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Part One—The first visit

What can you think of that is made today and could last for hundreds of years? What sort of endeavour is there that combines and employs modern technology with ancient craftsmanship? From the stone age to the computer age, here is a look at how technology and craftsmanship work together in the monumental task of producing a headstone for a grave and how it can be a deeply humanizing experience.


Meet Dan Bellan

Meet Dan Bellan. Dan is a Monument Maker. If you don’t know what that is, you are probably not alone. Most people these days don’t have much interaction with the person who makes the marker for a grave.

This is the story my wife and I visiting Dan the monument maker, the process of producing a marker for the grave of my wife’s parents and finding an amazing combination of technology and age old craftsmanship in a beautifully humanizing process.

My wife had arranged for the stone with the cemetery and we headed out early one Saturday morning to arrange for the inscription. Arriving in East Vancouver, notorious for drug infested areas along with various industries, shops and studios. We arrived at 8 am to meet Dan. We walked into the rustic studio and into the back where numerous stones were either in production or complete, ready to be shipped. A few were obviously being kept as examples and there were several photographs and work samples on the walls.


Samples on the wall.


Looking back into the shop.

I, being a curious one, began to poke around and ask a few questions. Dan didn’t seem to mind and jumped effortlessly back and forth fulfilling my wife’s needs to get the design done and being quite pleased that somebody was not only curious about his work, but also had some reasonable questions. We quickly established some common interests and he seemed interested in my ideas that stem from my work toward the book I am writing about technological change and dehumanization. I could even say that we were building on each other’s ideas. This is not only creative, but synergistic.

The process of producing a marker for the ages begins by examining the roughly shaped stone, selecting a side for the text, then discussing things like whether to polish and taking some measurements. “Here, I can show you what it will look like and we dashed to the front office where there was a computer connected to a Gerber plotter. Working quickly, after some consultation about typestyle, Dan dove into a program I noticed, by peering over his shoulder, was called Composer. I asked if it was like Adobe Illustrator and he explained that it is a combination of something like Illustrator and CAD (computer aided design).


The plotter that cut the rubber.

Setting the type

Setting the type

Having done typesetting during my days in the printing industry—an aspect of my background that helped Dan and I to connect—I have an affinity toward the delicateness of typography. I watched Dan quickly take full control over the composing, not letting the computer have so much as a single kern (space between characters). I saw a keen eye to detail employing a humanizing approach that I could clearly see was coming from years of setting type in stone. I realized that the very imperfections of stone dictate a need for a sensibility that no computer could produce. The computer typesetting had to be humanized. After all, it is to last for hundreds of years.


Working with the type and the design.

Now, I must explain that this was not a straight-forward process. We were jumping around looking through books, checking samples, trying ornaments and in the midst of it all, I noticed an old Marantz receiver/amplifier in the corner. “I like the warm sound,” Dan stated. “I remember that amp,” I replied and told him about my days as a jazz record collector, my JVC and our family’s Sansui quadraphonic amps, all from the same era.


The Marantz.


Soon Dan had printed the text out on a laser printer and was cutting a rough, roundish shape around it. We headed to the stone and he taped it on for us to see. We all stood back to admire and critique. At first, there was an idea for a cross in the upper left corner of the stone. After perusing some books, my wife asked about an angel. “My mother liked angels,” she explained. Within moments, Dan had a very cute bronze angel that was just the right size. “There are lots of great grandchildren who will like this angel,” my wife said. Dan held it in place, experimenting with the angle a bit.


Checking to see how it fits.


Sure it is paper, but it is starting to look good.

The face of the stone is going to get hand polished. The text that has been typeset on a computer and manipulated through the eye of a craftsman, will be cut into a rubber material with an adhesive back (called buttermilk, as I recall from years ago) by a computer driven Gerber plotter. The material will be placed on the stone and sandblasted. The rubber withstands the force of the blasting sand while the rock gives way leaving a de-bossed image of text. This same process is often used in making wooden signs that look hand carved. Around twenty-five years ago, I investigated setting up a sign business around a Gerber plotter.

If one would care to spend considerably more money, Dan can produce hand chiseled work. I told him that he needs an apprentice. He explained that nobody wants to do this sort of work. He has tried a few fellows, but their dedication to the craft was lacking. We talked quite a bit about things these days having a disposable nature to them—even music. Dan listens to FM radio stations of quality music on his Marantz.


Step back and have a look.

Recently my journey into discovering ways to humanize our appropriation of technology into our lives has led me to investigating how jazz music might teach us about a more human approach to life. I explained that I felt the process we experienced around the design of the marker stone was very much a jazz-like experience. Dan got it right away. Nothing we did was in any particular order. We had been driven by inspiration and creativity. Everyone had participated. We had explored and invented, jumping from idea to idea, in a very democratic way bringing about a monumental statement of humanity for hundreds of years.

Testing the placement of the angel ornament.

Testing the placement of the angel ornament.

Time for reflection.

Time for reflection.

Getting some paperwork done.

Getting some paperwork done.



Part Two—The second visit

A jazz inspired lifestyle is not easy to find these days with people driven by their gadgets. It can be an inhumanly automated world we live in. Seeing life done another way is refreshing. Not necessarily a life devoid of technology; a life where technology is appropriated into other human activities.

It's done!

It’s done!

It was another early Saturday morning visit to see the finished stone. It turned out just as Dan had described. I felt it looked cute. Small, but not so small it would get lost and not big, or too bold. We spent some time talking about how it would sit on the ground. We looked at a stone that could be a footing. We also talked about flowers. As usual, Dan had to field some of my questions of curiosity about his shop and processes.

Looking forward in the shop.

Looking forward in the shop.

Have a blast. This is where the sand blasting happens.

Have a blast. This is where the sand blasting happens.

We headed to the front office to do the paperwork. I noticed a guitar case siting on the table behind the plotter. “You play guitar?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. “What do you like to play?” “I like to fingerpick a little jazz.” If you have been reading some of my other blog posts, you will understand what happened next. Yup, we diverged into conversations about jazz music, more about my ideas of a jazz lifestyle and my recent fixations on the music of Roger McGuinn and The Byrds (see my recent article).

Dan's Gibsons electric.

Dan’s Gibsons electric.

A closer look.

A closer look.

Dan’s jazz interests lie in the more modern styles of jazz. Mine, of course in the 20s to 40s. I mentioned how often I find people influenced by John Coltrane, even Roger McGuinn. Moments later, he had Coltrane CDs in front of me.

I asked Dan about his style of guitar playing. He doesn’t play any particular style, he just likes to play. I mentioned that jazz usually just takes a melody, chords and a beat, however, Ornette Coleman worked on moving away from even those bare elements. Out popped a CD boxed set of Ornette Coleman. If we had more time it would have been a listening session and an exchange of ideas and musical interests.

I hope to see Dan again someday. We have much more to discuss. I see him as having some aspects of a jazz lifestyle. His work is unique and some of it may not get passed on unless he gets an apprentice. Living in a technological society and working to make crafted items for people who have suffered the loss of a loved one: this seems to me to be important work. Dan brings the stone age and the computer age together and touches it all with a jazz feel.