Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Early bird

At 4:45 am my eyelids popped open: of all the things I hope to do well at the John Stevens Shop, sleeping does not appear to be one of them. An 18th-century house will cough and crack its bones in the wind, but the variety of noises I've heard in the evenings suggests a so-far friendly spirit of carvers past. To humanize the occasional eeriness, I tell myself it's Nick's grandfather John Howard Benson, or JHB, downstairs gathering materials for a spectral last inscription.

A motion-sensored light from across the street shone in the room, a false dawn. The Christmas-morning leap gave way to a resigned swing of the legs, but it was good to be awake. I've been harvesting articles on the JSS from various magazines over the last sixty years, and they make a fine complement to a bowl of cereal in the stillness of morning.

With the sky beginning to brighten I figured I'd go downstairs to take a look at yesterday's haul. And there was Nick lit by a single lamp a dozen or so brushed letters into the next gravestone.

I felt sort of cheated, actually. If a man is going to wake up at a quarter to five he should at least have the right to get to the shop first, especially when his commute is a spiral staircase. But I thought better of complaining: Nick was probably up at three. I wouldn't be surprised if slept with his keys in his hand.

Today we would be setting the season's first gravestone in a cemetery in Jamestown. A relatively simple stone in concept, just the family name, Malcom, in italic on a slab of riven slate, it is absolutely stunning in design and execution. A ribbony swash M is the dominant visual element and the immaculate precision of the carving contrasted with the roughness of the surface makes it really pop. It's the sort of work that makes other gravestones nervous.

Around 9 am Nick began filling the truck with the impressive pile of tools and materials involved in the work at hand. Rather than sunk a few feet into the ground like most of your typical upright stones, this was to be set into a granite base which itself sits on a cement platform just under the grassline. The two pieces would be assembled on site, held together by a pair of steel pins epoxied into the bottom of the gravestone. These are then set and epoxied into holes drilled in the base like a slate plug into a granite socket. A relatively simple operation but naturally requiring a lot of logistical planning and a certain amount of "festina lente" (make haste slowly), given the timing imposed on us by the quick-drying epoxy mix.

Once the base was determined to be level on its platform, the stone hung in position from the chain on the truck, and the supporting materials laid out, we waited in the bright chill for Benny, the son of the client and an old friend of Nick's, to show up and watch the setting in action. Though there in a ceremonial capacity, he proved quite useful when it came time to remove the shims on which the stone had been lowered in order to pull out the strapping. A slow and strenuous deadlift with Nick and I on either side of the stone and it was in place. Helping to hold the stones together is a necklace of oil-based bonding agent sort of like gray Silly Putty. It flattens under the weight of the gravestone making a seal, but so that rain or moisture doesn't find it's way in between gaps in the putty and do eventual damage Nick had to tuck a few pieces in with a long, skinny spatula.

It felt like we were placing a holy jewel in a field of sandblasted rhinestones. The strangely festive pinwheels and plastic calla lilies on nearby gravestones seemed a little embarrassed, or perhaps I was embarrassed for them, gauche as a boy-band ringtone during a Latin mass. I accept that everyone mourns differently and that the memorials that matter most are in the hearts of those we leave behind. But looking out across a modern cemetery, and really at how we as a culture systematize our grief, I couldn't help but feel that the dignity and complexity of a life deserve more than sandblasting is prepared to offer. As with any tool, it can be used intelligently and effectively. But the stock of letter forms made into rubber stencils and available to customers of production-driven monumental masons pretends that Trajan's Column, the broad-edged brush and the v-cut do not exist. (Unpopular opinion alert: not unlike many polymer-based "letterpress" printers who conveniently forget that letters used to be and still are in some (type)cases things, not digitizations of things.) I wouldn't suggest that everyone go back to the mallet and chisel, though it wouldn't hurt if more Americans were drawn in. (England has a richer tradition of lettering in stone and thus exponentially more practitioners.)
But more allowances should be made for the quality, the integrity of communication we deem so important as to write in stone. Just saying.

By the way, do you like apples?

Also, do you like sunsets?

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