To call Nick Benson a stone carver is a little like calling Louis Comfort Tiffany a glazier. Technically, you’d be correct, but there’s a lot more to it.
Benson hails from a family of stone carvers who have worked out of the John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island since the 1920’s. Nick’s grandfather and father designed and/or carved inscriptions for Yale, Harvard and Brown Universities, the Iwo Jima Memorial, the John F. Kennedy Memorial at the Arlington National Cemetery, the Boston Public Library, the Prudential Center, the University of Rhode Island’s Carothers Library, the Dallas Museum of Art and many others.
When John Benson retired in 1993, Nick took over the business and since that time has designed and carved for the National Gallery of Art, the World War II Memorial, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the FDR Four Freedoms Park in New York. In 2007, he was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship and in 2010 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.
The Benson family worked with artist Maya Lin on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama and on the Women’s Table at Yale. In 2013, Benson carved the inscriptions for Lin’s Meeting Room, an installation in Queen Anne Square in Newport.
The Meeting Room was privately commissioned as a gift to the city to honor heiress Doris Duke, a lifelong preservationist who devoted part of her fortune to restoring colonial buildings in the city that was her summer home. Ms. Duke founded the Newport Restoration Foundation in 1968 and was active in preserving and restoring Queen Anne Square.
According to the Doris Duke Monument website, “the park design centers on three stone foundations, which represent actual locations and footprints of buildings that existed on the site during three different centuries: 1777, 1876, and 1907”. Inscriptions that are period-relevant are embedded in the thresholds of each foundation.
Benson provided a list of approximately six quotes from the John Stevens Shop account books, from which Lin then selected two. They read:
To turning the arch, to the overplush of ye plastering, to laying five harthes, and
To the hard bargain that is to stoning one seller & building one stak of chimnyes & plastering the howse.
The Monument Foundation’s Executive Director Pieter Roos and Lin selected the other four quotes from historic ship logs and diaries:
Light airs at 5 am, hove short & made all sail awaiting for the breeze.
From the log of the ship Atlas, Henry A. Brightman, Master
Rained all day. Made jelly & did various other Housekeeping matters which consumed the Morning
Fanny R. Clarke’s diary from 1867
To Trinity. After church Loulie and I read up in studio and later took a walk & got wildflowers. Talked in evening.
From the diary of Anna F. Hunter
I went to several places to invite my nabours to help me husk in the evening & 25 coum to husk & the great part supt here.
Nailer Tom’s Diary, 1809
The Meeting Room includes a solid granite water table, carved with a quote from the Royal Charter of 1663, which guarantees religious liberty and invites an open society:
Know ye, that we, being willing to encourage the hopeful undertaking of our said loyal and loving subjects, and to secure them in the free exercise and enjoyment of all their civil and religious rights, appertaining to them, as our loving subjects; and to preserve unto them that liberty.
The quotes reference a daily life of work and domesticity, contrasted within the larger context of the Charter quote. One intuits that history is mostly just an accumulation of small days, though every once in awhile someone creates a document like the Charter that has lasting consequence.
Approximately 15 people, including Lin, made several trips to a highway-side site in East Providence, Rhode Island to examine and choose from a group of retainer stones left over from a long-ago project.
Benson prepared the layout, the design and the overlay of the inscriptions while mason Jack Afonso prepared the stone surfaces. Using the overlay, John Stevens Shop employee Paul Russo then spent the next 3 months carving the work at Riverside Stone in Seekonk, Massachusetts. After the site was prepared, the stones were carefully installed in time for the ribbon cutting in May 2013.
On a recent sunny spring day, visitors wandered in and around the low fieldstone foundations, sat in the sun, looked around at the city-center and read the inscriptions carved into local granite.
Lin has created an elegant template, one that respectfully references history while remaining completely contemporary. Happily, the commission also accomplishes another goal, one that might never be afforded out of public coffers, but that nevertheless may be more important for Newport in the long run: the commissioning of work by Newport’s native son, Nick Benson, a MacArthur prize winner, who is also part of the city’s continuing legacy.
Like most places, Newport is complicated, yet it is mainly a daily place, a place that has sustained jelly making, raising the sail and the carving of stone for centuries.
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