published Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Stone carver continues tradition for MLK Memorial

Master carver Nick Benson of Newport, R.I., poses for a portrait with a quote he carved at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, Wednesday, May 25, 2011. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Master carver Nick Benson of Newport, R.I., poses for a portrait with a quote he carved at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, Wednesday, May 25, 2011. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

BRETT ZONGKER, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A third-generation stone carver is engraving more than a dozen quotations from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into the memorial that will honor the slain civil rights leader on the National Mall.

For Nicholas Benson, 46, of Newport, R.I., such work is a family tradition. His father carved inscriptions for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, his grandfather carved inscriptions for the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Va., and Benson made inscriptions for the World War II Memorial.

Still, the King memorial has special significance for the calligrapher who won a $500,000 "genius grant" last year from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for preserving an artistic tradition with a family owned shop that was established in 1705 — one of the longest continuously running businesses in the nation.

"These are probably some of the finest words that I will ever carve in stone," Benson said at the memorial site Wednesday.

A 450-foot inscription wall will feature 14 quotations arcing behind a 30-foot-tall statue of King. The quotations were chosen in 2004 by a group of scholars led by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. under the themes of love, hope, democracy and justice, said executive architect Ed Jackson Jr.

Benson and his team are hand carving 2,085 letters for the quotations. Each letter takes about an hour to complete. Benson expects to finish the project by the end of June.

Much of the construction already is finished, though the foundation building the memorial is only revealing a few quotations for now.

"We shall overcome because the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," reads one carved inscription.

For the King memorial, Benson combined his design talent and scholarly interest in letter forms to develop an original type face for the inscription wall's particular Canadian granite. He said it draws on both classical Greek forms and contemporary sans serif script, in part because King was a fan of Greek philosophy.

His workers typically use a nail and chisel to carve words, though the large size of the memorial requires the use of a pneumatic hammer. The skill required is no different, Benson said.

Carving one word, "hope," was a defining moment for Benson and his crew, in part because it's his daughter's name, he said.

"Different things strike you at different times and also things that happen in the world," he said, "You think of some of King's words and you can apply them to any given situation that's happening."

Benson's business, The John Stevens Shop, spans 300 years through six generations of one family before Benson's grandfather, John H. Benson bought it in 1927.

The $120 million memorial is set to be dedicated and opened on Aug. 28 on the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington and King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech. The King memorial foundation is expecting a large crowd for the dedication.

The group still must raise $8 million to complete the project, though foundation president Harry Johnson said they have good prospects to raise the final funds and are confident they will reach the goal.

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