By Nancy Shepherd
As I drove along back roads in Connecticut, I noticed the old stone walls marking the boundaries of grassy fields, but in Mark Mennin’s driveway, huge sections of fluted marble columns, five feet tall and five feet wide, were carefully arranged along the edge. This turned out to be just one example of many collected treasures that crowd into Mark’s back yard. I opened my car door and stood there for a moment, intrigued, as I surveyed huge stones resting everywhere and thought to myself, here is yet another artist who declares his love of material by amassing great quantities of stone.
Many of the granite blocks had been hand selected for a specific project. Others found their way to Mark’s back yard by chance. People who know his work call when they come across a unique find, confident he can put any stone to good use. Mark has personal relationships with quarries all over the world and has formed lasting friendships with many stone yard foremen and managers. He had a story to tell about each slab and block he introduced me to, as if I was meeting his best friends. His enthusiasm for the unique qualities of stone kept me enthralled and engaged for more than an hour.
Mark first became intrigued by stone carving during a trip to Italy with his father when was nine years old. His father was the president of Juilliard, a great classical composer and educator, who loved talking about the history of art. As Mark and his father wandered through galleries and duomos, he filled Mark with information about the classic monuments and his son honed his ability to appreciated both the history and the aesthetic of the art world. When Mark returned to Italy for the second time at eighteen, he became “infected” by the beauty of stone carving, this time noticing that while “lavish historical projects sometimes honor the most horrible people, the carving is always magnificent.”
After growing up in New York City with artistic parents, he wanted to “rebel by going to law school,” but ended up at Princeton majoring in history. “Art history?” I asked. “No, just regular history. My father had already taught me all I need to know about art.” World history allowed Mark to put his knowledge of art history into perspective. I listened carefully as he explained the relationship of art and history. “History informs art . . . art doesn’t exist without the human experience . . . civilization depends on essentials . . . art is a luxury . . . civilization is elevated by art . . . what is left behind records the history of a culture.”
At Princeton, Mark found the studio art program disappointing until he discovered Toshiko Takaezu’s clay studio. There he experienced the “primal satisfaction” of making something with his hands and “the delight that comes from working with mud.” Toshiba had inspired Mark and he thought he’d spend the rest of his life working with clay.
After graduating from college, Mark spent most of his twenties “duffle-bagging” through Europe and Asia, using his sense of adventure to discover great works of art. In Italy, he was landed a commission copying Greek sculptures. With the wonderful bravado of a confident young man, he said he could do this, having no idea if he really could. He not only succeeded but also fell in love with the process. Clay is additive but, for Mark, the process of reduction became even more exciting. By the time he returned home and set up his first studio in New York City, he had discovered that art history + world history + travel had amalgamated into his own personal vision.
Mark understood that where an artist put his attention, the small details, noses, ears, the subtle curve of a line, becomes the statement. He believed that human interaction is where art is at its best and that function doesn’t take away from value. His sculptures of pools and chairs and beds have explored the possibilities of each form again and again. “While each piece needs to stand on it’s own, human interaction makes them more interesting.” Rather than, “please don’t touch,” the invitation to caress his surfaces is evident. His beds say “come lay down on me” and each one is “shockingly comfortable.” Stone carving fills Mark’s days and keeps him engaged, each project becoming a “labor of love.” His sense of accomplishment and satisfaction abounds.
Mark’s stone carvings are installed outdoors and become an integral part of the landscape. Twenty years ago when his sculptural installations led to huge architectural projects, the scale felt intimidating. The artist/architect collaboration involves an immense amount of negotiation and problem solving, while the challenges of working with the land became the most interesting part of a project. When Mark successfully solved the complicated problems that were inevitably part of process, he learned that he could tackle anything. Completing a large architectural installation using enormous slabs of stones can feel like a “six month journey, or struggle”
Mark completes two to three large commissions a year. Smalls models of large sculptures insure that he sees how one piece will relate to the other. He personally selects the stone for each project, a project can take seven hundred tons of material. He moves stone with one of his most prized possessions, a mammoth forklift. When carving begins, interior flaws sometimes surface and the stone needs to be replaced, the project begun again. Mark completes all the carving and often does all the polishing too, only occasionally hiring people he trusts to do some polishing.
Mark pushed open the huge wooden door to the studio and I stepped into a room covered in stone dust. The walls, the floor, the machines and tools, were all the same chalky grey. I could sense the years of work that had taken place right there. Stepping through doorways and over puddles, we headed toward his gallery. Intriguing large format photographs lined the walls and I took time to appreciate the layered architectural photographs he had created.
The tables were filled with smaller examples of his stonework. These are Mark’s personal pieces, ones he does for himself, not for a commission. His vision is evident in his figurative sculptures. One theme is explored multiple times; I was fascinated by the Emperor’s Clothing series. “It’s the humanity of the artist that gets inserted into his art. Each artist lives with his own moral code, these are the beliefs that inform his personal process.”
In one corner sat a sculpture that seemed different from the rest. I discovered this was his daughter’s beautiful and sensitive clay work. Both his son and daughter have chosen to rebel, as Mark once intended to, one graduating from Princeton with a degree in finance and the other on her way to becoming an engineer. I wondered if either would wend their way back to art making?
The path that brought Mark to stonework was both personal and historic. The contemporary art world now embraces materials that would not have been considered fine art a few decades ago. “I couldn’t make what I make without Pop Art. A stone bench can now be both bench and a sculpture.” Noguchi, a Japanese American artist and landscape architect, is one of Mark’s creative heroes because he “pushed the physical and contemporary boundaries of artists,” allowing their “personal identity to come to the surface.” Mark believes his sculptures are “fresh” because they “express feelings with aesthetic integrity.”
When Mark invited me to follow him into his home, I was fascinated to find his work in ordinary places, like the cap for the newel post on the stairway. He offered me a chair next to the desk in his office and scrolled through hundreds of images on his computer screen while narrating slide show with antidotes and stories. His forms evolve as he continues to explore the possibilities of stone. As image after image flashed by, the scale and beauty of his large architectural installations seemed even more impressive. Photographs of his stonework in breathtaking locations, his sculptures enhancing the natural beauty, made the relationship between stone and land appear seamless.
Mark is a prolific artist. I trust his stonework will continue to evolve because of his enthusiasm for discovering yet another way to represent his aesthetic and vision. When I commented that his work has taken up permanent residence all over the world, he laughed and said, “If you make it hard to move, the art will stay there.”