Digital Technology and the Sculptor’s Art: Innovation and Imagination

Traci L. Slatton
Feb 22 · 11 min read

There’s a moment, in a life committed to growth, when the call sounds to leave the familiar. It’s the beginning of an adventure — or the first step into calamity. It’s the onset of transformation.

For an artist who has honed his skill over decades, the call can be disconcerting.

So it was for my husband Sabin Howard, a classical figurative sculptor steeped in traditional craftsmanship. By “steeped,” I mean he had worked painstakingly to master the art of sculpting by hand in clay; by “traditional,” I refer to the high aesthetics of classical and Renaissance art.

There were no shortcuts to Sabin’s expertise. It was laboriously gained. He spent tens of thousands of hours in the studio, posing nude models, studying their anatomy, morphology, and gesture, constructing steel armatures, wrapping a foam core around the steel, covering foam with a base coat of clay, and then slowly accreting tiny scrims of clay, layer after layer, until he builds up a workable surface.

Sabin’s process consists of layering on the clay and then drawing on it to delineate the lines of force, which are muscles turning on bone. He’s always looking, looking at the model as he works. His looking is anything but literal; he actually tracks the life force energy in the figure. He creatively translates the way the life force energy bulges outward. The life force energy is much more than a simple current — it’s the fundamental flowing stuff of human consciousness. So it’s not just the position of anatomical reference points in space, or the volumetric measurements of head, torso, and limbs, that make a sculpture. Sabin is after the psychology of the individual posing before him.

Artists of our time can’t make a figure without taking into account what Freud taught us.

By hand, with a narrow metal sculpting tool, Sabin applies pea-sized beads onto the clay base coat. He heightens convexity as needed to portray the vitality of the human spirit and the distinctness of the human mind moving through flesh. He’s saying something both individual and universal with the human body. His grammar is the anatomy of the figure: bones that show structure, and muscles that, as noted above, show energy-consciousness spiraling around the bones.

When the clay is finished, a mold-maker molds it. A foundry uses the lost-wax casting process to pour a bronze sculpture. A finisher welds pieces together. Wearing a respirator mask and holding an open flame, Sabin applies chemicals for the patina. He favors iron oxides and liver sulfates that give the piece a rich, complex finish that is at once organic and industrial.

This way of working is ancient. Sabin thought it would be timeless.

Then, in 2016, with architect-in-training Joseph Weishaar, he won the competition to design the National World War I Memorial in Washington D.C. The Memorial is to be set in Pershing Park, a block from the White House and a block from the National Mall.

Weishaar’s design calls for a long bronze relief to commemorate World War I, the diverse soldiers who fought and died in it, and the nurses who served with compassion and dedication.

Sabin, Weishaar, and the World War I Centennial Commission (WWICC) collaborated to devise the relief. Composition is one of Sabin’s strong points — the result of decades of studying Raphael, Michelangelo, and other Renaissance masters. Still, it took a dozen iterations for him to come up with a design that the WWICC liked.

The final design features 38 figures and tells the story of “A Soldier’s Journey”: a soldier receives his helmet from his young daughter, he leaves home and joins his fellows on the battlefield, he loses himself in the frenzy of war, he loses brothers-in-arms to gas and bullets, he falls prey to shell-shock. Finally, a changed man, he leaves the battlefield, joins a triumphant processional home, and hands his helmet back to his daughter. The daughter gazes into the helmet, seeing what’s to come: WWII.

It’s a poignant story that works on multiple levels. It shows the personal, the allegorical, and the mythological experience of the Great War and its costs. My own contribution to this worthy endeavor was drawing Sabin’s attention to the resonance with Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. (I mention this fact because certain media venues have failed to credit me, though Sabin always publicly acknowledges my influence.)

After finalizing the design, there ensued a multitude of Washington D.C. commissions approvals meetings, a torturous process about which only Dante could do justice. My writerly skill quails before the inhumanly labyrinthine process of gathering all the necessary approvals from all the various civic bodies with a stake in a national memorial in our nation’s capitol. One WWICC commissioner, lecturing at the Army-Navy Club, referred plaintively to the “cycles of death.” One wonders how the WWICC commissioners avoided committing hari-kari. I offer my admiration for their persistence, which is, in its own right, heroic.

Finally the design was approved: a 56.5 foot long bronze wall covered by the relief. Moving further into the process, the Commission on Fine Arts (CFA) asked to see how the bronze relief panel seats into the stone base. A fair question, I think.

Sabin had to whip up another maquette. He also had to contend with time pressures for the actual final relief. A 38-figure bronze relief is a life’s work. It could, realistically, take twenty years to complete to the artistic standards required to do justice to a national memorial — to fully honor the sacrifices and service of our nation’s soldiers, over 116,000 of whom died during World War I.

But twenty years to sculpt this memorial simply isn’t available. It’s unrealistic in today’s fast-paced world. In fact, some results-oriented WWICC commissioners want to compress the sculpting and fabrication of the project into a two year time span — which is also unrealistic. There’s no short-cutting the process of casting a 56.5’ long, 10’ high bronze wall. So Sabin faced a sharp-toothed challenge: how to accelerate the creation of a bronze sculpture without losing its artistic merit and the integrity of the bronze medium.

Sabin and I spent months in 2018 researching foundries; this research we undertook with the bedrock of Sabin’s 30+ years of working with various foundries. He knows the intricacies of bronze-pouring! But deciding where to cast the WWI Memorial relief required due diligence. The size and complexity of the bronze relief pose multiple problems in all phases of fabrication: building the armature, sculpting, molding, casting, integrating internal support structures, finishing, patinating the piece, transporting it to Pershing Park, and, finally, setting it in its place. Any one of these steps could go awry, spelling catastrophe for the project.

After visiting multiple foundries, Pangolin Editions emerged as the clear choice. Located in Stroud, UK, a lively industrial area in the Cotswolds, Pangolin Editions offers an expansive, highly organized, factory-like approach to bronze casting from the beginning to the end of the process. Pouring molten metal can be tricky, dangerous, and time-consuming; it requires numerous steps. Approximately 200 highly skilled workers work in teams to accomplish the various steps involved. It’s all carefully-thought out and meticulously performed at Pangolin.

We met with manager and co-owner Steve Maule to explore the possibilities. His courtesy and kindness were a great pleasure, but what convinced us was his fluency with the unique problems faced by elite sculptors on large projects. Maule understood all too keenly the pressure to accomplish an important public sculpture on deadline and on budget while respecting the artist’s vision.

Maule introduced us to Steve Russell, an independent photographer who works closely enough with Pangolin that he purchased his own studio space on-site.

Soft-spoken Russell is a gifted artist in his own right; his show “Mountains of the Moon” at the Royal Geographic Society in London is garnering accolades. This exhibit shows the breath-taking Rwenzori mountains of East Africa. Russell also has ideas for innovation.

He listened to Sabin’s plan to scan models posing in WWI uniforms and thus create a digital blueprint for 3-D printing a small maquette. Russell suggested enhanced photogrammetry. The augmented images would provide a superabundance of digital information which could be manipulated via Zbrush, a digital sculpting app, and then rendered into three-dimensions via the milling process. The photogrammetry could reduce the time needed to make the small maquette. It could even be used later on, for the actual relief: the digital information could be rendered into soft foam and then covered with clay, providing Sabin with a super-accurate armature on which to sculpt. Potentially, it could save years of work.

Sabin was struck by the photogrammetry process. This new technology could assist him in completing the memorial with relative speed. Yet it deprived him of what had always been an integral part of his sculpting process: using his own hands to put up the steel armatures, cover them with foam, and layer on the clay base coat. He used that time to design and re-design a piece in his head; to take apart the figure, move parts around, and put it back together; and to understand the hierarchy of parts within the whole. He used that process to get to know his subject with extreme clarity — so he could produce his unique vision of the human figure.

Rungwe Kingdon, one of the owners of Pangolin Editions, is a tall man with an imposing beard, a passion for art, and a great brilliance in articulating the philosophy of art. He discussed the new process. “Change is the one constant in life, and the challenge is to see it as the adventure of life… What art does is elevate us or plunge us into thought to see the world anew. For the artist, the trick is to remain curious and be engaged when exploring the new technology.”

Sabin mused, “You can choose not to use the new technology, but then you risk becoming archaic and irrelevant.” My courageous husband was game to try the photogrammetry — though he felt a pang, acknowledging the sacrifice of his hard-won traditional technique.

Sabin brought a team of eager young actors to Stroud for the photogrammetry. Evelyn, Paul, Zach, and Mark love the project; they’ve been photographed for it in Sabin’s studio. They were happy to travel for the Memorial. They stayed out late at the pubs at night, toasting the locals with hearty Stroud ale. Still they showed up early, and focused, every morning for work.

And work them Sabin did. My husband is an exacting task-master. He knows what makes good art. He doesn’t tolerate any slacking off. Never raising his voice, he directs his models with quiet, stern authority. I know first-hand from posing for Sabin on other projects, and also because he pressed me into service as a nurse in dress uniform in the final triumphal procession.

Moreover, Steve Russell’s elaborate photogrammetry rig gave Sabin a whole new set of reasons to push his models for their ultimate poses.

From the moment he laid eyes on the rig, Sabin was inspired. Russell’s rig was custom designed for the WWI Memorial project. It consists of 156 cameras linked together in a spacious arc; they synchronize shots to within milliseconds. Some of the cameras are medium format Hasselblads that bring superb quality to their piece of the puzzle. The rig allows Russell to capture real-time expressions and movement in high definition. This photographic information eventually produces fully-formed, lushly-textured 3-D models. For sculpting the WWI Memorial, it’s a remarkable time-saving tool.

For sculpting any work of art — for actualizing any sculptor’s vision — it’s an unprecedented detail-capturing, time-saving tool. As Kingdon pointed out, “What photography did for painting, photogrammetry can do for sculpture.”

Standing in the rig as the nurse, I listened closely to Sabin’s instructions. When I attained the desired pose, I strained to hold my arm aloft and to freeze in position. A Hasselblad not connected to the rig would take an initial image. That Hasselblad sent the shot to a computer so Sabin could peruse the image on-screen. If he liked it, he’d call, “Shoot it!”

Russell or his assistant Ashley would jog over to deploy the rig, and the lights would flash while the cameras all whirred. This process repeated three times in quick succession.

It was strange to think that an image of my body in the round was being compiled, complete with the crinkles of the skirt behind my thigh and the strain of fabric against the back of my neck.

The models worked diligently as Sabin posed them again and again, until his critical eye was satisfied. Each of the scenes in “A Soldier’s Journey” was shot several times to provide maximum coverage.

After five days of shooting, the imagery was handed over to Pangolin’s crackerjack digital team: Joe, Andy, and Angelo. They had some sausage-making to do to clean up the data into usable format. That took them a few weeks. Then Sabin and I returned to Stroud to begin the process of working with the data in Zbrush.

The data manipulation has just begun. It requires a lot of screen time done by professionals who also have a working knowledge of the figure. So far our only tangible product is a test maquette, a powder print at 27.5” long. This test maquette gave Sabin an opportunity to do preliminary work on the joining of the base with the sculpture. It’s a far cry from the presentation maquette that will go to the CFA at the next meeting. It’s also a faint harbinger of what’s to come: the crucial foam armature for Sabin to sculpt the actual Memorial.

But the small powder print whet Sabin’s appetite for more. He spent a day raptly working on the little test maquette. Then, trudging back to our hotel through the Nelson trust, he regaled me with the possibilities. There were myriad diverse sculpture projects of the human form, and the human body in unfettered motion, that were newly possible! They could be brought to fruition with hitherto unimaginable speed. He had lost one cherished technique, but he’d gained a tool that could free his creativity in a way he’d never envisioned.

As Kingdon noted, art elevates us. It plunges us into thought to see the world anew. It also influences us subliminally, shaping our perception of our lives and the universe. Sometimes the very process of making art can do that, too — when an artist can heed, and even embrace, a disruption that becomes the catalyst.

Traci L. Slatton

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Traci L. Slatton is an international, award-winning, best-selling author. Her novel IMMORTAL is set to be made into a miniseries.