Past Times Remembered
Casey Winningham is a gravestone carver, one of a small number in the country who work by hand with chisel and mallet. He cuts exclusively into Indiana limestone, crafting historically appropriate replacement stones for cemeteries or newly designed markers for clients planning burials.
He works from his home to the west of Bloomington. He started lettering three years ago and has now created headstones for clients in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia. Casey, a 62-year-old who spent much of his life as an artist-blacksmith, is fascinated by old graveyards. He has done work documenting aged headstones that are in danger of being lost. When he started seeing orphaned graves without headstones, he started to create markers for them. His work began spreading by word of mouth. Clients contacted him about creating stones for family members. He started having conversations with cemetery restorationists.
At first, Casey didn't expect to hand carve gravestones for a living. He thought he'd do it for orphaned graves as a way to help. That changed as he started receiving inquiries from people who wanted him to make headstones for new graves. "That really surprised me," he said. "There are people who want these old 19th-century techniques. They like the way they look. These are people that appreciate old gravestones." Casey can run through the differences in style between new and old carving techniques. Modern machine carving typically creates a rounded groove bottom that doesn't have the same light play as his handiwork, he said. "You have what's known as the V-groove, and you have the shadows," he said of his hand carving. "It gives a real bounce to the lettering." New techniques have one apparent advantage: speed. It can take Winningham several days to carve the front of a headstone, he said. It took him many months to learn to letter. Educational sources are few and far between, Casey said. He gathered a few books. He spoke with cutters he knows in the area limestone industry, which is rich in tradition. After that, it was a matter of practice making perfect.
Back at his home, his mallet and chisel ringing, Casey recounts the long process of learning to letter. "I was breaking out of my lines and being very frustrated," he says. "This technique is called chasing. You just sneak up on the side line. You maintain that angle, that depth, and you just go down till you're finished. Always go toward the middle. This way, you stay within the letter form." The mallet he uses looks less like a hammer than it does the pestle from a mortar and pestle. Its rounded shape requires him to deliver precise, on-center strikes, he says.
Carving stones for those orphaned graves was an early breakthrough, according to Casey. He knew that his work would be better than what the graves had previously, which was nothing. "I started getting success with those and getting encouraged," he said. "Then I started stepping out and doing more difficult things like carvings with hands, urns and various motifs."
Casey teaches many classes in stone letter carving. Both individual and in class settings, such as several years at the nation conference for The Association For Gravestone Studies.Casey has reason to hope for a business boom, at least according to Joy Giguere, Indiana chapter chairwoman of the Association for Gravestone Studies. Handmade headstones could be ready for a renaissance, she said. "I think we're probably going to see a greater turn toward people being interested in having these kinds of handmade stones," she said.
Challenges aside, Casey Winningham said carving stone puts him at an intersection between history and craft. And he remains fascinated by old cemeteries and gravesites. He mentions one such site as he finishes demonstrating with the chisel and mallet in his home. Asking Casey whether he thinks the stones he carves are going to be a part of history, and he has an answer. "That crosses my mind," he says. "I'm leaving something for many generations to come."