In a move that was both surprising and gratifying, the MacArthur Foundation has named stonecarver Nicholas Benson as winner of one of this year’s 23 MacArthur Fellowships – more commonly called the “Genius Awards.” The fellowships, which include an unrestricted grant of $500,000, are awarded to individuals who show extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits.
The honor to Benson was surprising because MacArthur Awards most often go to people in “cutting edge” arts and sciences, not to a traditional work-with-the-hands artisan. The award was also gratifying because it shows there is growing mainstream interest in the traditional building arts. In a media environment where attention goes only to architects who design the most irrational structures, and artists who conjure the most bizarre objects, it is reassuring to see national recognition go to an artisan who is dedicated to perfecting and perpetuating a craft that dates back to the Pharaohs.
Nicholas Benson is a third-generation stonecarver, calligrapher and designer with a specialty in hand-carved inscriptions that are noted for their uncompromising craftsmanship and beauty of form and line. Although almost all cut-stone lettering in the United States today is done by machine, Benson is a master of both designing and incising letter forms by hand, using brush strokes to outline the individual letter forms before inscribing them in situ. His inscriptions and decorative reliefs can be seen on family memorials and buildings throughout the United States, including the National Gallery of Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, the National World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Arlington Cemetery.
Benson learned the great tradition of Roman architectural lettering from his father and grandfather in The John Stevens Shop in Newport, RI. (The shop was founded in the 18th century by Yorkshire stonecarver John Stevens, who had emigrated from England.) By age 18, Nicholas Benson was carving commissioned work from the designs of his father, John Everett Benson. After further study in the U.S. and Europe, Nicholas took over as owner and creative director of The John Stevens Shop in 1993, upon his father’s retirement.
In 2005, Nicholas Benson was recognized with the prestigious Arthur Ross Award, presented annually by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America.
Upon hearing about Benson’s 2010 MacArthur Award, the institute's president, Paul Gunther, echoed the sentiments of many when he declared: “The MacArthur fellowship is the ultimate American accolade, and for a traditional artisan to win this national honor is a really big deal!”