Man Of Stone: Mark Mennin And His Monumental Creations
By Joseph Montebello
In person Mark Mennin, a resident of Bethlehem, Conn., is as impressive as the sculpture he creates. He is tall and broad and looks as if he could move a massive piece of stone with the greatest ease. His impressive granite carvings explore the landscape and the human figure’s relationship with the earth. Or with a piece of furniture — because many of his works resembles not so much articles of stone but plumped, cushiony couches that would have looked at home in a Maurice Villency setting.
Born in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Mennin grew up in New York City and from an early age had an artistic bent.
“My father was a classical composer and my mother was a musician and photographer. They totally encouraged pretty much anything I wanted to do. My parents were also master draftsmen and I was always drawing. I made two trips to Italy – one when I was nine and again when I was eighteen. They were such powerful experiences for me. My dad was my guide and he knew as much about art history as most professors. I had planned to go to law school at Princeton but I dismissed that idea and decided to follow my dream of being an artist.
“I did a lot of ceramics in college and had the opportunity to study with the Japanese ceramicist and artist Toshiko Takaezu. I carved my first piece of stone when I was 23 and it was a pretty simple piece.”
Mennin went back to Italy again and had the good fortune of meeting a group from Texas who were looking for someone to copy Greek statues for a temple they were building.
“It was a baptism by fire,” Mennin recalls, “but it was also a crash course in carving directly and realistically and being in Italy gave me the opportunity to make a living and to start my own work. My first weekend in Italy I climbed up to the mountains, above the quarries and looked out and definitely decided I was going to make it as a carver.”
And indeed he did. That was in 1984 and for several years he followed the same cycle; a third of the year working in Italy, a third working at a family home in the Adirondacks, and the last third in New York, peddling the work he had created. In the beginning, however, his work was not as massive as it has become.
Mennin bought his Bethlehem home about 20 years ago with the idea of enlarging the scope and size of his work. The scale of his sculpture has evolved to giant landscape and architectural pieces which, in many cases, involve hundreds of tons of granite.
“Most of my pieces are displayed outdoors,” Mennin explains. “So I use granite because it’s permeable. Marble doesn’t weather as well in the northeast; I carve marble and onyx for spaces that don’t have a winter.”
Mennin stockpiles stone on his property and tends to have about 1000 tons on hand. Fortunately he has a 3000-square-foot barn and 10,000 square feet of outdoor space. He also has a 3500-square-foot space in town; he refers to it as the “Winter Palace” which he uses when it’s too cold to work outside.
He does all the carving himself and has produced a large body of work for both private and pubic collections, including the fountain and installations at New York’s Chelsea Market; Stanford University; Penn State University; Bruce Park, Greenwich, Connecticut; Laumeier Sculpture Park, St. Louis, Missouri; The deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, Mass.; Delbarton School, Morristown, New Jersey; SUNY Staten Island; and the Hotchkiss School, Lakeville, Conn.
Most recently Mennin created the unique bench that sits in the Judy Black Memorial Park and Gardens in Washington Depot.
“Originally we were going to put in a fountain,” explains Mennin. “But dealing with northeast weather presented a problem and a fountain is not so impressive when it’s turned off. I made a model of the bench I had in mind and everyone seemed to love it.”
What’s not to love? The bench is made of black granite, measures forty feet long by five-and-a-half feet wide, and weighs 60,000 pounds. The subtlety of the waves across the bench adds to the mystery and allure of the piece. It is a sight to behold and a testament to Mennin’s creativity and ingenuity.