From the World War I Centennial News Podcast
A Century in the Making: An Interview with National Memorial creative team Joe Weishaar and Sabin Howard
In Episode 105 of the WW1 Centennial News Podcast, which aired on January 11th, 2019, we heard from two people who are integral to the creation of the National Memorial: lead designer Joe Weishaar and sculptor Sabin Howard. The following is a transcript from a recent event in Washington, D.C., edited for clarity.
Theo Mayer: Now, our newer listeners may be surprised or even shocked to learn that there's no National World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C. We honor the veterans of every other major conflict of the 20th century in our nation's capital except World War I. To fix that, the U.S. World War I Centennial Commissions Capstone Project is the creation of the memorial. During the centennial of the armistice, we held events in D.C. At the site of the future memorial. At one of these events, the project's lead designer, Joe Weishaar, and sculptor Sabin Howard spoke about the evolution of the project and how they got together. Here are Joe and Sabin.
Joe Weishaar: Back in June of 2015, I was working in an architecture firm in Chicago and I came across a competition online and it said World War I Memorial and I said, "Okay, that's interesting." And followed the link and it said National World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C. I didn't know that there wasn't a World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C., I didn't know hardly anything about World War I at all. Maybe a week and a half, two weeks worth of high school education devoted to the subject tucked somewhere between the start of the century, Great Depression, World War II, they just jammed it in there. I clicked on the link and it took me to the World War I Commission website that had all these great links to the National Archives, and I started clicking on pictures. I don't know how many hours later I looked up probably after 10,000 pictures, the one that got me into this process more than any other image that I ever looked at and it's of two young guys down in a trench covered in mud. But they're doing relatively normal things, and I had this very instant powerful connection to them because the caption just said, "Two rural farm boys in a trench in World War I." I'm from Arkansas, originally, and I thought to myself, "If I was alive 100 years ago, I could have been one of those guys. They look like they're 25 or so, I was 25 [at the time] and that would have been my life." So I felt a very deep personal connection with them and so then I followed the other links and being an architect I submitted the design and didn't think anything of it until they called me back two and a half months later and said, "Are you sitting down?"
I think at the start we had something crazy like 324 linear feet of sculpture, it was insane. I sat down with the commission at the very first meeting and they said, "How are you going to do this?" And I said, "Oh, I'm 25, I have no idea. Maybe I'll sculpt it myself. I don't know how to do this." I did what any 25-year-old would do, I googled "sculptor," and got this huge range and so I said, "Okay, well we'll have to use Americans on this." So I googled American sculptor and it had these amazing sculptures, Daniel Chester French and August Scott Dens. I said like, "Okay, I'm going to call up Gardens and this is going to be great." He died in 1901 or something, so then I had to google "American sculptor living" and it came up with the National Sculpture Society and went through all of their web pages. And then I came to Sabin's web page and instantly I knew if I could do this myself, this is what I want it to be. This is who needs to do this memorial and Sabin can take it from here.
Sabin Howard: Yeah. It's a really interesting combination the two of us and I call this a miracle that we've gotten to this place because Joe actually had the vision to think of something that's not the usual, it's not corporate at all. This is truly from the heart and carries the passion that is necessary to instill a reaction in the visitor. You got a title that we're dealing with when we came into the project called the Forgotten War. Well, I'm about to change that title, it's no longer going to be forgotten after we get this memorial in place. This project needs to explain to the world that wars are not just about big governments, they are about human beings and people. I think that's what really struck Joe that here's an artist that makes sculptures from people. Can you flip back to that last picture? Your left bottom, there's a girl there. That girl to me reminded me of my young daughter, the soldiers walking back reminded me that this was about people. I had been working in the studio for basically the last 35 years looking at naked people, and that wasn't going to work for this project. We had to change it and this was one of the drawings that I did to win the project with Joe. As you can see, those are real people, that's MarK on the right who's from Throgg's Neck in Bronx. That's Pete who works as a engineer at a college right underneath the bridge, it goes out to Staten Island. In the middle is Ognjen who's an immigrant from Serbia who is actually one of the kickboxing world champions of the world. This is how I do my art, I connect with real people and I pose them. If you come tomorrow night, you'll see that we're going to do that exactly with real 21-year-olds, I call them kids, they're kids. That's who entered this war. So that's where I started.
Real estate for monuments in Washington is, you know... you got to pass through a real tempering to get to the other side, which we're very close now to getting to the other side and starting to sculpt. Thank you [applause]... So here I am and I go to Washington and I'm truly excited. I'm like, "I've won the lottery." No, you haven't won the lottery, you're about to get initiated. I didn't really know what to do and everybody's got an opinion, they're all telling you, "Do this, do this, do this." Well, if you listen to everybody, the vision gets lost. One day in my studio I have this poster up and I looked at that poster and I hear inside my head this voice that goes, "Do what you know." I looked at the poster of Michelangelo's Last Judgment and the Last Judgment is about all of humanity intertwined like pretzels, they are all connected. They're not alone. I started from that moment on to use the models posing them not as static figures, but as breaking the space and intertwining. Then I met with Edwin Fountain and Edwin was like, "Well, you know the Grant Memorial in front of the Capitol Building? That's what I like. That was my litmus, and then underneath it is the Parthenon which is what I knew would bring the heroism and the power that was necessary to impart that message to the visitor. Then we started this really long process of iterations with Edwin Fountain and the Centennial Commission and they put us through our paces. But as we moved along, the story got really sharp and every single figure started to have a meaning to tell that story. The story as it grew larger, and I'm in a household with a novelist, my wife is a novelist, I really had to listen to her. She told me, "You're doing the hero's journey." Once I realized that and heard those words, I knew I was on the right path. I would take the pictures in my studio, I took 12,000 pictures, and I would flip the pictures to Joe via the internet and then he would help me assemble them. I don't want to like hog the microphone so-
Joe Weishaar: No, it's fine, you want me to go back to the-
Sabin Howard: Yeah, you can talk too. All right, you'll have to.
Joe Weishaar: You did great.
Sabin Howard: Thanks. What happened is we got something that was very structured, we have a very clear beginning, middle and end, we have a very clear message in the middle of transformation with the symbolism. And then each of the individual figures as well tells a unique story.
Joe Weishaar: One of the things that I wanted to bring to the Memorial and for it to convey was exactly the same, I said, "All of these emotions and that the faces are real. When you look at it, you will see somebody that you know in it, in one of the faces. Be it a parent, a grandparent, somebody currently serving in the military, somebody who has in the past, because this isn't just a memorial for World War I, it is a story of all of us."
Sabin Howard: Yeah, so I did these drawings and the drawings... that was our blueprint done over 700 hours. I used that drawing to go into the next phase which was the creation of the market in New Zealand and that was squeezed into a six month period.
Theo Mayer: Joe Weishaar, the lead designer, and Sabin Howard, the sculptor, the winners of the Commission's International Design Competition talking about the evolution of the National World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C. Learn more about the project at ww1cc.org/memorial, all lowercase, or by following the link in the podcast notes.