NSI names Michael Picco 2021 Person of the Year and John Cierech Natural Stone Craftsman of the Year

Michael Picco, NSI 2021 Person of the Year.

Picco is head of Picco Group and Cierech works at Tennessee Marble Company

The Natural Stone Institute’s Person of the Year award is presented annually to an individual who has provided extensive support to the association’s executive team during the year. As a dedicated leader and tireless volunteer, Michael Picco of PICCO Group is recognized as the 2021 Person of the Year. Michael served as the 2021 Natural Stone Institute board president, guiding the association through the second year impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Natural Stone Institute CEO Jim Hieb explains why Michael was this year’s choice. “It was remarkable to watch how he got involved and how he was engaged. There were committee meetings upon committee meetings that were conducted via virtual platforms, and he was the pillar of participation, contribution, and leadership. He was a tremendous influence on me and our staff this year.” Hieb described Michael’s leadership style as concise, direct, strategic, and spot on.

Picco’s association contributions in 2021 include much more than serving as the board president. Michael championed the industry’s sustainability initiative, helping give the Natural Stone Sustainability Standard relevance in the marketplace and positioning natural stone as a sustainable building material for the design community. He has the unique ability to simplify complex issues and his ability to rally people around a concept is impressive. Specific to sustainability, Picco shared the message that this initiative is the “path to the future.” He added: “Sustainability is important to the design community and the natural stone industry has a big opportunity to leverage natural stone as the premier sustainable building product. We needed to seize this moment.”

His long list of 2021 industry involvement also includes serving as a key contributor to the planned update of the Dimension Stone Design Manual, assisting in the development and launch of the “Achieving Green Building Goals with Natural Stone” CEU course, and leading the strategic effort to develop Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for cladding, flooring/paving, and countertops. When asked to reflect on his year of volunteer leadership, he responded: “I’m very proud of the multifaceted initiatives that we’ve taken on at the same time— the ISO project, the Natural Stone Sustainability Standard, and updating the Dimension Stone Design Manual. We’re all really focused around the sustainability initiative and some of the pieces we need to put in place around that. I’m proud of being part of that process and we’ll continue to help in the future to drive that forward.” Michael described what it was like serving during the pandemic. “Despite the challenges we had this year with restricted travel, connecting through webinars (as much as I don’t like them) was the only way to do it. Whatever it took (phone calls, Zoom meetings, go-to-meetings), I felt a commitment that I needed to do it for the industry.”

Picco also guided the association through a merger with the National Building Granite Quarriers Association, served as an advocate for the Natural Stone Pavilion at StonExpo/Marmomac at TISE, and gave multiple presentations highlighting the global role and initiatives led by the Natural Stone Institute.

NSI: Person of the Year award

John Cierech is 2021 Natural Stone Craftsman of the Year

John Cierech, 2021 Natural Stone Craftsman of the Year.

John was 30 years old when he began his career in the stone industry. After serving in the military, he spent a short time in electronics before accepting his first full-time work with stone at Gawet Marble and Granite in Vermont. Gawet had just acquired some accounts from Vermont Marble Company after they closed their doors. He explained: “There was a huge demand for craftsmen to service these accounts. Fortunately for me, there were a number of skilled craftsmen in the area, who would circulate through the company and I was able to pick up on their skills to develop my own.”

John would spend the next 32 years honing his stone skills, passion, and craft, eventually advancing to more detailed work, including V-sunk lettering and intricate carving, especially on memorials. He attributes his interest in this work to an appreciation of the stone carving history of the area’s memorial art. His favorite work was done on the old headstones of New England, especially the artwork that was done on the gray stones: “I think it started with a religious outfit that wasn’t permitted to draw on paper any kind of artwork, but they could carve it on headstones. A lot of the carvers would develop their own and would just pass it down.”

John also enjoyed making residential granite and marble countertops, putting them into homes and getting good satisfaction from how the customers reacted, including their realization of what it did for their home.

In 2011 John left Vermont for the warmer climate of the South, and through his work at Cutting Edge Stone in Alpharetta, GA, gained experience in limestone carving for Old World style residential projects. There he honed his ability to create his own designs and layouts, sometimes based on pictures, and other times just from someone’s verbal description. He soon brought that experience back to the Gawet family. “I feel so fortunate that John reconnected with us at our factory in Tennessee,” Monica Gawet, president of Tennessee Marble Company remarked. “To remember him when he first started his career working with my father in Vermont, and then to work with him 40 years later at Tennessee Marble was very special for us as a family.”

At Tennessee Marble Company, John began working on projects together with other craftsmen from different departments, collaborating and applying individual skills from start to finish. This approach created a huge interest in the project itself because all departments got to see what needed to be done and how the craftsmen in each department went about their work, sharing this sense of concern for all efforts from the beginning to the end of the project. It created a cohesive workforce and positive impact.

John explained further how working with apprentices enriched his work experience. “Just to have these young people come in to learn the skills and develop their own skills. It’s very rewarding to a company and the industry,” he said. “I personally enjoyed watching apprentices develop their own style and method of carving techniques. It was rewarding for me to just work alongside someone that possessed the confidence and interest in developing this skill in the craft.”

Emma Levitz was an apprentice at Tennessee Marble under John’s mentoring who is grateful to have had the opportunity to work with him. She expressed that while she had experience in carving stone, she had no experience in architectural carving, but John was an excellent teacher. “It was helpful to just watch him work,” Emma said. “John always made stone carving look easy and natural, even when doing challenging work. He is truly a master of his craft.”

Phillip Gibbs apprenticed with John for a year and shared that “he exemplifies the character needed to be a true stone craftsman, and the natural ability to see something beautiful and bring it to life out of solid stone.” Colleague Ryan Cole agreed, saying: “John has a way to see a carved piece inside a solid block, and most times, he could carve pieces faster than I could program them on the CNC.”

When asked what receiving this award meant to him, John replied: “It means a great deal to me. Knowing that there’s a huge interest in the work that an individual does in the industry is a great incentive for the craftsmen to strive to achieve their finest work.”

Nominations for the 2022 Craftsman of the Year Award are being accepted until May 20. Learn more at www.naturalstoneinstitute.org/craftsman.

Photos: NSI

(22.02.2022, USA: 02.22.2022)