Four years of design and fabrication preparation, struggle through a byzantine government agency process, angst about not making art, and contentious negotiations came to a close. This week my husband Sabin Howard opened a new chapter in the sculpting of the National WWI Memorial: principle sculpture commenced. Sabin put a serrated-edged tool to clay.
He chafed like a thoroughbred finally taken out of pasture to race, as he was born to do.
The last month saw a flurry of activity. We were delayed taking possession of his new studio. The studio was an old warehouse from the 1920s that had to be gutted; permits and electrical inspections and the usual obstructions of a thorough build-out slowed things down.
On the 8th of August, with construction workers still drilling nails into sheetrock, we received delivery of pre-sculpted foam armatures.
In an earlier Medium article, I delineated the process for creating these clay-covered foams. Sabin took the models to Pangolin Editions Foundry in Stroud, UK, where Steve Russell Studios had arrayed 156 cameras into a hemispherical photogrammetry rig. He and his team captured three-dimensional data about the models in their poses. The images were fed into Z Brush, a program for manipulating the data for rendering via 3-D printing.
Using Z Brush templates, the figures were milled out in foam, steel armatures were inserted inside the foams, and the whole figure was covered with a three millimeter coat of clay. Our daughter Madeleine, the inspiration for the daughter figure in A Soldier’s Journey, created a short video showing the maquette and pre-sculpt process.
Pangolin loaded the first grouping of nine figures into a shipping container for its journey across the Atlantic. A truck picked up the container in the port. Sabin and I and sculptors Raymond D. and Charlie Mostow waited with a photography team for that truck to arrive.
We all cheered when the truck roared up in front of the studio.
But it was another two weeks before our landlord could give us entry to start work.
Finally it was Monday, August 26th. Builders were still grouting tiles, but we couldn’t wait any longer. Sabin was already behind schedule.
Our wonderful sculptors arrived promptly at 8:30 am: Raymond D., a former student and friend of Sabin’s for nearly thirty years, whose portfolio includes some gorgeous pieces; Stephen Layne from Philadelphia, who sculpted the inspiring Joe Frazier monument; and gifted young Charlie Mostow, who has already taught ecorché classes and whose fascination with the ancient Laocoön sculpture mirrors Sabin’s, and, of course, Michelangelo’s.
Our models showed up, often with song on their lips, since they’re all performers: actor Paul-Emile Cendron, musical theater singer and dancer Evelyn Christina Tonn, opera singer Mackenzie Rogers, and actor Tim Rogan. We have a roster of talented young people to work as models, including actor and screenwriter Zach Libresco, actor and puppeteer Leah Hofmann, and actor Melissa Blackwell.
For Sabin, the process of figure sculpting necessarily includes a model. “Without a model, you can’t see the forms,” he states. “You’re dealing with a human being, it’s three dimensional. Photography flattens and distorts the forms. With a live model in front of you, you have thousands of options, and you can sculpt much faster.”
The first morning saw Sabin and his team rapt in conversation. They were figuring out the light and the space. Four giant skylights means direct overhead light, so necessary for sculpting. But the light changes all day. Sometimes it’s too strong. We’re making sliding black-out curtains so the sculptors can control the light, but those won’t be installed until later this week.
Sabin has a plan in mind for how to divide and conquer this massive relief. Thirty-eight figures could be a twenty year project! Completing the relief in four and a half years is an epic challenge. Fortunately Sabin’s brain includes a high-level executive function, and he has a strategy.
Stephen Layne set to work on the Daughter, the initial figure in the composition. He was the first sculptor to step up to the clay, and I video-recorded him on my iPhone. I couldn’t help but whoop. I’ve worked alongside Sabin for the last twenty months to make this moment possible. It was sweet to see it happening in real-time.
Raymond D. started on the second iteration of the Mother, the figure who grasps her husband’s arm, reluctant to let him go off to war. She’s both a literal wife and mom who doesn’t want her husband to go overseas and a symbol of the United States’ reluctance to enter the Great War, releasing its isolationist policies.
Charlie was given the kneeling Father/soldier, the protagonist who receives his helmet from his daughter.
Sabin claimed the figure of the Father tearing himself away from home to join his comrades-in-arms.
Right away I noticed the differences between the four sculptors’ methodologies.
Sabin sculpts fast and fluidly. He started on the pelvic block, its connection to the ground and to the torso. That’s where he always starts. He spoke about that for the camera. He’s always designing and drawing on the clay, showing where form turns, as he works.
Stephen Layne works with elegance and efficiency, like a clock-maker. He steps close to the foam daughter figure and works evenly and almost without breaks, except when the model needs to stretch.
Charlie Mostow has a careful, physical approach. At one point, I caught him kneeling on the ground, rolling clay between his fingers, gazing with single-minded intensity at the right angle of model Tim Rogan’s forward leg. It seemed so iconic that I snapped a photo.
Raymond D. charges at his work. For someone so cerebral, he’s got an athletic style of sculpting! He gallops in and out and around the model and the sculpture, fiercely seeing everything. He used a knife to tear up the front of the Mother’s skirt, commenting that it wasn’t designed well. He was right. Photogrammetry and 3-D printing have limitations. Not everything could be nor was rendered well; the sculpture looks great from a distance, but up-close, it’s a mess.
The first day was intense, busy, focused. On our second morning, I drove in early to turn on the warming oven. Sulfur-free plastilina clay is oil- and wax- based and doesn’t make dust, but it’s also not malleable until it’s heated.
Sabin bikes to and from the studio. He claims he needs the exercise to stay strong, mentally and physically. He and the others arrived about a half hour after me.
Good humored exchanges and laughter rang out as the models changed into their costumes and stepped onto their modeling stands. Sabin was raring to go. He was so focused on setting up the other guys on Monday that he only got in four hours on his figure. He was starving to sculpt. He seemed to barely restrain himself from tackling the clay armature.
I unpacked. Most everything from my husband’s old studio was still boxed up in cardboard cartons littering the edges of the space. We needed a week — at least two days — without the models, so we could unpack and set up. We didn’t have those days. I did the best I could. I unwrapped sculpture bases. I tore bubble wrap off sculptures and lugged heavy bronzes across the floor. I stacked a thousand pounds of Chavant clay in one area, on two pallets. In case you don’t know: this clay comes in 10 pound bricks, and a box of eight bricks isn’t feather light!
I also wheeled Sabin’s Aphrodite, the clay original, into my office, to stand in the window as a blessing.
I wear a lot of hats to aide my husband: project manager, human resources, and CFO, among others. Whatever’s necessary. Yesterday I was the person with broom in hand, sweeping up clay dribble. To be fair, David and Charlie also did some of that. We’re in this together.
I also unwrapped Sabin’s heroic scale Hermes and pushed and pulled it to where it can be seen, near the background of the relief. This was no easy feat: that sculpture weighs nearly 300 pounds, and the wheels under its base seemed frozen. At one point, I climbed up a ladder embedded in the concrete wall and used the strength of my legs to wedge the Hermes out of the shadows.
This is Sabin Howard’s studio, and his body of work must be visible.
I didn’t need to go to the gym last night, but I did anyway. I’ll need to stay strong, too. I’m a novelist and screenwriter by profession. I’ve put that down temporarily to accompany my husband on this unique journey: creating a national memorial to honor our soldiers and grace our nation’s capitol.
This morning, our third, has the ambiance of a regular work-day. Folks are settling in to what’s expected of them. There are still guys here, pointing the bricks on the front of the building. But the work proceeds apace.
Stay tuned for more articles as the sculpting of Sabin Howard’s A Soldier’s Journey proceeds!