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Casey Winningham Carving Stones

~story and photos by Bob Gustin

Casey Winningham approaches stone carving with an artist’s passion and a historian’s sensibilities.

He repairs old headstones and makes new ones in the hand-tooled style of master carvers of the 19th century.

Previously a blacksmith, he began carving stone as a fulltime vocation about 20 years ago.

But the seeds of that passion were planted when he was only 10 years old, visiting his grandfather in the mountains of eastern Tennessee.

Winningham says his grandfather was the family historian, and he remembers a walk the two took in a family cemetery. The grandfather would point to a stone, with no name or dates on it, and tell Winningham which of his relatives was buried beneath it.

“I thought, Grandpa, when you’re gone, who’s going to know who’s under that rock?”

Years later, he said he “gave himself permission” to carve headstones for those family members, even though he was just beginning to learn the craft.

Though he lives in Owen County, Winningham has close connections to Brown County, as it holds some of his favorite spots for tramping through forests and streams, looking for fossils and geodes.

His best-known work in Brown County is a monument to Henry Cross, who created Stone Head in 1851 in Van Buren Township. The original sculpture—part folk art, part road marker and part historical artifact— was destroyed by vandals in 2016. Winningham was commissioned to make the monument.

After carefully researching Cross’ artistic style and use of fonts, he finished the monument, made from stone which Cross himself had cut from a nearby quarry. Winningham was honored in 2017 at the Brown County Art Gallery’s collector’s showcase exhibition and sale.

Henry Cross created about 100 headstones in Brown County, and lived a few miles from Stone Head.

Jon Kay, director of Traditional Arts Indiana at Indiana University, says that in a lot of ways, the old stone carvers like Henry Cross served as Winningham’s mentors. Kay said it is appropriate that Winningham did the monument to Cross because he can see the way Cross carved lambs, willow trees, and other motifs, as well as the precise lettering.

“Casey pays homage to history and those techniques and also allows people to have a connection with someone who will make the thing that will actually outlast you,” he said.

Compared to modern mass-produced headstones, Kay said Winningham’s work is “a much slower, thoughtful process.”

Winningham has created or repaired thousands of headstones across the country, including two in a cemetery west of Nashville.

Seventy percent of his work is restoration, he said, at a pace of about 200 headstones a year. During winter months, he works on carving replacement or new headstones, though he says he prefers restoration work.

He came into the trade of stone carving much like he did other activities in his life, out of necessity. He would see an object he liked, but knew he couldn’t afford to buy it. If he wanted something like that, he had to make it himself.

Born and raised in the Muncie area, he worked first as an emergency medical technician. Then he moved to South Dakota where he took up blacksmithing. He moved from there to Ohio, and then back again to Indiana.

Things he learns about one type of artwork are often applicable in another area, he said. As a blacksmith, he might create a gentle sweep in a piece of iron and later use that balance when carving stone.

Monument honoring Henry Cross. courtesy photo

Monument honoring Henry Cross. courtesy photo

After moving back to Indiana, Winningham didn’t have the workspace to continue his blacksmithing, so he was looking for another line of work when he saw a video by master stone carver Walter Arnold of Chicago. Geography also had something to do with the decision, since

southern Indiana has some of the finest limestone in the United States. Carvers across the nation pay large shipping bills to have the heavy stones delivered to them; Winningham simply goes to the quarry and picks out the stone.

He describes himself as selfeducated when it comes to arts and crafts.

“I get real focused, or obsessed” with a topic, he said, and devours books on it, talks to people who are experts in the field, and immerses himself in the craft. Most of the space in his workshop is taken up with stone and the tools he uses to carve it. But it also holds evidence of his varied interests, including a detailed scrimshaw powder horn, carved pipestone, stained glass, a kachina doll in the style of southwestern Native Americans, and a miniature replica of Lewis and Clark’s wooden longboat.

He has shared his knowledge with other carvers, including Sidney Bolam, who lives in northern Brown County.

“As a fellow stone carver, we always enjoy talking shop,” she said. “I don’t do (much) lettering work, and that’s almost exclusively what he does. So, we always have a lot to talk about in regards to tools and techniques.”

Bolam said Winningham’s “gentle and introspective nature” makes him a good match for memorial work, and his study of historical techniques and styles makes

his process nearly as interesting as the final product.

Since about 1900, most headstones are sandblasted, not carved, Winningham said. At modern monument companies, computers are used to cut designs and lettering into a rubber mat which is placed over the stone before blasting. This results in uniformity.

“You lose all individuality, creativity and uniqueness,” he said.

“I have a hunger to reach out and look for new ways. I just want to continue to evolve in my craft until the day I die. People ask me why I don’t make my own headstone. If I would have made it seven years ago, I would now be so disappointed in it, because I keep getting better.”

More information: <caseywinningham@gmail.com> or <caseywinningham.com>.