MASTER CRAFTSMAN Benson. [Photo courtesy the MacArthur Foundation.]
Nicholas Benson never graduated from college. Instead, after a year of studying drawing and design at SUNY Purchase and a 10-month tutorial at the Basel School of Design in Switzerland, he came home to Rhode Island to join the family business. But this hardly means that the 2013 class at Salve Regina University — for whom Benson will deliver commencement remarks on May 19, alongside his father and teacher, John — should tune him out as they wait for their diplomas.
Benson is the owner and creative director of the 300-year-old John Stevens Shop on Thames Street in Newport. He has been commissioned for inscriptions at the World War II and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials in Washington, DC; the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park in New York City; and the Yale Museum of Art in New Haven, among others. In 2010, at age 46, he received a $500,000 MacArthur "genius" Fellowship to continue tapping his breathtaking, millimeter-specific designs into stone.
When I swung by his shop recently to get a preview of his graduation day wisdom, we sat surrounded by cloth-shrouded hunks of carved stone, and various planes, brushes, rulers, drill bits, and mallets. Hanging from a nearby wall was a plank of stained dark wood on which Benson's father had once chiseled — with what his son described as "level of finish was so other-worldly that it was very, very difficult to wrap your brain around the fact that this was a handmade thing" — the words "PROPORTION IS DIFFICULT." Throughout our conversation, one of Benson's co-workers tapped away with at a headstone with a mallet and chisel in the other room.
"He hasn't stopped since you've come in," Benson said, gesturing toward the other room after half an hour.
"Basically, you start carving, and at the end of the day you stop carving. And that's the way it goes. That's your life."
Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
ARE YOU ANTI-DIGITAL? No. I think the computer is an incredible tool. But it's a tool, and it all depends on who's pushing the buttons. So if you go into it with a notion that doesn't have to do with the digital and you're not relying on what the machine gives, skill-wise, and you then force the machine to do what you want it to do, you can produce things that don't have quite as much of the digital taint. And I say the "digital taint" because when it comes to the work that I do — like what I'm saying to the graduates [on Sunday] — I'm interested in the humanity. I'm not interested in the digital. I'm a human. I want the human in my product.