Friday, March 21, 2014

A Dying Art: Stone Carvers of the Cemetery

Cave Petroglyphs
Art has always been a part of our society; a part of what makes us human, and stone carvers are the oldest artists in the world. Their petroglyphs and carvings can be found on cave walls and stones around the globe.

Venus of Berekhat Ram
What is thought to be the oldest carved stone is known as the Venus of Berekhat Ram. Shaped like a female figure, this prehistoric stone is at least 230,000 years old and may have been carved by Homo erectus.

Early stone carvings were made using a harder stone to “carve” on a softer stone. The Ancient Greeks developed a technique where granules of carborundum (Silicon carbide - SiC) were formed into an abrasive file, which could then be used to scrape forms or designs on stone.

Indiana Limestone Quarry
Chisel Carving Tools
With the development of iron, carving tools were created and tempered so that stone could be shaped and cut without damaging the tools or destroying the stone. Gravestones could be crafted from granite, limestone, marble, slate, even metal.

The halcyon days of gravestone carving in the U.S. began during the 19th century and continued into the 1920s. It was during this period that gravestone sculptors chiseled, rasped and carved with such proficiency that “cemetery stone carver” became a well-respected profession in America.  Carving grave markers gave these men a way to express their artistic talents, and earn a living. Many monument and gravestone sculptors were proud of their designs, and signed their works. 

The size of the mausoleums, grave sculpture, or stone mattered in the cemetery because it indicated a person’s wealth and status in that community. But well carved cemetery markers were not just for the rich – some of the most poignant examples were carved by local craftsmen as can be seen in the abundance of tree stones, statues and monuments carved around the country.

Indiana Stone Carvers
Stone carvers arrived in the U.S. and gravitated to certain areas of the country where quarries and work were plentiful – mainly in New England – in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Numerous stone carvers from Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany and Italy made their way to the U.S. during the 1800s, intent to settle here and carve stories in stone.

Limestone Quarry
Another destination for stone carvers was in Lawrence County, Indiana, and the town of Bedford, located in the heart of limestone country; the “Limestone Capital of the World.”

A Favorite Hat
A Stone Carver's Table on the Day He Died
The work of numerous stone carvers can be seen at Green Hill Cemetery in Bedford.  Hundreds of carvings, statues, sculptures and engravings exist in minute detail, thanks to the limestone’s ability to weather well.

Many of those stone carvers are now buried here near the Stone Cutters Monument, erected by the Bedford Stone Cutters Association in 1894.

Bedford Stone Carvers Monument
The monument shows a late 19th century stonecutter, holding a mallet in his hand.  Clasped hands are shown on the front of the monument, beneath it’s gabled roof.  The other three sides bear the carved images of a hand with a mallet, a sexton and square, and a grouping of stonecutting tools.

Water Jet
Oxy-acetylene Torch
Today, “carving” on gravestones is done using water erosion and diamond saw cutting techniques, lasers, oxy-acetylene torches or jet heat torches.

Karin Sprague Stone Carvers
John Stevens Shop
Unfortunately, the art of stone carving by hand is vanishing from American cemeteries. Only a handful of stone carvers remain, most located in New England. Among them are The John Stevens Shop, Karin Sprague Stone Carvers, Custom Memorials (Michael Fannin, Stone Carver), Words Too Big To Read (Allison Blake Schofield, Stone Carver), and Anderson Memorials (Jeff Anderson, Stone Carver)

Although a monument or marker cut with laser and die does a satisfactory job, a hand-carved stone has a more intimate feel, and offers a very personal way to remember a loved one. Hand carved stones give us a way to bridge the past and future - as stone carvers cut and shape each individual grave marker, one small chip at a time …

~ Joy

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