Sculptor Mark Mennin on the Power of Weight Training
On a typical day in Bethlehem, Connecticut, Mark Mennin can be found on his Hyster forklift, loading 200 tons of granite columns salvaged from an old bank or other demolished structure down his driveway to the outdoor studio where he works. Mark is a stone sculptor, the kind where he actually carves the stone himself. “I still believe in the verb ‘to sculpt’,” he said. He has carved a granite cliff in the South of France, and sculpted 40 tons of stone at Stanford University into fountains, and seating structures, as well as countless sundials, stone chairs, and granite pillows, and beds. He’s currently carving an amphitheater in Connecticut
Mark Mennin Strength Training Bolstered His Ability to Create Art
He’s a talented artist. And, at 57, he’s a strong one too. In the past decade, Mark’s strength training has dramatically bolstered his ability to create art, not just proficiently, but safely. As he sculpts major installations from stone, he simultaneously carves his own body through strength training, defying the demands of his job. “I’m doing these pieces that weigh tons and tons, but I have the ability for it now,” he said, as he started a rowing and weight lifting regimen once he entered middle age. “When I’m in great shape, I’m pretty invincible at work.”
In addition to his cherished forklift, the tools of his trade include jackhammers, rock drills, and sledgehammers. He describes his “wet saw” as a 14-inch, 45-pound blade he hoists to cut through stone with water. “I have to huck it around all day, for eight hours, it’s a workout that beats the hell out of the StairMaster,” he said, adding that he feels it in his arms, chest, and back as he grips it. “It’s one of those exercises that’s great if you are positioned for it correctly, but is bad for the back if you’re not.”
How Mark Got His Start in Strength Training
Mark began his strength training about 10 years ago while in rehab for a knee injury. He started rowing, then added lunges, squats, dead lifts, and pull-ups with a 20-pound weight around his waist. He realized it was the strength training that made him feel like he could accomplish anything. His current routine includes squats, 100-pound dead lifts, and lunges with 35-pound kettle bells. That’s how he avoids professional injury. He refers to his strength workout as preventive medicine. “The stronger I am, the less likely an injury is going to happen due to some unconscious mistake at work,” he explained. “I always saw strength as an asset to a stone carver,” he said, but now he realizes it is an occupational necessity.”
Age is an important motivating factor for Mark too, as it was middle age that pushed him to be not just in the best shape of his life, but in the strongest shape. “Age 50 is kind of a funny barometer, it’s not just a mid-life crisis but also an age with a competitive sense of fitness because of mortality,” he said.
Though he was the Captain of the rugby team at Princeton, Mark said they didn’t do a lot of strength training. It wasn’t until he observed his son Ray, an Ivy League champion sprinter, train for his grueling 400-meter races not mainly by running—though of course there was that too—but by lifting weights, that he realized the power of weight training for other sports. Together Mark and Ray began to venture into Mark’s outdoor studio and put chains around their necks and do pull-ups on a bar he installed by the door.
Keeping Safe at Work
It all translates to keeping safe at work. He explained that other workmen get hurt when they forget that they’ve aged, and in their head they’re doing something they’ve done since they were 25. “There’s a task to do and they don’t stop to think, ‘I’m 55 now. I can’t lift this.’ So they lift it anyway and end up with typical back or shoulder problem.” His strength training has helped him physically and mentally to avoid that.
As a sculptor, Mark understands the physiology of the body, and feels that anyone who has sculpted a figure in clay knows that it’s the musculature of a body that protects the bones and tendons. The stronger the muscles, the more protection there is.
Mark also likes the metaphor of strength and literally “pulling your own weight.” He talks about how other artists farm out the actual sculpting part of being a sculptor. “For me there is still joy and independence in being able to execute my own work. I don’t want to put the wet saw down,” he said. “I don’t want to give that up, or my other youthful habits.” Like which ones? “Like every youthful habit there is.”