Father-son stone carvers John and Nicholas Benson to present Commencement address
Master stone carvers Nicholas W. Benson and his father John E. Benson, proprietors of Newport’s centuries-old John Stevens Shop – the artists behind such works as the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the World War II Memorial and the John F. Kennedy Memorial – will be presented with honorary degrees and offer remarks to the Salve Regina community when it celebrates its 63rd Commencement Sunday, May 19.
“While Commencement is always about bringing families together to share in a landmark accomplishment, it is rare that both a father and son have the opportunity to speak to graduates and receive honorary degrees on the same stage at the same time,” said President Jane Gerety, RSM, who will present both Bensons with honorary doctorates in humane letters. “On behalf of the Salve Regina community, we are privileged to extend such an honor to two generations of artists, a father and son, who have elevated the beauty of our national landscape – quite literally – with their bare hands.”
Over the past three centuries, the John Stevens Shop, established on Thames Street in 1705, has produced headstones for New England gravesites and its skilled artisans have designed and inscribed calligraphy on buildings and stone monuments across the country. Acquired by the Benson family in the 1920s, the shop remains one of the longest continuously running trade businesses in the United States.
Under three generations of Bensons, the John Stevens Shop has worked with well-known families, institutions and architects on projects that include inscriptional work for Brown, Yale and Harvard universities, Smith College, the National Gallery of Art, the Frick Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Washington National Cathedral and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, among many others, including Salve Regina’s McKillop Library and Wakehurst Student Center.
Renowned for its flowing sculptural qualities and precise design, the work of Nicholas Benson and his father, John, can also be seen on the Maya Lin-designed Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., and the Poet’s Corner in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. The work of the Benson family was documented in the film “Final Marks” and in 2001 Nicholas Benson was featured in the “Masters of the Building Arts” program of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Nicholas Benson is recipient of the 2010 MacArthur Fellowship and the 2007 NEA National Heritage Fellowship. In an age of machines and computers, he is a master of hand letter carving, using brush strokes to outline individual letterforms before inscribing them by hand. Combining his scholarly interest in the history of letterforms and their design, Nicholas developed an original font that draws on both classical Greek forms and contemporary sans serif script for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen as Salve Regina University’s Commencement speaker,” Nicholas Benson said. “It is a little odd to think that I, a stone carver, would find myself in such a wonderful position. It certainly speaks to the integrity of my predecessors and that of my father in particular, who have left me with more than a lifetime of inspiring work to study and revere. In some measure it also speaks to the greater history of Newport.
“I think that the Stevens’s headstones, the carpentry of the Townsends and Goddards, the stunning architecture of McKim, Meade and White that make up so much of the Salve Regina campus – all of these achievements owe a degree of gratitude to this beautiful and dynamic little city,” he said. “So, when I find myself standing on the National Mall with a mallet and chisel in my hand carving the words of Dr. Martin Luther King into the granite walls of that man’s memorial, I simply look at the legacy I was given and find no mystery at all in how it has inspired me to achieve so much.”
Nicholas began working at the John Stevens Shop at age 15 as an apprentice under his father. By age 18, he was carving commissioned work from his father’s designs. He attended the State University of New York at Purchase in 1986 to study drawing and design. In 1987, he began an intensive year of study in Basel, Switzerland at the Schule für Gestaltung. Upon his father’s retirement in 1993, Nicholas took over as owner and creative director of the John Stevens Shop.
John E. Benson began working under his father, John Howard Benson, in 1955 at age 15. He studied sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design and upon graduation returned to the family shop to work full time as a stone carver. In 1964, he was commissioned to design and carve the inscriptions for the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.
He has also carved gravestones for Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman and George Balanchine. He designed and executed exterior and interior inscriptions for the Prudential Center in Boston, the Boston Public Library, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Center and the Armand Hammer Museum of Art in Los Angeles. John Stevens’ lettering graces stones of the Vietnam Memorial and Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the Federal Courthouse in Boston. Since his retirement in 1993, he continues to do portrait and figurative work in clay and bronze at his Newport studio.
In 2006, Salve Regina hosted a gallery exhibition, “The Stone Carver’s Business,” which portrayed the comprehensive history of the John Stevens Shop from its establishment in 1705 to the present day. It was the first exhibition to consider the historical, social and artistic significance of the shop and the artisans who have carved stones within its walls.