Karin Sprague: The Art of Remembering
Interview by Harryet Candee
The Artful Mind
The first gravestone that wood and stone carver Karin Sprague ever did was a total act of love. Sprague was close to her father-in-law, and when he died, she carved his stone. She'd never carved a gravestone before, but felt that she was led to do this. With no prior knowledge of where to find the stone, she called John Stevens' shop in Newport, Rhode Island. This a third-generation owned shop. As soon as she entered the shop, Sprague said she was convinced that this was what she was meant to do.
Sprague, a Quaker, came to this area a few years ago to demonstrate her art at Santarella Gardens and Museum in Tyringham, Massachusetts. She needed a place to stay, so she wrote to the Quakers in South Berkshire. Sprague says, "Donna Wayne Burkhart said, 'Yes, you are coming to stay with us.'" The Burkharts work at the Gould Farm in Monterey, which is 600 -acre farm, and alternative healing place for those with mental illness. Sprague relates, "I was kind of concerned by that. I said 'Oh my gosh, is it safe?' But it's an incredible place!"
The initial fear for her safety is gone, and Sprague is enthusiastic about her experience with the residents. "I have meals with them. Staff and guests have meals together, and you cannot tell who is staff and who is guest; it is wonderful. Everyone sits down together and now in my various times in coming to the Berkshires to teach or to exhibit ... I stay there."
Sprague's commissions come to her in a variety of ways. Much of the work that she does is word-of-mouth, but there are also instances which Sprague feels she is led to by a greater force. She says, "The Burkharts are at the farm and I am doing a stone for their son who died when he was twenty-one. They didn't know of my work when they said "Yes" to bring me in. They said, 'We can't believe this is what you do. A year ago we lost our son and we have not been able to come to an understanding of what we want and now we see you and your work and you've come into our life and we think you're supposed to do a stone.' We came up with an amazing design."
Sprague says that she has twelve projects in progress, all in different design phases. Some are waiting for stone to come in; others are about to be installed. She says that her business consultants help coordinate things so that all the parts come together.
Sprague says that letter art has always been considered an ancient art form dating back to the cave dwellers wanting to leave their mark on the earth to record something for today's purposes.
"However," she explains, "It's rare, that someone is still cutting a letter in stone. With technology as it is, everyone wants something faster, quicker, and cheaper, but there's no way to duplicate what a human hand can do - a brush stroke, stroking out a beautiful letter, and carving it with a chisel and mallet. But, no one can be forced to see the difference. You either see it or you don't. You either get it or you don't."
According to Sprague, there are approximately a dozen letter cutters in the United States who still practice the art of hand-carving a letter. She says that there is a place for the computer in the typography and the computer-generated letter and the sandblasted letter for long, drawn-out tremendous inscriptions, but the finest inscriptions in the world are still carved by hand. Sprague remarks that by drawing a letter by hand, the artist's soul and the beauty of the letter are unlike anything else in the world.
Sprague is teaching letter-carving and there are others who are teaching. She says that she now has two apprentices and that one of her apprentices, Tracy Mahaffey, attended one of her workshops and is very gifted.
Sprague explains that she is continually striving to improve her skills. She has a book of the finest letter -cutters in the United Kingdom, which greatly influences her work. She explains, "When you experience somebody who is better than you, then you improve. So, to see these people who have just tremendous love for their craft and then express themselves individually just raises the standard. There is an international letter arts magazine 'Letter Arts Review' and when I first came across that magazine, I was breathless that there's this high-caliber group of letter artists that exists. The 'Letter Arts Review' recognizes and displays the finest in letter arts."
When Sprague speaks about her craft, the love she feels for her art is apparent. She remarks, "When I'm asked, 'What do you do?' to say that I'm an artist is never enough; to say I'm a letter artist is still not enough; to say I'm a wood or stone carver is still not enough. You have to experience either me and my work or just the work. I love to take friends into old burial grounds, into the older sections so that they can see the hand-cut inscriptions as opposed to today's modern machine versions."
She also states that her work is evolving not just in skill, but also in style. "Now I'm finding my voice and going deeper into the gift that I have and each time challenging myself to go a little bit farther with every family that comes to me asking me to create something for someone in their family or for themselves."
Sprague speaks of the process of creating a relationship with the people she makes memorials for. She says this is necessary so that they can be open and tell the story of their loved one - a sometimes painful process. She continues to explain, "A mother who read the first article about me in 'The Artful Mind' called. Her teenage son committed suicide. For three years she would visit his grave, but there was no stone. She couldn't bear to see his name carved in stone. It was so difficult to let go of him in such a way, and I can't imagine ... I have never buried a child. To go to that next step, the mother always thought, 'Oh, I'll get to it next month.' But nothing crossed her path that spoke to her, that would be good enough for her son. Then she saw the article. She saw the photos and she came to Santarella where I was demonstrating. At first she didn't speak to me; she came into the room and touched the stone I was working on. There were many people in the room, so she never spoke to me. She experienced the work and then she called me that following week and said, 'You know, I'd like to commission you to carve my son's stone.'"
Many people are deeply affected when they see Sprague's work. They are compelled to relate the stories of their loved ones, lives and deaths, and ask for Sprague's help with their remembrance, such as the woman who had lost her son. Sprague recounts, "We sat out in the sun and she told me the story of her son, of his life. She told me about who he was and how difficult it was to come to this place. She was shaking as she was talking. She said, 'To see my son's name in stone, I thought, there's all this cold stone; but when I saw your work, and touched it, the smoothness of the slate, I knew the love that you put into each of your pieces.' I knew she was convinced that I would create something unique for Bryan, her son."
From the information that she gathers from the family, Sprague's ideas may come to her at any time because the information begins simmering in her. She says that she is a vehicle to help families heal. She'd been told that the young boy, Bryan, had been interested in time travel. She relates her inspiration for his memorial.
"The vision was to somehow create something so that it said that he understood something about time travel. My vision was to create an upright stone that had an arch pierced into it, so the design is an upright slate and then there's an arched doorway in the center so that light pierces through it. There's a stone itself and then there's the present, which is before it. Then as you go through that, there is the crossing over to the other side. So, his stone will have his name and inscription, but there's this arch cut ou of the stone. When I explained this vision to his mother, she said she wanted to have her stone there. She'll be buried there next to him eventually. And, I wasn't clear how, but she wanted to have the light at the time of his birth. The day of his birth, and at the hour of his birth, the sun would be coming through that arch, and then her tablet would be flush to the earth and his light would rake right across her name at 4:00 p.m. on the date of his birth.
"These aren't things that you could ever imagine that would come through me, but they came through me. Most artists know that they can be this vessel for the creative process. With the family giving me some of the parts, I sit and ask ... I am constantly asking the spirit to just use me. Let me create something to heal them; help them and I'll feed my soul. When that design was figured out on paper, we were both just elated. Then the logistics came and she spent four hours in my shop. We made models, chalk on the floor, figuring it out until we were both emotionally drained and exhausted. We finally figured out the axis of the sun, the distance of her tablet to her son's, and when she stands at his grave at the hour of his birth, the light is going to be coming through his stone. It's amazing. And that's just one. Not every one is going to be that intense; there is an amazing sharing."
Although she loves her work, Sprague admits that sometimes she finds it hard to do what she knows has to be done. At these times, she seems to be guided by a spirit that is within her. She says, "This is the second time that a mother has shared with me the story of her child's suicide. I sat there in the sunlight and physically wanted to leave the area. I said, 'God, this is too much. I can't do this. I can't hear this story again.' But the spirit in me was saying, 'But you said yes. You said you would do this work.' So, I just work through that tough spot. Now we've come to the final design."
Sprague says that her creative outlet is creating smaller tablets that are manageable, but her real creative outlet is creating what she thinks the families are going to love and what she's going to love to carve. She says that she hasn't run into anything that she considers impossible; so far, she's always been able to find a way.
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© 2001 The Artful Mind