In 1986, while studying and making art at the State University of New York at Purchase, I

made the practical decision to shift my focus toward graphic and type design. I realized that I

could make a decent living working with my father at our family’s business - The John

Stevens Shop - carving memorials and dedicatory inscriptions in stone. I took over

directorship of the Shop in 1993 and continue to run it today. 

For nearly twenty-five years, as I ran the day-to-day business of the Stevens Shop, I didn’t consciously make any art; then, in 2010, a strange realization hit me. In the past, the public had typically understood our shop products as objects adhering to ancient standards and practices of craftsmanship, which were also infused with a bit of the maker’s personality. But about nine years into the new millennium I began to notice a growing distance between what we believed we were doing, and the public’s perception of our work. Until then, I had not quite understood how deeply the Information Age was changing the way in which humankind interacts with the physical world.

It’s easy to lose an objective view of one’s contemporary world while carrying on

traditions that are centuries old, and dealing with the practical aspects of running a business

dedicated to them. How often have older businesses gone under because they failed to “change with the times”? Thankfully, memorial headstones are objects that many people still want others to make for them by hand. But in a momentary flicker of my computer screen, the reality of a cultural shift that is radically altering the public’s understanding of all hand-made things was instantly brought into focus; like a character in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, I was suddenly smacked in the face with a frying pan of revelation.

One day, while working on my computer, the machine froze - glitched - and up popped a full page of completely alien content. It was a massive block of text without word spaces or punctuation and which was obviously some form of computer "language". All of the letters and numerals were immediately recognizable as components of our human communication, but the content was clearly a string of uninterrupted mathematical “thought” that I couldn't comprehend. I could almost hear the Great Oz bellowing: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

This body of computer text set my mind churning. It immediately seemed indicative of

how complex the world has become, and struck me as the perfect symbol for the struggles we

face in understanding the juggernauts of technological and societal progress today. The United

States, along with most of the first world, is caught up in conflicting views of conservative and

liberal ideologies that deeply affect the economic, environmental and social climate of our

time. These struggles are exacerbated by the speed with which all information - good or bad -

is now shared globally. It is a speed that is inhuman, and I think it can be insurmountably

difficult for people to establish a sense of self amidst the mass media driven onslaught of data

the 21st century feeds us on a twenty-four hour a day basis. Personally, I am left with a

profound sense of uncertainty that we can sustain this ever-growing pace of ‘progress’,

and I ask myself - what do we really want of ourselves and of our societies!?

I have no desire to turn back the clock - to live my life as a Luddite, but this is a very

complicated topic. As the scope of that complexity dawned on me, I wanted desperately to

make art again, and to make this issue the focus of that work. The process for doing so seemed

clear: I could use bodies of computer text for content, then carve them in stone using the

ancient methods of my trade. The disjunction between the practical craft on the one hand, and

a completely incomprehensible ‘text’ on the other, suddenly felt to me to be an important

statement. Instead of providing literal explanations of their meaning or practical use, the

abstraction inherent in the code would become symbolic of the confusion and uncertainty I’ve

described. And the contrast between the hand carved inscriptions and those abstract lines of

letters and figures would conceptually span thousands of years of human history.

The PGP Key inscription shown in Gallery 2 is a good example of my process. The

symbolism I saw in the ‘computer glitch text’ may have been abundantly clear to me, but I felt

it had to be humanized it in some way to more clearly communicate my feelings to the

viewer. I let loose with a calligraphic style that draws from a variety of modern and historic

precedents - tag graffiti, chancery italic script, arabic nastaliq forms and others. The result is

a visually complicated fabric of symbols that is immediately confusing. Interestingly I found

that in this, and earlier calligraphic interpretations, the lettering can take on a purely abstract

impression, looking a bit more like a Pollock painting than an immediately recognizable body

of text.

In the endless sea of computer content that is generated in a single day, I am given no

shortage of subject matter to interpret. But I worried that set, or predetermined content would

lead to churning out the same thing over and over again. Quite the contrary! It has allowed

me to focus on the infinite possibilities and spontaneity of form in the physical production,

and this freedom of physical interpretation gives me the opportunity to slip into that magical

space of the unknown. I think this is where the spirit of art truly resides. When there is no

clear path forward we are left to carefully feel our way into unfamiliar territory. Sometimes

the path opens out into a place where we can run forward with confidence, but other

directions can take weeks, months, and even years to traverse. Still others lead nowhere at all,

but to the realization of failure - but that itself carries its own type of reward. It is all a perfect

metaphor for what it means to be human.