Carved Stone Tributes

Karin Sprague: Carved Stone Tributes
Interview by Nanci Race
The Artful Mind
August 1999

A stone house with a fruit orchard and a rock collection in the basement is the ideal home for stone carver Karin Sprague. The house was built by master mason Julian Talbot in the early '80's. Talbot lovingly placed each stone, some of which he found when he traveled to the Dakotas in the winter searching for fabulous rocks. When Sprague and her husband bought the house, Talbot's book collection remained. In one of those books was a map of the orchard, so that every tree can be identified.

Sprague and her family carry on the tradition of love and care that Julian Talbot built into the house, one stone at a time. Sprague was a construction worker on Block Island, but always had an artistic ability and love of letters. She began woodcarving, but soon mastered every phase before turning to stone carving. Her first major project, handcarving intricate designs and lettering onto a slate gravestone, was a loving tribute to the father-in-law she adored. With the aid of an easel she designed and made herself, Sprague carves upright instead of flat like most carvers. She is a member of the Foster Foundation for the Arts, a non-profit organization newly formed by several northern Rhode Island artisans, including herself. Sprague is a devoted wife and mother who finds time to carve after taking care of her husband and three young children. She is also a talented and dedicated artist.

Nanci Race: Is slate the primary stone that you work with?
Karin Sprague: Always slate, right from the start. My teacher, a wood and stone carver, taught me slate. When I first met him, he was doing work on a slate project.. He said, "You could do this, Karin." I didn't think so. But he said, "It's just a different tool, and a little bit different technique. You're not pushing; everything's done with the mallet. I'll teach you." He told me to come with three letters to lay out, some straight, some curved. I arrived at his studio with my eight-month-old daughter in the back pack and I laid out "GOD." That G was the first letter I ever cut. I did the O, and as I was doing this he was giving me little hints. Later, I collaborated on a church job with him. There was the main sign, "Saint Sebastian's," then the smaler sign that said "masses," and all the masses were to be carved in slate. He said, "Would you do this for me?" He laid it all out. I came home and thought , "My gosh, I'm really going to do one."

NR: What is unique about the slate you use?
KS: For lettering you can pull incredible detail out of slate from the first time that chisel touches the slate. There's small sediment in the slate, so you can do fine detail. Granite has very large crystals, so the lettering is more block. You see some of the old hand-cut letters in granite. But I really love the old slates in the burial grounds. They hang on to their detail. You can get fine details in marble, but it sugars and the elements - the weather, the rain - after a while the fine details are gone. You can still read the old slate ones that are 200 years old.

NR: What is the usual time frame for a piece from start to installation?
KS: My first stone, a gravestone, an act of love, was 120 hours. I did it for my father-in-law who had died. I realized that if I was going to do this, then I'd better keep track of time, if somebody really wanted one. It was a very elaborate decorative border, with a lot of lettering. I did a lot of genealogy on it. There's a dove and a ribbon. I pulled out all the stops. I'm thankful that I kept track of time, because I calculated what I thought I'd like to earn per hour, but I thought that nobody would ever be able to afford this work. I was mistaken. There are people who will pay for fine art, and this basically is fine art. I'm very lucky that before the first one was finished, I had an order for a second one. This stone that I'm working on now in the studio is my third stone. It will be installed in the northwestern part of Connecticut. The family has ordered four stones. One family member that I am working with, a really great woman, is taking two marble stones out and we're going to replace those with slate.

NR: Do you have any information on any of the people who carved some of the gravestones that you've studied?
KS: Yes. One of my favorite books is called, "Early American Gravestones and the Men Who Made Them." Harriet Forbes wrote this book and she said that most stonecarvers were also woodcarvers. I thought that was great  because I did the woodcarving first, then the stone. There are no women at all in that book. Things were very different for us then. I know one woman, I think she's from Texas, and another in England , named Lida Lopez Cardoza. I was really excited when my teacher, David, gave me this book. To those who are handcarving today, there is no computer process in this, no photographic process, everything is by hand: from the pencil on the stone, drawing it, then carving it. That's unique. Today the computer plays such a role in art that when I look at stone tha has been computer generated, but handcarved, there's a lack of spirit there, because the artist's "self" isn't there. Everything A is exact. With mine, you look at it and you might think it's perfect, but if you look, there are variations in the L's, and I like that.

NR: What do you do if you misspell a word?
KS: I start with a scale drawing that I show the family I'm working with. First, a sketch, then we firm up the design. I give them a scale drawing which they approve. Any adjustments are made on paper. I send this to the quarry and they cut the slate slab to the size I want. Prior to cutting any letters I look at the paperwork. I have the client look at the drawing and they agree that everything's fine. After I lay it out, I stand there and I read it out loud, but a mistake could happen. I've seen some of the old stones that have a little square around it and the field is lowered and the next numeral is placed in there. There are ways of correcting it.

NR: Is there any famous carver whose work you admire?
KS: The most famous have come out of the John Stevens studio. They're the masters. They're highly-trained, third-generation stone cutters. I'll walk into a burial and not all the stones are signed. There was another, Tillinghast. His name kept showing up and he had beautiful script. Where it would say, "In Memory," the "I" was fabulously flowing. On Wednesday nights, I attend Brown University, where I have a teacher who is a calligrapher. She's teaching me script lettering. I'm learning with the old pen. I want that to come out more in my work. I've always loved letters. When I was in fifth grade I did a poster. The lettering was all with markers. We were told we were supposed to do that by hand and I was isciplined for using stencils. I didn't, I really struggled with that piece. I hope to gain some freedom with this lettering course that I'm taking - to really let my hair down when I'm carving and take chances.

NR: What are your feelings when you realize that a finished piece will be here years after you're gone?
KS: When I finished the first stone, which was very intense from the get go, and I knew there was no more fussing to be done, all that was left was to install it, I stood back, looked at it and thought, "I did this? How could I have done it?" Aside from gravestones, I'm having this very strong leading to carve words and thoughts in stone. I wrote to Mother Theresa's community after she died, and I asked them to send me some of her words, but they said they couldn't give me anything if I was going to use it for commercial purposes. I told them that wasn't it, and I wasn't sure why, but I wanted to carve her words in stone. They sent me several things and they're tucked in my portfolio. My husband and I like to hike, and I guess you call it graffiti, but if I go way off the trail and find a great ledge and put these thoughts in stone, there's permanence.

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© 1999 The Artful Mind