This is the gravestone that led me to Nick Benson. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
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Previously on Here’s What I Know So Far…
Knowing my beloved and I would be in charge of procuring a gravestone for my father-in-law, and knowing my beloved was about to get on a plane for a three week adventure in Addis Ababa and Dar es Saalam, and knowing that it would be most useful for him if I were to get this project on track while he was away, I suggested we make a very short visit to the Mount Auburn Cemetery before he hopped on the plane for Africa. Since the Mt. Auburn is a frequent walking and birding destination of mine which has, over the years, become a most beloved and well-trod place for me, I wanted my husband to partake in a quick field trip so that we could gain some consensus around examples of what I thought were really good grave markers, along with some that didn’t work so well. The Zofnass gravestone, long a favorite of mine, was our first stop. As it turned out, my hubby knew the next generation of Zofnasses! He emailed them that day, and we heard back within 24 hours.
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Paul Zofnass responded in a trice, amazed that we’d located his family plot, delighted that we’d liked what we’d seen. He told us that one of his favorite undergraduate courses was titled “New England Graveyards,” and that, like me, he was and continues to be fascinated by the history and artistry that can be found in our local cemeteries, and at the Mt. Auburn most especially. He also provided a fuller backstory for his grandfather, Emil. Paul wrote:
I wanted a Colonial style gravestone that told a bit of a story of my family heritage, starting with my grandfather, who made the tough decision at age 16 to escape from Lithuania and travel steerage to New York, without a penny to his name, and without knowing a word of English. He arrived ill with tuberculosis, was quarantined for 6 months, then migrated to Alaska to be a lumberjack while recuperated. He later moved to Texas, where he worked as a cowhand on a Rio Grande ranch. The ranch was frequently raided by Mexican rustlers, and he was severely shot during his time there. When he recovered, he returned to New York and took a job as a seamstress for a small mattress manufacturer. There he learned the business, and eventually started out on his own. He founded the New York Mattress Company, later known as Red Cross Mattresses.
This is the sort of personal detail I pine for when I wander around the Mt. Auburn. I’m always on the lookout for remarkable backstories. Alas, space tends to be limited, epitaph-wise. And in our case, for my father-in-law (and down the road, for my mother-in-law), the words we chose would need to fit on a small flat stone. As with the Zofnasses’ gravestone, our memorial descriptions would need to be concise.
Paul also told us about the men who had produced this remarkable work of art:
Our gravestone was carved by a father/son team in Newport RI, strongly recommended to us as the best for classic work. They were well known at the time, but have subsequently become famous. The son did a wonderful job for us. The father is a famous sculpture, now retired. Their office in Newport is fascinating. I would highly recommend them, they were wonderful to work with.
I bet you can guess, gentle readers, how many minutes passed, between when I read that paragraph, and when I went on line to see what I could discover. Yep: zero minutes. I was on it like a flash!
Here’s what I learned:
Nick Benson is the grandson of the man who bought John Stevens’ little letter carving on stone operation.
John Stevens opened his original shop in 1705. He moved his operation across the street just a few years later. It stands there still.
How long ago is that? Well, let’s see. Benjamin Franklin hadn’t been born yet, and Queen Anne was in charge in Newport, back when John Stevens started carving letters on stone. More than three hundred years under one roof, just across the street from where it all began. Which makes it one of the oldest continuously operating businesses in the country.
What else did I learn? I learned that Nick Benson is a certifiable wizard at what he does. He was awarded a so-called genius grant by the MacArthur Foundation. He’s also been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts with a national heritage fellowship. The NEA described his work thusly:
Mr. Benson learned his craft through a journeyman and apprentice system. In addition, he traveled to Basel, Switzerland, to study type design and calligraphy with European masters. Renowned for its flowing sculptural qualities and precise design, the work of Nick Benson and his father can be seen on the Maya Lin-designed Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama; the Poet’s Corner in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York; and the National Gallery of Art, the Kennedy Center, and the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Recently, Nick Benson completed the work on the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe.
Okay, yeah, but what’s he done lately? Well, let me see:
The World War II Memorial in Washington DC. I’m pretty sure this is Nick Benson on the right, with Tom Hanks on the left.
The MLK Jr. Memorial, also in Washington DC.
The New Yorker had a nice piece in the Talk of the Town about Nick’s work on the FDR Four Freedoms Memorial, on Roosevelt Island. It was a labor of love, decades in the making.
He’s also undertaken a myriad of work for multiple renown museums, for the Mellon Foundation, and for Yale University, including their recently renovated art and architecture complex. In other words, Nick has done some of the most magnificent and significant lettering on stone on the face of the earth. A remarkable man that we’d discovered by complete serendipity.
So, I wondered, how long would it take for this modern-day Michelangelo of typeface and stone carving to get back to me? Do calligraphy gods answer their emails?
It turns out they do. And, okay, I had used my writer-ly wiles, to entice Nick Benson with the notion of producing a marker for a man whom I’d guessed he’d have been happy to meet–the man who built the Yale art and architecture buildings back in the 1960s that Nick had produced the gorgeous new lettering-on-stone signage for. Bless his heart, Nick wrote me back the very next day:
When I read that your father-in-law had worked on the Yale Center for British Art, well, there we are! Also, my uncle Richard was the Dean of the Art School for quite some time.
We have much in common. Please do come and see us. It would be a joy to meet you and work on a fitting memorial. We do have a year of work ahead of us as it is now. That isn’t as bad as you had thought, thankfully. (I’d guessed he might have a backlog of work that would extend out a decade or more.)
Feel free to give me a ring at your convenience. My numbers are below. If you don’t reach me on my land line please try my cell.
And then, this fabulous PS:
By the way– I have been making forays into fine art, and when I read that your father-in-law went to MIT and “was for all things theoretical, things mechanical,” I thought he may have liked the explorations I am taking into the juxtaposition between our ancient craft, calligraphic form and theoretical mathematics. Attached is an image of a calligraphic interpretation of Peter Higgs’s Standard Model of the Universe according to particle physics, hand carved into slate. I hope you enjoy it.
I don’t get it, but I love it!
I mean, seriously. This master, who had me at Zofnass, was marketing his amazing skills to me.
So, we made a date. And I knew I was in for something special, to see a genius at work, to get to step back into history.
That’s the final piece of this story, which deserves its own post, coming soon.