Renowned stone carver demonstrates work to Lawn fifth-graders
Jamestown stone carver Nicholas Benson, a 2010 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship – often referred to as the genius grant – came to the school Jan. 25. Benson gave the children some insights about the job of designing and carving words on national memorials, including the Vietnam War Memorial, the World War II Memorial, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, all in Washington, D.C.
Benson started carving when he was a teenager. He followed his father, John Everett Benson, and his grandfather, John Howard Benson, in the family business. His grandfather bought the John Stevens Shop in Newport and revived letter carving techniques practiced by the ancient Romans.
Benson said the Romans painted the letters on the stone first and then chiseled them. His father and grandfather also learned how to apply layers of hammered gold to the letters. The gold stuck to the paint and stayed on the stone forever. Sometimes he oiled the slate to make it dark. “So the gold sticks out,” said Benson.
“My favorite part was when we got to actually see the result when he was finished,” said Ben Kelso, 10.
Ben, grandson of Joy Kules, said he realized some things are very difficult to accomplish. “He made me think more about it’s not really easy to do everything,” he said.
Although he hasn’t been to the nation’s capital to see the memorials firsthand, he could estimate their scale from the photographs, which Benson showed the class.
“They are very huge,” Ben said. “Gigantic. They look very difficult to sculpt.”
Benson told the children how he carved passages from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches on the civil rights leader’s memorial in Washington, D.C.
“I designed all these locations for inscription,” he said. “I went in and carved by hand.”
The job took six months. That impressed the children, who had been studying Dr. King’s speeches and had observed MLK Day that Monday.
“We were talking about a speech in class,” Ben said. “He was talking about how he did every one of the speeches. That’s hard to do. There were a lot of speeches.”
Theo Simmons, 11, the son of Jim Simmons and Suzanne Aubois, said Benson’s talk reminded him that Dr. King’s words “really mean something, and they made a difference in the country.”
Because the class had been studying MLK, they knew a little about the man. Nolan Bush, 10, the son of Eric and Penny Bush, said King didn’t like segregation and he wanted to be free. Isaiah Thomas, 10, son of Lydia and Ricky Thomas, said he liked hearing Benson talk about quotations from Dr. King’s speeches.
“His speech and words were so powerful,” Isaiah said. “By making everything, like, equal, he used his words.”
Hannah Coleman, 10, daughter of Ann-Marie and Tim Coleman, and Rianne Dunne, 10, daughter of Anne and Rick Dunne, said King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was their favorite.
While the kids knew about the man the carving was made for, they were also impressed by the man behind the carving. Ben Jennings, 11, son of Denise and Bill Jennings, liked hearing about the technique. “I liked how he actually showed us how careful and steady he has to be to hit the hammer in the correct way,” Ben said.
Several students felt they learned brand new things from listening to Benson’s presentation.
Keely Wallace, 10, said she learned how sculptors represented the Stone of Hope and the Mountain of Despair in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial “It was a little bit new to us,” she said, “like about the rock separated from the big boulder.”
Keely, daughter of Denise and Tye Wallace, said she liked watching Benson carve a letter on a slate slab. He painted the letter “R” on first, and then he carved it with a mallet and chisel.
Anika Loverink, 10, daughter of Sarah and Matthew Loverink, said she liked to hear Benson say he loved his work.
“I liked that he showed us he put a lot of detail into it,” she said. “He loved his work, and it was the thing he loved to do.”
Theo added, “I liked how he talked about his family and how a long line of them did engravings.”
Teacher Jennifer Clark said Benson offered to visit the class, and it was wonderful for all the students to hear him talk and see his work. As a result, she said, some of the children may take up stone carving and find a job in that field someday. The students have also been working on their writing and on understanding the power of words.
And though Benson may be used to receiving accolades, he seemed to enjoy one he received from son Henry. “Dad, that was so cool,” said Henry, who is in Jennifer Clark’s fifth-grade class at Lawn.