The Rehumanization of Public Art

For anyone who shares my utter dismay regarding the dehumanization of public art in recent decades,1 I have good news. An extraordinarily ambitious, heartfelt, and skillful work of figurative public art is underway that communicates without the aid of an artist’s statement.

Sabin Howard - A Hero's Journey - detail

Sabin Howard, A Soldier’s Journey, first section, full-size clay model in studio prior to casting in bronze.

It is the slightly larger-than-life sculptural relief for the National World War I Memorial —designed by a very young architect, Joseph Weishaar (b. 1990), and a seasoned classical sculptor, Sabin Howard (b. 1963) [more]. Slated for Pershing Park in the nation’s capital (a stone’s throw from the White House), it is entitled A Soldier’s Journey: The Weight of Sacrifice. And as the title suggests, it offers a dramatic narrative, encapsulating what the war was like for a multitude of ordinary Americans—nearly 5 million of whom served and more than 116,000 of whom died in that conflict (exceeding those lost in the Korean and Vietnamese wars combined), in addition to 204,000 wounded.

Genesis of the Project

Despite its wrenching toll on the nation, World War I is a relatively unfamiliar event to most Americans, compared to other wars in our history. Until now, it has not even had a major memorial in the capital. This project to rectify that omission is the result of a long and intricate planning process undertaken by the WW I Centennial Commission, created by Congress in 2013. A major player in that process has been Edwin Fountain, the commission’s vice chairman. As he explains, the memorial aims to serve a dual function: to educate people about the war and to commemorate those who served in it.2

In contrast with the procedure followed for the highly controversial Eisenhower Memorial—for which designs were directly solicited from pre-selected firms3—the WW I Centennial Commission wisely chose to hold a completely open, international competition. Some 360 submissions were received. From these, five finalists were chosen in August 2015, and were then submitted for review to the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), whose approval would be needed for the final design. The CFA raised strong objections to each of the five designs under consideration—based in large measure on how the memorial would relate to the existing park design. The Centennial Commission then gave the five finalists $25,000 each and approximately four months to submit a revised design responsive to the CFA’s concerns. (Funding for the project has come mainly from private sources.)

The choice of Weishaar as the ultimate finalist was remarkable in several respects, not least his youth and relative inexperience. Only twenty-five at the time, he had not yet received his architectural license and was merely an intern at a Chicago firm, Brininstool + Lynch, Ltd. Moreover, his submission was an entirely independent project, whereas the other four finalists were teams of established professionals. Nor did he hail from a prestigious Eastern school with all the connections that might entail. His alma mater was the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville (which may serve to humble the graduates of highly touted institutions such as the Yale School of Architecture).

Most remarkably, Weishaar’s proposal, entitled The Weight of Sacrifice, stipulated figurative reliefs as a prominent part of the design—to depict what such sacrifice had entailed. This was a marked departure from the abstract modernist approach that has dominated public monuments for decades, epitomized by Maya Lin’s granite wall for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. On meeting Edwin Fountain at a reception in Howard’s studio last month, I congratulated him on that departure and commented that I’ve often wondered whether Lin’s wall would have any emotional impact a hundred years from now, when visitors no longer had a personal connection to the individuals named there. He responded that although he admires Lin’s memorial, the same idea had occurred to him, and agreed that a figurative monument, in contrast, can be timeless.

In his proposal, Weishaar had not yet chosen the sculptor, however, who would be crucial to the monument’s success. On subsequently searching for one through the National Sculpture Society, he found Sabin Howard—whose skill as a sculptor was already known to the Centennial Commission, as work by him was an impressive part of a design proposal that had been rejected because the overall architectural conception was deemed unsatisfactory.

The Weishaar-Howard collaboration has proved highly compatible. To begin with, in preparing for the project, each of them had spent endless hours examining World War I photographs to get a sense of what the experience of the war had been like. Deeply moved by what they saw, they resolved to work toward embodying that experience for others, in a readily accessible and emotionally compelling form.

The Creative Process

No aspect of the creative process has been simple or direct, however, because every step has had to be approved by the CFA. Howard began by arranging groups of models, dressed in WW I attire, into a series of compositions inspired by the wartime pictures he and Weishaar had seen. But on assembling photographs of the groups into a sequence, he realized that the whole lacked cohesion. What was needed was a story, a simple narrative to connect them. It became A Soldier’s Journey, showing a single doughboy take leave of his wife and young daughter at the left, to join the fray, share the tumult of war with comrades, suffer injury and shellshock, and eventually return home at the right. Once a reasonably coherent arrangement had been determined, he created a scaled-down drawing of the composition to present to the CFA.

Sabin Howard, A Soldier's Journey - drawing

Sabin Howard, A Soldier’s Journey: The Weight of Sacrifice, preliminary drawing.

A Soldier’s Journey, detail, test “print” in low relief, Weta Workshop, New Zealand.

On receiving the CFA’s approval, Howard was then faced with the daunting task of creating a sculptural maquette of the entire relief, scaled down to one-sixth. He had just six months to create the 9-foot-long maquette, comprising nearly 40 figures! To do so, he traveled to New Zealand to work with the Weta Workshop, renowned in the film industry for employing the most advanced technology to create alternative realities. At Weta, Howard re-shot all the figures in the round, posed and garbed as before, and then assembled the digital images of single figures into the narrative groupings in his drawing. Test “prints” early in the process clearly suggested to him that much deeper relief would be needed to carry the emotional effect at a distance.

When a final 3-D “print” in higher relief was created, it was digitalized and then cut up into 120 plastic sections, which were shipped to China, to be “printed” in 3-D and shipped back to New Zealand, where they were reassembled into whole figures integrated into the full composition. As Howard emphasizes, the result produced by such digital processes was very “mannequin-like.” He therefore spent the next 71 days sculpting the clay surface of the figures to bring them to life as only “an artist and the human hand” can do.

Sabin Howard - sculpting maquette of A Hero's Journey

Sabin Howard sculpting maquette of A Soldier’s Journey in New Zealand.

That creative product was again cut into sections, cast in resin, and reassembed into a maquette for review by the CFA in the U.S. Based on the CFA’s critique of that maquette, Howard went through another round of revision, reducing the projected dimensions of the relief from 75 to 60 feet in length, which would tighten the composition, making it more dramatic. He had just four months to create a new maquette based on the revised composition—another daunting task. For that step, he traveled to the state-of-the-art Pangolin foundry in the U.K.

Models for A Hero's Journey posing at Pangolin foundry

Models posing for 3-D imaging, Pangolin Editions foundry, U.K.

There, live models once again enacted the composition, and were photographed in three dimensions, utilizing Pangolin’s high-tech battery of 160 cameras. The digital image thus produced was then used to create a scaled-down sculptural relief for yet another review by the CFA.

Happily, that maquette was approved, and work on the full-scale figures could at last begin in Howard’s studio. Pangolin provided full-size 3-D “prints” of the figures to be used as armatures for the finished sculptures. In response to purists who would object that using such mechanical assistance means the “death” of traditional sculpture, Howard argues that it “enables us to make larger projects”—adding “but they have to be driven by traditional values and the ability to use your hand, your heart, and your brain to create art.”4 And he has indeed used his hand, heart, and brain at every key step of the process to ensure that the result is a work of art, not mere technology.

The Crucial Final Stage

Sabin Howard -sculpting from model

Sabin Howard sculpting from model in his studio.

In the studio, Howard again works from live models, to transform the mannequin-like armatures into life-like depictions of humanity, through painstaking sculpting of the clay surface. His result is a world apart, in both technique and spirit, from directly cast work by postmodernists such as George Segal and Duane Hanson.

Heroic Wife-Mother

Sabin Howard, A Soldier’s Journey, detail: Wife/Mother figure before (left) and after (right) sculpting on Pangolin’s digitally cast armature.

To ensure that the mammoth project can be completed in a reasonable time frame (he expects to finish sculpting by December 20235), Howard has enlisted the assistance of several classically trained sculptors. But he continually oversees their work, and the finishing touches are his. The first section (approximately one-third) of the full relief is nearly ready to be cast in bronze.

As a sculptor who has spent his life until now working entirely independently, Howard credits the broadly collaborative nature of this commissioned public work with forcing him to grow artistically, which he has indeed done. The complex and emotionally expressive relief that has evolved, in what he regards as the “epic journey” of this creative process, goes far beyond the relatively impassive classical figures he previously produced. But they are imbued with the same spirit, the same “sense of dignity” he seeks to project, “speak[ing] well of humanity . . . of heroism,” showing “that we are able to rise to the occasion when faced with great odds.” As such, all his work is in a different realm from what he laments as the “cinder blocks” of modernism.6  Collaboration has not made him fundamentally alter his vision for this piece, Howard says, but it has helped him to realize it more effectively. Finally, he earnestly hopes that this major project will help to raise public appreciation of and support for classically inspired contemporary figurative art. To that hope, I add a hearty Amen!

Notes

  1. For some of my previous thoughts on this subject, see “Today’s ‘Public Art’–Rarely Public, Rarely Art,” Aristos, May 1988; and “‘Public Art’ for Whom?,” For Piero’s Sake, May 5, 2015.
  2. Fountain describes the background and aims of the project in an “Interview on World War I Memorial,” C-SPAN, December 15, 2015. He also outlines the five designs that were finalists in the competition held by the commission.
  3. The Eisenhower project was ultimately awarded to starchitect Frank Gehry—who has produced what I, like many critics, regard as a largely execrable design. To make matters worse, the choice of Gehry was probably biased by a personal connection to Rocco Siciliano, chairman of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission. Regarding Gehry’s overblown pretensions, see Louis Torres, “‘Mere’ Architecture?,” What Art Is Online, November–December 2001; and “At His Father’s Knee” (review of John Silber’s Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art), Aristos, July 2009—apologies for any broken links in these articles, which are more than a decade old.
  4. Sabin Howard, talk on “The New National World War I Memorial,” Civic Art Society, Washington, D. C., December 9, 2019.
  5. The park portion of the memorial is already under construction and is slated for completion by the end of 2020.
  6. For example, see Alberto Montaño Mason, Cinder Blocks for My Father, 2005.