Carved in Stone

When Karin Sprague’s father-in-law died suddenly in 1996 she knew what she would do with the rest of her life. Karin wanted to do his stone. Her mother-in-law agreed. It took her 120 hours to create his headstone. Thus began her career as a stone carver.

Karin, a small, dark-haired, 38-year-old woman from North Scituate, Rhode Island, is well on her way to success in a male-dominated field. She says she knows of only five other women, one in Texas, one in England, and three who work with her, that have broken into the field.

As I pull into her driveway, Tibetan prayer flags shade the large glass doors of her one-room workshop. The smell of burnt cinders fills the air as I enter. Everything Karin needs is here in her modest workspace. A file cabinet, roll-top desk, and computer furnish one side of the room. Her workbench furnishes the other. In the middle of the room is a giant pulley that Karin designed. She likes to do her work upright. "It’s healthier for the back," she says.

I look around the room to see many projects going on at the same time. There are gravestones at different stages and smaller inspirational stones hanging on the walls. All have a message. Karin says all of the messages mean something special to her, but mean something just as special to the client.

Karin began her journey toward stone carving when she was very young. "I loved to cut the letters off of cereal boxes and copy them freehand. My elementary school teacher always thought I was tracing them." Karin majored in photography at Paier College of Art in Hamden, Connecticut, but didn’t like it. She took some time off after her sophomore year and never went back. Instead, she started letter carving in 1988. In 1990 she began learning about and dabbling in stone carving and in 1991 she trained to be a stone carver with a master, David Klinger. After the training, and then her father-in-law’s death in 1996, Karin knew she was destined to be a professional stone carver.

I ask her how she has achieved so much in such a short time, a little over ten years since her first class, and she replies, "A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step."

Karin incorporates her spirituality into her work. She lets it guide her. Karin went to meeting one day and sat in silent meditation. She says, "The silence came over me and I knew I was home. I looked down at my hands in my lap, they were clasped together and I couldn’t feel them, they were numb. I thought, what if I didn’t have my hands? How different my life would be." Karin considers her talent a gift and believes that like any gift, "if you open your gift it is revealed to you."

Karin is a true Renaissance woman. She says sometimes she has as many as 12 projects going on at one time and she still finds time for her husband, Scott, and her three children: Kristen, 12; Rebecca, 10; and Eli, 8.

A sign beside her workbench reads Patience. "That’s what you need when you do this kind of work," she says. Karin picks up a large polished stone lying on the table, inscribed "By Serving Each Other We Become Truly Free." The inscription is hand-carved in Brazilian green slate. She has worked on this piece over the course of a year—an hour here, an hour there. She then brings my attention to two stones she has just finished. They are the Japanese characters for compassion and understanding. They are meant to hang next to each other. She says when you feel the pieces you receive the message. I feel them. I do.

We walk around the workshop as she describes the process of creating the right stone. The giant pulley is where it all begins. After the family has chosen the stone (Karin uses slate) it is lifted onto the pulley so work can begin when the inscription has been decided upon. I notice feathers line the back of the pulley. I ask about their significance and Karin says, "They are there because. They are beautiful and they make me happy."

Before the actual physical process of working on the stone begins she must get to know the one who has passed. For this, she needs to talk to loved ones and see pictures. She usually sits with them for two to four hours and chats about the deceased. She wants to know his likes, dislikes, hobbies, and passions. She sometimes has a picnic lunch with the loved one(s) and just listens. "Listening is where it all comes from," she explains. "There is compassion in listening as well as a great sense of who the person was."

She directs my attention to a stone she is just beginning. She says she and the family were having a hard time deciding what to put on the 22-year-old man’s stone when his love for turtles came into the conversation. There is a hand-carved turtle now sitting atop the stone.

Once she has a good sense of the deceased she goes to her workshop, burns incense, puts on meditative music, and waits. She doesn’t know where it comes from but when it comes she feels an "ignition" within. She recites Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, ". . . and something ignited in my soul."

First she draws up to three different designs on a small piece of paper. Then, when the family has approved the one design they want and checked for accuracy, she transfers the design to a full-scale piece of paper. Designs and letters are done freehand. When satisfied with the results and approval of the family is given, she is ready for the intricate part of transferring the design to stone. Karin calls it her ministry. She proclaims, "You are the tool, the instrument. You have to get out of the way of your work and let it happen."

Karin first does a practice run with random pieces of stone and clay. This is because, she says emphatically, "Working in stone you have to be mindful. You can’t make a mistake because you can’t repair stone. It is unforgiving." When she feels ready for the "real" stone, carving begins with her small, slightly rough and weathered hands.

Karin uses just two tools for the actual carving: a mallet and a chisel. Both pieces fit comfortably into one hand. The mallet is handmade and belonged to her carving teacher, David Klinger. "This is the same mallet I used to do my first piece"—she motions to just above the woodstove where a stone reading God hangs. The chisel is handmade from Scotland. Every stone Karin carves is done completely by hand.

Finally, Karin stands in front of the stone ready to make the first tap with her mallet. As the mallet gently clinks against the chisel tiny pieces of stone fly in every direction. She explains that slate has to be done in layers. With a determined look and steady hands Karin will create a masterpiece unique to her.

Just as we sit to have tea, Tracy Mahaffey, one of Karin’s apprentices, comes in. She is smiling and humming. Karin tells me this is the way they all come to the shop each day. "We don’t consider this work. Imagine getting up every morning and heading out to do something you love to do. I’ll never work again," says Karin. The phone rings and Karin goes to answer it. While she is away Tracy tells me, "Karin is a real inspiration. People trust her. She puts a lot of time and love into each piece. Each design is individual to each client."

Tracy heard about Karin when she was working as a window designer. She wanted to do something different and while at a trade show that Karin was working at, she rooted herself next to Karin and asked her if she needed help at her shop. She has been with Karin for over two years.

Karin gets off the phone and tells us it was a woman who is coming to pick out a stone next week. The stone is for the woman herself. "Sometimes those are the hardest," she says.

My final questions are about the size of the stones. I ask how heavy her bigger pieces are and how she moves them. She tells me the heaviest is 400 pounds. "When moving something that large," she explains, "we think Egyptian. We think wedges, levers, and rollers." She smiles and adds that a friend of hers always pipes in, "and slaves!"—four people are needed to move the bigger pieces.

Karin is an upbeat, positive thinker. She is smiling the entire visit. There are words of wisdom and inspiration written on the walls of her workshop as well as the stones. Whistling and humming is the daily music of her ministry.

She claims, "We will never be in the yellow pages. I like having a small mom-and-pop—mom-no-pop—business. Everything is word of mouth."

I ask if she ever gets frustrated or anxious if something isn’t coming like she’d like it to. She replies, "Beschert," and says, "That is Yiddish for when it is time." Karin’s time has come. Her vision is to someday teach others the art of stone carving out of her workshop. She teaches now at craft schools a few times a year and some in her workshop. She will move her office upstairs and double her workspace. Karin likes the idea of being a mentor, an inspiration.

She smiles, shakes my hand and gives me Tibetan prayer flags to take with me. As I walk to the door I have one more question: what do the hourglass and wings signify on the stone leaning against the wall? She says, "Time flies," with raised eyebrows and a smile. I get into my car and Karin brings to my attention the fact that her Tibetan prayer flags waved over my car all morning. I get the feeling she believes this is a very good thing.

As I drive away I realize how important Karin’s work is. She creates permanence for a family who has lost someone very close to them. As she told me earlier in the day, "The stones I create will be here long after I am gone."
©2003 Anita Fritz

Anita Fritz and Karin Sprague

Anita Fritz is a journalist/reporter who works for a small paper in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Karin Sprague, a member of Smithfield (R.I.) Meeting, enjoys camping and playing with her children, and five times a year she teaches a class called "Letters Carved in Slate" in her studio.