2010-10-07 / News

Island stone carver wins McArthur genius grant

By Geoff Campbell

Nicholas Benson in the Newport John Stevens Shop. Photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Nicholas Benson in the Newport John Stevens Shop. Photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation When the phone rang last week, island artist Nicholas Benson didn’t expect that it would change his life.

But it has.

On Sept. 28, Benson got an “out of the blue” call notifying him that he had just been named one of the 23 MacArthur Foundation Fellows for 2010. The Foundation’s website describes Benson as “preserving the legacy of centuries-old artistic tradition and expanding the art of hand letter carving with the beauty and craftsmanship of his own designs.”

Legacy, indeed — Benson was born into a family of Newport artists.

During his teenage summers, he came home from Marvelwood School — a small Connecticut boarding school — to take up the stone carver’s mallet and chisel.

Today, at the age of 46, Benson is an accomplished artisan who joins the distinguished company of the more than 800 MacArthur Foundation Fellows who have received one of the socalled “genius grants” over the past 30 years.

“By the age of 18, [Benson] was carving commissioned work from his father’s designs,” according to the website of the John Stevens Shop in Newport, where he now works.

Benson went to SUNY Purchase, widely known as the school for the arts in the State University of New York system. From there, he “began an intensive year of study in Basel Switzerland at the Kunstgeweberschule, Schule fur Gestaltung, under the tutelage of Andre Gurtler, Christian Mengelt and Armin Hofmann,” according to the website.

When he returned from Switzerland, Benson continued to work under his father, John Benson. In 1993, after his father retired, the younger Benson took over as owner and creative director.

There, according to the shop’s website, “he continues to work to the high standards set by his predecessors.”

It is those high standards that motivate him today, Benson said.

The work that has been done by his father and his grandfather — that legacy of stone carving in the Benson family — drives him to a “specific level of perfection,” he said.

But the work of creating letter forms in stone is very subtle, he said.

“The more that you learn, the more you are driven,” he said, adding, “It can’t be seen, except through the eyes of someone with 20 years or more of design and carving experience.”

Perhaps it is this drive for perfection that attracted the selection committee of the MacArthur Foundation.

The Foundation’s website describes a selection process that includes hundreds of anonymous nominations coming from a broad spectrum of sources — and a selection committee of 12 that chooses the annual recipients.

The grants — paid out over five years — represent only a fraction of the annual grant totals made by the Foundation, according to its website. Approximately $232 million in grants was “authorized” last year to recipients in the U.S. and about 50 countries worldwide.

What was Benson’s reaction to being chosen to receive a “no strings” $500,000 grant “without stipulations and recording requirements...an opportunity to reflect, create and explore?”

“Amazing!” he said, adding, “I was completely and utterly bowled over.”

Like his father, who in 1964 was commissioned to design and carve the inscriptions for the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, according to the Stevens’ Shop website, the younger Benson, too, has been called to work on a national memorial.

Benson is part of the design team for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial that is set to open in 2011. He is responsible for designing and engraving a “site specific font” for the multiple engravings that will adorn the walls surrounding the “mountains of despair” and “the stone of hope,” all integral features of the new memorial, he said.

The result is a commute for Benson, whose wife, Alix, and children, Hope and Henry, live in Jamestown.

For three generations, Bensons have done the principal work of the John Stevens Shop.

“Grave stone engraving,” Benson said. “It is our bread and butter.”

The shop itself has been home to stone carvers for 300 years. Benson’s father continues to work in full-size sculpture in an adjacent studio.

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