Monday, August 12, 2013

Fair Play

Two weeks ago I was fortunate enough to participate as a featured demonstrator at the 2013 Lowell Folk Festival. It was a homecoming of sorts, as in 2011 I was there as a letterpress printer with John Kristensen of Firefly Press, where I worked as an apprentice for six years. As we were breaking down our booth a woman kindly came over to give us a hand. I was then in the first blush of my new passion for lettering in stone and it wasn't long into our conversation that I began raving about it. Somewhat naively I thought at the time, she said matter of factly, "You should study with Nick Benson at the John Stevens Shop." That's sort of like admitting that you like baseball and someone saying you should go play for the Red Sox. I mean, do I just show up at Fenway with a bat and glove and wait for John Farrell to put me in the lineup? Or rather, show up at the JSS with a mallet and chisel and be put to work? Surely it wasn't that simple. But this woman turned out to be Lynne Williamson, director of the Connecticut Cultural Heritage Arts Program at the Institute for Community Research. One of her organization's primary purposes is to facilitate mentor/apprentice relationships between traditional craftspeople from across state lines, the states being Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Long story short (see:, Lynne made it possible for me to study with Nick Benson in the spring of 2012, and now here I was back at the Lowell Folk Festival demonstrating as a lettercarver. I am a government-funded success story!

What a happy coincidence that the theme for this year's festival was Carving Traditions. I shared a tent with Nick Longborg, a woodcarver from Halifax, MA, who specializes in signage and decorative sculpture. We were joined amiably by Wen-Hao Tien. She is a visual artist based in Newton, MA, with an impressive multimedia portfolio that includes traditional Chinese seal carving, such as you would find authenticating a work of calligraphy or a watercolor painting. Over two days we enjoyed a steady stream of curious onlookers and reveled in the general good-feeling of being among other carvers. Given the solitary nature of the work, it was stimulating to be out in the world sharing the craft. In response to people who approached the demonstration apologetically, I liked to say that lettercarving occupies the eyes and the hands, leaving the mouth with nothing to do but answer questions.

My new press sign made its first appearance in public.

By the end of the weekend I had collected over forty email addresses from visitors wishing to stay in touch, a gratifying haul indeed. While I wasn't able to finish my "Festina Lente" demo, I still felt like I accomplished my main goal, which was to create a little room in people's imaginations for considering the ancient history of lettering in stone and its various modern applications. Make haste slowly:

A week later this happened:

A week after that I was back in demonstration mode, honeymooning at the Bolton Fair. I was invited to attend by Phil Wilson of the nascent Lost Arts Collaborative (, who was recommended to me by my friend and longtime supporter, folklorist Maggie Holtzberg. I grew up in Hudson, the next town over from Bolton, but since it has always coincided with the Sterling Fair, the fair of my youth, this was my first visit to the Bolton Fair (technically now in Lancaster). At any rate, it was a much-desired opportunity to share my work with a gathering of extended neighbors and the experience did not disappoint. I even ran into my first boss, now a part-time blacksmith, from the hardware store in Hudson where I serviced lawnmowers and filled propane tanks as a restless teenager. The setup:

I was able to put one of our wedding presents to immediate use, a personalized portable flat file (thanks, Joe and Rachael!) which kept my ephemera display safe from the gusting winds.

In one visitor's 'umble opinion, I needed a flashy sign on my tent to attract attention and differentiate myself from the crowd. Fortunately I was the only lettercarver there and the novelty of a man pounding on a piece of slate proved compelling enough to the dozens of visitors who stopped, watched and took a business card. One of the challenges I face in trying to establish my business is that while in central Massachusetts I have little competition as a letterpress printer and none as a lettercarver, there is a correspondingly narrow market for my services. That is, until people see the work and start getting ideas. Suddenly that unique wedding present someone was trying to find began to look a lot like lettering in a piece of slate. Or it occurred to a family that the only thing missing from their new stone walkway was their name. A lot of people inquired about putting their names or address numbers on a piece of stone already on their property. This is the part where I wish I had more experience, that is to say any experience, carving letters in granite. That day will come soon I have no doubt, but until then I have to persuade customers that slate is great.

It was the most frequently asked question of the weekend: what is that? Having finished "Festina Lente" on Saturday, I devoted Sunday to answering that question with a playful demo sketched freehand directly onto the stone. I ordered this sample from a quarry with the main specification that it be as dark a green as possible and blemish-free. As green goes it missed the mark, but more alarmingly the exclamation point of dark matter embedded in the stone did not inspire confidence. It would make a great countertop or a classy backsplash for a sink, but for my purposes it was a chisel-breaker to be avoided at all costs. So I promptly drew right over it. How hard could it be, really? It is extremely hard. I carved at a letter-per-hour rate that would get me laughed out of the John Stevens Shop for sure (to say nothing of the, ahem, decidedly English style of the lettering). But again, production mode was not the goal or the point. I was able to score another forty email addresses in my notebook and judged my success on the display of enthusiasm folks kindly showed the process and the work. My sincere thanks to all the good people who visited, struck up a conversation and made the weekend such a pleasure. Thanks also to my beautiful wife, Meg, for pretending she was on a beach in Hawaii.