, sumptuous and magical, a visual feast. All that light. A sense of order.
In the glare of a simple desk lamp, Paul Russo carves a honed granite headstone that leans on a large wooden easel. A twenty-plus-years stone-carver, he’s Nick's main man. Russo has just finished a line drawing of a sailboat and now comes the world's shortest biography—name, date of arrival, date of departure. The going is slow; it will take him two weeks to finish. It’s slow because granite is the hardest stone there is. And because this is how they do it here. To watch for a minute is to know two things. A hand-carved headstone is a sensitive, lasting and loving tribute. And it is fierce, hard, painstaking work. “My hands are fine,” Russo says, “it’s my elbows. I have tendinitis.”
“I have carpal tunnel,” says Nick. “I have bad legs and my knees are killing me.”
The pace in the workshop tends toward a normal eight-hour workday. On large, site-specific projects (for which the Shop is renowned) it’s different. “On those we’re going fast,” says Nick, “putting in nine and 10 hour days. It’s brutal.”
As chisel meets granite, a rapid fire, metallic ‘tenk’ sound fills the workshop. Tenk, tenk, tenk, tenk, tenk. Tenk, tenk. Tenk, tenk, tenk. Memorializing the dead in granite has a music and rhythm to it, a syncopation that repeats until it doesn’t. John Cage are you listening?
Between the shop’s first, somewhat crude scratchings from the early days of the 18th century, and the elegant letters that Russo carves today, stand two families. The Stevens family came first. Then came the Bensons, of whom Nicholas Waite Benson is the latest. Which means that the John Stevens Shop has survived six generations of one family and three generations of another.
To be continued…