Four Questions for Memorial sculptor Sabin Howard
"An emotional truth that is shown by one soldier’s journey through the Great War"
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission
Our National World War One Memorial project is moving along, and continues to go through the processes of review, design updates, and fundraising. For those who are unfamiliar, this project will be the new National World War One Memorial in Washington DC, which will be sited downtown, at Pershing Park. Some of the noteworthy changes are beautiful new drawings for the design concept, created by the project's sculptor, Sabin Howard. Sabin is the world's leading classicist sculptor working today. His specific role in this project may be his most challenging master-work yet. He is developing the design for a 75 foot-long bronze bas-relief wall, which will figuratively depict the emotional story of American people who were affected by the war - soldiers, family members, children. He stopped to tell us a little about his latest efforts.
Tell us about what you have been working on. Are these updates to the vision for the the design-concept?
After approximately nine months of iterations, the commission put their seal of approval on the design drawing for the National World War One Memorial. It’s a 40-figure composition that will be the initial idea presented to the government agencies. It’s a visual narrative called a Soldier's Journey.
The story carries an emotional truth that is shown by one soldier’s journey through the Great War. He travels from his homeland and family, through the battlefield, to return home to his family. This also represents the voyage that America took through the war.
There are two stories that have evolved through these iterations. One is a smaller, more personal voyage of a soldier; the other is the allegory that his journey represents as America travels through this historical event.
It has been a compelling artistic journey of creation, requiring a commitment of 60 hours per week in the studio. Through it, I have a evolved as an artist as well.
How are these new/updated drawings different than the previous ones? i.e. composition, tone, choreography, facial expression, message imparted?
Prior to the project, my sculpture was honed to creating a timeless art form in which I played forward the classical aesthetics of the ancient Greeks and Romans. I was most interested in creating a sense of structure and stability through a craft that showed tremendous understanding of anatomy and design.
I have always worked from real life models in the studio, not inventing things out of my head but looking at life (nature) and then translating this vision into art. I relied upon my education of how the figure is put together to make my art. This type of work was more oriented towards a static approach to the figure.
Initially, when I entered into the project, I was using that methodology to create the compositions. Once I received feedback from the Commission, my creative process began to change to fit the vision that this memorial had to bring forward.
Specifically, this is a memorial that has to give a visual narrative of what World War One looked like to a general public. Your average visitor is not geared towards the esoteric idea of "the figure" that I had been educated in and spent the last 30 years of my life in the studio creating.
I did not abandon these 30 years of education and experience, but rather I added to the art another layer of meaning and understanding. I took the appropriate steps because this is public art. Public art represents us on a global scale both artistically and culturally and so has to be understood on those terms. I began bringing more drama and movement to the studio by changing my creative process. Rather than posing the models on the dais and then having them hold the pose, I asked the actors and models to act out the specific scene that we were illustrating. As they moved through slow motion to illustrate the story line, I took pictures of their movement.
From the series of pictures that were taken, I would pick the single, essential, catalyst image that explained the complete movement or action. Suddenly the poses showed a lot more force. The center of gravity had shifted to show movement. My art changed from Classical to Baroque. This was a direct result of the commission and some of the committees suggesting that I needed to bring more action and drama to the poses.
This was the first time that I had done this type of work which involved a collaboration with other people. The collaborative process in the beginning was foreign, but as I progressed through the meetings, I saw that the feedback that I received from others brought in a richness and plethora of new ideas. These ideas expressed themselves with very dramatic ways in the art.
The art expressed more about the human life force energy. The relief composition could not be archaeological or static or didactic but had to be full of movement and emotion to give a sense of life. This composition had to imbue a visceral feeling within the viewer. The action and drama has to have an immediacy, as if it is happening directly in front of the viewer. In this way, the relief will transport the viewer’s mind to a war that happened a 100 years ago.
When the models would come to the studio, I would dress them with actual uniforms that saw the battlefield a hundred years ago. There was a transformational element to these young men and women who put on these outfits. When they stepped up onto the modeling platform under the lights and I directed them into the stories that we were re-creating, a seriousness and sacredness permeated the studio.
The actors and models were inspired. They watched historical data on film. The longer hair was shed as a few of them got military haircuts. The usual jovial mood of 20-year-olds as they entered into the studio would soon change as they put the uniforms on. All of a sudden their solemn faces appeared.
I went through many people to find the ones that would actually be fitting and who would bring this charged energy to the project. The actors age also ranged from 17 years old to 53 years old as I looked for different characters to fit the stories that we portrayed.
In the end, the collaborative process with the commission raised the level of art and storyline so that a very precise and concentrated visual story resulted. This energy of the models in uniform acting out the stories is very real. In their minds, as they re-created the scenes in my studio, they were soldiers in the war. The emotional energy of what transpired is real and tangible.
From these photographic references, I began my drawings and iterations. The drawings have represented a translation from life into art. When I use the photographs, I translate what I see, thinking about structure, meaning how the skeleton is moving, and how the muscles spiral around the skeleton to create a sense of movement and internal energy pushing outwards.
It is not a copying or rendering. It is a pure translation which changes life into art. I use my mind to filter what I see and to create a different perception or reality of what is shown in the reference. The construction or creative process of making the drawings in their technical aspect did not change much through the iterations. What did change tremendously is the concept or the story.
The initial scene of the soldier leaving the family and then the separation between the soldier and his wife joining his comrades-in-arms to go off to war became a circular construction on the relief. The next scene which became the battle scene took on almost the same feeling that a school of fish have. All the soldiers are flowing together to create a unified whole as they charge forward, led into battle by a commander.
The scene also took on much greater rate of speed as the figures leaned farther forward in movement. This scene also became more cohesive as the figures move up and out of a trench reaching a high point and then flowing forward.
The next scene became the cost of war. It’s shown by three men in a symbolic scene similar to the representation of a Pieta. The underlying concept is to show how soldiers sacrifice themselves for the good of the country. There was a strong dialogue with the commission to create a sense of a figure coming directly out of the movement forward. This was done to stop the viewer as he or she walked along the wall. The interaction between the soldier that comes directly out towards the viewer and the viewer is a pause that engages the viewer. It shows the rebirth of the soldier as he exits the war. He has been tempered like steel and transformed into a different person. There is an allusion here towards how America has been changed by the war to become a different country.
From this point onward the figures climb upwards as the wounded walk, supporting each other, culminating in a figure of a commander. The commander looks backwards but moves forwards with his comrades as he supports them with his strength.
The final section of the wall which is the result of the war was the most difficult to create. It took the greatest number of attempts to get the correct story line. The story lines had to show the grittiness of the war yet at the same time America had to be represented correctly by the soldiers. There still had to be a sense of the reality of war and a sense of how hard-fought the war had been, but in the end America had prevailed.
The end result of the section was one of coming up from the ground with a compositional diagonal from the Pieta scene to the returning commander of the composition.From this point or pinnacle, things move forward into a parade scene. Then the soldier reunites with his family, ending in a similar circular pattern as the beginning of the relief, which in itself is very representational of something sacred.
In the complete composition, there is a huge X that passes through the very center of the composition. It is created by the positioning of the figures in space.
This X is symbolic of transformation and change that happened historically and societally. Through this journey the soldier’s life is transformed as he left his family and went off to battle, only to return a different man. This is an allegory about America going off to Europe and then returning to create a different country. It also speaks to how the world's view of the universe changed as well.
You are very committed to your craft. Tell us about your typical workday?
The process of making these drawings to explain this idea carries a tremendous amount of specificity to it. There is not a sense that these are generic soldiers in generic poses. There are five scenes like a Shakespearean drama. For each of those scenes, I photographed multiple iterations with the actors in the studio. From those images, the commission and I discussed the best possible story line that we could come up with.
Not only did the poses have to tell a story but they also had to work compositionally in the whole. Often in creating a diagonal that would carry several groupings together, we were limited to a pose that would help create that larger movement.
This is a very classical way of working in which all the parts fit hierarchically into one unified whole. A figure grouping of 12 figures might tell one story, and that one story might be filled with several other sub-stories. Each of those sub-stories has to fit into the bigger picture.
The same spiral rhythms that run through the body and that same structure of the skeleton are elements of construction and design that are used also in composing a figurative narrative. The rhythms are thematically repeated.In the body there is an answer and response of curves. The same sort of system is used in an answer and response in terms of figures. There is a very musical element in this type of composition and the end result is one of many parts pulled together and flowing into a unified whole.
This use of composition to create a whole was also part of the meaning of the relief. The soldiers were not meant to be alienated and alone through out the composition. There might have been one or two parts where there is a soldier who was alienated and this was needed for the story, but overall the sense of flowing unification was used in the composition as an explanation of how the universe is assembled, and how we are one unified race of humanity.
My typical workday last on average 10 hours and I have been drawing incessantly for six days a week in this creative process. One of my favorite quotes is "Success is the only option!"
What will the next steps be, if the design concept is approved? How does the drawing level ultimately become a bronze bas-relief panel?
When the design concept is approved I will have to do a small maquette, probably of one of the sections. From this I will get a better idea of how much projection outwards the relief will have. It’s my intention that the big panel will project out into space from the background no more than 6 to 8 inches.
When I learned how to draw, I was taught certain theories that were expounded by Leonardo da Vinci. One of those theories is about light. This is based upon a system where there is one source of light that is preferably coming from above, like the sun. All planes that faces the sun would be lit up and all planes that face away from the sun would be dark.
It is the system that helps create a sense of unification of the whole. All planes that face the same direction to the light source are of equal value. The planes that are perpendicular to the light source are the brightest. As you move parallel to the light source, you will hit the horizon otherwise known as tangent zone.
The tangent zone is the shadow line which describes the curvature of the form. If the form turns hard and sharp like a bone, you get a hard and sharp shadow line, if the form turned softly and is wide like the large form of a muscle you get a softer wider tangent zone.
The next step is translating everything that I have done on paper into a three dimensional format. A relief is not truly sculpture in the round but is a fraction or flattening out of real form. it is the illusion of form and it must be done expertly.
By playing with the pitch of the planes on the relief, essentially you are changing the value of the planes creating darks and lights. As a sculptor you manipulate the form or planes to create a sense of three dimensionality.
But manipulating what direction the planes face on the relief you are dictating how dark or light those planes will be. By doing this you can create higher contrast in specific spots increasing the focus to that part—increasing the drama. There will be a direct translation now for the drawings into this type of format.