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The art of remembering!

A Tribute Carved In Stone

Drake Witham, Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer
Providence Journal-Bulletin
Section C: Newspapers & Newswires, p. 1

Karin Sprague of Scituate has put her artistic talents to use creating a lasting monument to her late father-in-law: a headstone for his grave.

It was on Block Island where Karin Sprague took long walks with Francis Sprague, her father-in-law.

A quiet man, he pointed out the house where his mother grew up, the field that his father used to hoe and shared stories with her about the summers he spent on the island.

"I don't know if I drew him out, but he just opened up to me. It was like a history lesson," Sprague said. "And he took a general interest in what I was doing."

When she started dating Francis's son, Scott, she was a construction worker by day and a bartender at night. But in her walks with Francis she would tell him about pushing away splinters of wood with a gauge and fine-tuning letters with a chisel. She told him of her passion for wood carving.

Scott and Karin were married in 1988 and eventually moved to a house in Harrisville. They visited his parents on Block Island frequently, bringing their three children and walking the island.

In May 1996, she received a call at home telling her that Francis had died while vacationing in Virginia.

"He said it was bad news but it was not what I was expecting," Karin said. "Scott was at choir practice. I went and got him and told him he had to come home."

The void created by her father-in-law's death brought on a desire to do something to show her love and appreciation for Francis. She wanted to carve his gravestone.

Growing up in Meriden, Conn., Sprague was always talented artistically.

Her knack for drawing perfect letters had fifth-grade teachers accusing her of using stencils on class projects. While the other girls in her Girl Scout troop were struggling to carve forms out of bars of soap, Sprague neatly shaped a bunny.

She channeled her artistic abilities into photography, attending Paier College of Art in Hamden, Conn., but withdrew after a year and a half. She planned to spend the winter on Block Island but ended up staying for four years.

She took many photographs during those years, but her interest in carving was growing. She signed up for a wood-carving class and was a natural with her old standby, lettering.

She met Scott when he walked into the bar for a drink one night, and would see him on the small island during the day.

"I'd be on the roof with a tool belt and he'd come by to install the phone lines," said Karin, a blush rising. "I still have that tool belt."

It was during this time she struck up her relationship with Francis Sprague and Terry, his wife, who would come by the bar for a drink.

Karin and Scott moved to Narragansett in 1989, and Karin went to work at Bentsen Signs in East Greenwich . Under the guidance of Paul Bentsen, she developed into a first-rate letter carver.

"I was thrilled just to be in a woodshop," she said.

But it got to the point where she could "carve letters with my eyes closed," so when the couple moved to Burrillville in 1990, she began learning about 18th-century carving.

Driving through the rural areas in the northwest corner of the state, she would often pull over and walk into the woods, examining the lettering on old gravestones.

"If the weather is good you can see the old headstones clear through the woods," she said. "I'll take the kids with me and hot chocolate and look at the designs. The old stones tell a story."

Where others see markers for the deceased, Sprague sees markings that "are so alive."

"My interest really exploded when Scott's dad died," she said.

She took notes on the elaborate "I's" and the carefully carved willow trees. And six months after Francis died, she broached the idea of carving his gravestone with his widow.

She showed Terry pictures of old gravestones, drawings of what she wanted to do, and walked through the old cemetery on Block Island with her.

"I just fell in love with the idea that she came up with," Terry said. "He adored her, and everything she's done has been from the love in her heart."

Sprague got to work, calling quarries all over the country for slate samples, copying designs with crayon and paper from gravestones and consulting with Terry on the wording.

"One day an 18-wheeler pulled up with a slab of slate and the guy said, 'Where do you want it,' " Sprague said.

She set the slab on a huge wooden easel with steel supports and a chain that allows her to lower the heavy stone with one finger. Then she went to work in the shed behind her house.

Her wood carvings adorn the walls, with aphorisms, pieces of poetry and pictures of her carving mentors.

Soft sounds come from the radio as she dips her chisel in a bucket of water and drags it across a sharpening stone.

To produce the hairline beginnings of a letter or the fine feathers of the dove that sits atop the headstone, the chisel has to be sharp. It's nearly finished now - Sprague has only to touch up the ribbon to bring it to life.

She insists that she's a mother first: Last week's carving sessions were put on hold while she cared for her three children, stricken with chicken pox. But her hobby pays for itself.

She has carved several signs in Burrillville, including the Jesse M. Smith Memorial Library sign, and already has an order for another gravestone, but she's focusing on getting Francis's headstone in place by May 8, the second anniversary of his death.

Terry, who has seen the final words, "a kind and gentle spirit," etched, can hardly wait.

"I know he would be very pleased."

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© 1998 Providence Journal Company

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

Etched in Stone

Raghuram Vadarevu, Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer
Providence Journal-Bulletin
Section C: Newspapers & Newswires, p. 1

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