Geocushions and Gooey Baroque
A Studio Visit with Stone Carver Mark Mennin
Photos by Ryan Lavine
Surrounded as we are by immovable hunks of stone, it’s hard to know where to turn first. Along a winding country road in Bethlehem, Mark Mennin’s studio can be glimpsed from a distance: a wooden barn encircled by chunks of granite, marble, and onyx, looking something like an ancient ruin, unmistakably the workplace of a stone carver.
Mennin cuts a hearty figure, and though a close shave has cleaned up the grey whiskers that emerge when his wife is away on business trips, his towering physique is a reflection of the physicality of his chosen profession, a calling that he has engaged in for over 30 years.
Inside the studio, he’s working on carving a seven foot tall Humpty Dumpty in luminous, pale yellow onyx. “Not to be irreverent, but I think it’s the nursery rhymes and fairy tales that contain the greatest truths.” Mennin’s been thinking about politics. He makes a biting remark about our president’s hair as he shines his flashlight behind Humpty’s ear, demonstrating how the stone will glow when lit: the creamy yellow surface reveals depths streaked with blue, white, and rusty red.
Outside, scattered among the raw stone, pieces sit in various states of completion: a half built room of dark granite, “Oh, that’s the Padded Cell,” he says, and I’m beginning to detect a dark sense of humor. Next to it, the relic of a giant fluted column, salvaged from a neoclassical bank. The interior has been carved into a tufted pattern, like the surface of a velvet couch, spilling out from the broken center, “Gooey,” he laughs, “like the soft Baroque interior of this hard Classical shell.” This pillowy quality, this contradictory softness, is termed Geocushions.
Meninn’s preoccupation with rendering softness and light from that which is heavy and dark is a common thread in his prolific body of work. It is a paradox that speaks to how stone relates to the human body, to the figure. But there are no classically carved Greek torsos here. Instead, the material takes on the forms of pillows and upholstery, soft, polished, undulating surfaces. The work invites touch and demands physical engagement. Viewers are expected to sit and lie down upon this work. Mark himself is known to lie on the stone as he works, to test the curvatures against his own body.
Though he’s been living and working in Bethlehem for the past 20 years, Mennin has close ties to New York City, where he was raised, and where for 17 years he worked in a studio space over Chelsea Market. His sculptural works placed throughout the market was a pivotal moment in his career. Several days a week, he travels to the city to teach at the New York Academy of Art, a school that has long fought against the reigning trends in deskilling art education, transmitting traditional representational techniques in painting and sculpture to students hungry for technical mastery.
Mennin is also closely involved in the local cultural community. For the 2016 opening of the Judy Black Memorial Park and Garden, he created Currents, a 30-ton, 45-foot-long stretch of undulating black granite for the gardens of this converted gas station. He’s been working with The Washington Art Association to co-curate an ambitious outdoor sculpture walk within the town occurring this summer. He’s also been constructing an outdoor theater for Pilobolus’s Festival of the Senses, a multimedia celebration of the arts to be held this summer.
Mark Mennin has followed a focused, but wholly unique path to his profession. Graduating as a history major from Princeton, he knew as a very young man that he wanted to pursue stone carving. His travels landed him an early commission to replicate ancient greek statuary in Carrara, Italy. This work, followed by commissions in France, set in motion Mennin’s quest to fashion a life as a modern day master of stone right here in Bethlehem.