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His Work Is Set In Stone All Over Washington, D.C.


The monuments and museums of Washington, D.C., are adorned with engraved stone lettering. Some of the most prominent engraving has been done by members of one family for generations. Mikaela Lefrak of member station WAMU spoke to master stone carver Nick Benson as he worked.

MIKAELA LEFRAK, BYLINE: Inside the National Gallery of Art, Nick Benson updates a list of the gallery's trustees by carving names into the limestone wall.

So what are you working on?

NICK BENSON: I'm carving an m. And you have to really, really carefully massage this thing into existence.


LEFRAK: The Rhode Island-based craftsman is legendary in the stone carving universe. He received a MacArthur genius grant in 2010 for keeping his ancient craft alive - traditional tools and all. It takes him about an hour to carve two letters.

BENSON: I've got a zinc mallet and a chisel that has a braised carbide tip.

LEFRAK: If you've ever wandered the national landmarks near Washington, you've seen Benson family work. The Iwo Jima Memorial - that was his grandfather. The FDR Memorial - his father. Nick Benson carved the quotations on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial - out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope. He just finished the new one to Eisenhower. Part of his specialty is inventing new typefaces for most big projects. For the Eisenhower, he wanted a classic letter form that would read easily.

BENSON: And I said, hey, what would be really cool is to design a neoclassical Roman letter. And it's the kind of letter that Eisenhower would see and know and associate with Washington, D.C.

LEFRAK: It's a letterform with a serif in the same family as what you'd read in a newspaper. His father invented the typeface for the National Gallery. Basically, it's bold enough to read easily from far away.

BENSON: But it has a much thicker thin stroke than other classical Roman forms. In this soft limestone, it gives it a bit more punch, and it reads a little bit better rather than having the thins almost kind of disappear.

LEFRAK: Nick Benson is 55, and he's been carving here at the gallery since he was 18. He still gets a kick out of working with this specific stone.

BENSON: When I come down here, and I sink a chisel into this wall, it's like, oh, my God. It's so freaking awesome (laughter). So happy.

LEFRAK: But more and more people are turning to computerized machines to do engravings. Benson says there's just no comparison. If he's wandering in a graveyard, he can immediately tell what graves were carved by hand versus by machine. He can even recognize ones made by his father or grandfather. He doesn't care much for computerized work.

BENSON: They're trying to make the physical world ape the look of what's in the computer, which is really weird. It's immediately evident how that can fail tremendously.

LEFRAK: To him at least, the computer looks just a little too perfect. And he hopes that his handiwork makes the country's imposing stone monuments feel just a bit more human to everyone who visits. For NPR News, I'm Mikaela Lefrak in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mikaela Lefrak is WAMU’s Arts and Culture reporter. Before moving into that role, she worked as WAMU’s news producer for Morning Edition.