Etched in Stone

Etched in Stone
Raghuram Vadarevu, Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer
Providence Journal-Bulletin
Section C: Newspapers & Newswires, p. 1
02-28-2000

Armed with a chisel, Karin Sprague of Scituate creates works that leave lasting impressions.

A smooth, polished slab of purple-tinged slate with splashes of green shines in the soft, warm sunlight that falls through a set of glass doors in Karin M. Sprague's studio.

Sprague has spent days pushing and pounding a chisel through the slate, slowly and carefully, to carve the letters that read: "Where there is PEACE and MEDITATION, there is neither anxiety nor doubt. - St. Francis of Assisi."

She put the quote on the slate and used it to fashion a sitting bench for her sister-in-law in Virginia. With clean lines and a seamless finish, the bench's letters were carved deeply into the slate. The quote is her sister-in-law's favorite, Sprague says.

"My hope is that people will read a phrase or word again [in the carvings] and that it gives them a feeling of peace," says Sprague, 35, sitting on a stool in her studio, a renovated barn heated by a wood-burning stove.

"I want to carve it for them."

Sprague has been carving wood for the last 15 years and stone for the past nine. First from a studio in Harrisville, and now from one situated on a pastoral homestead off Tourtellot Hill Road, she creates gravestones and small plaques with Japanese characters.

Sprague's talent for carefully uncovering intricate designs with her chisels had not been discovered for years. On Block Island, she discovered carving, which up until then had been buried beneath her other layers of interest: drawing and photography.

Her love of carving began with the brilliant letters on cereal boxes.

When Sprague was a child in Meriden, Conn., she cut out the letters from cereal boxes and hung them near her bed. She practiced lettering whenever she could. During a fifth-grade contest, her lettering on an anti-pollution poster won her first prize and a meeting with then-Connecticut Gov. Ella Grasso.

The letters were so exact, so perfect that teachers accused Sprague, who was then Karin Hickey, of using stencils. She hadn't.

In high school, she spent hours in the art department learning photography, which carried her to Paier College of Art, in Hamden, Conn. But she decided that photography wasn't for her. "It was too flat," she says. "I knew my hands had to create something."

Sprague withdrew after a year and half. She moved to Block Island with 25 rolls of film and $500, expecting to stay the winter; she ended up staying for 4 1/2 years. She says, "I was on my own for the first time. It was awesome and scary at the same time."

She first got a job waiting tables at a local restaurant, mainly for the tips and free nightly meal. She helped out in a photography class at the Block Island School and helped build houses on the island.

Sprague soon began painting lettered signs. She later signed up for a wood-carving class back home in Meriden. "I think when you are ready for something, it will come," she philosophizes.

She was ready. Sprague fondly remembers walking into the studio and smelling the pine wood. She began carving letters at class twice a week. Soon she would switch to stone, because "the stone seemed so permanent."

While her talent slowly revealed itself, Sprague grew up.

During her years on Block Island, she met her future husband, Scott, a phone company worker.

In 1988, Karin and Scott moved to Narragansett, and Karin went to work at Bentsen Signs in East Greenwich. Under the tutelage of Paul Bentsen, she developed into a first-rate letter carver. "I got a job at a real sign shop," she recalls.

When the couple moved to Burrillville in 1990, she began learning about stone carving. They had three children: Kristin in 1991, Rebecca in 1993 and Eli in 1994. But she never stopped carving.

In 1991 she began learning from stone carver David Klinger, in a Providence studio, who at the time was working with slate. She had not yet used the mallet that is used in stone carving. Klinger invited her to his studio, asking her to bring three letters.

She took the letters G, O, and D with her, which she carved into a block of slate. Today, it hangs above the wood-burning stove in her studio.

Since that day she has made numerous stone carvings, but perhaps her most personal piece is a gravestone for her father-in-law, who died in May 1996. The two had become close during her time on Block Island, and Sprague wanted to show her love for him.

Using a slab of slate, she carved an enormous gravestone adorned on top with a dove; below, on its face, perfectly drawn letters say: "In Memory of Maj. Francis Clyde SPRAGUE. Army Veteran of W.W. II & Korean War..."

On a recent morning, Sprague sat on a stool in her studio as sunlight poured in. Outside, the gentle slopes of her 3-acre property were covered with snow and ice.

Inside, farm tools - from sickles to saws - hung on the walls. The scent of wood hung in the air, which was a bit cool. The wood-burning stove crackled nearby.

On the floor stood her latest creation, the bench for her sister-in-law, Anne Sprague, in Virginia. Anne Sprague wanted the bench with St. Francis's quote for her garden, so she could escape her hectic life, the stone carver says.

It's a rewarding craft, Sprague says.

"I'm only here for a short time. The kind of things I make will be around a long time."

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© 2000 Providence Journal Company