Eleven figures from Sabin Howard’s A Soldier’s Journey have set forth on their voyage to the foundry overseas. Everyone in the studio felt the absence of our loved and sculpted friends: the Daughter, Kneeling Dad, Standing Mom, Heroic Mom, Departing Dad, and the various sprightly doughboys.
Never was the contrast so keen between the sculpted clay figures with their radiant life force and the mannequin-like foam armatures as the midnight hour after packing, when only the untouched armatures remained in the studio.
Human hands wreak magic with the touch of a sculpting tool to clay.
But we didn’t linger in the void. With a blessing for the completed initial scene of the sculptural heart of the National WWI Memorial, the sculptors got down to business on the next sculpting task: the battle scene.
Sabin and his team disassembled the relief. They took down figures 12 through 20 from the background and surveyed the doughboys.
Gone is the solemn closeness of a family torn apart. The rhythm has changed, from graceful elegance to sharp, pointy, aggression. These soldiers are active: they’re in combat. They’ve plunged into the chaos of war and been transfigured by that animalistic madness. Their arms are raised and their guns flash through the air. Their stances are lunging, leaping, running, charging — exploding into battle.
These poses will be challenging for our stalwart models. In figures 12, 13, 16, and 17, forward legs are flexed to varying degrees. Back legs push off the ground. Figure 13’s thighs are split nearly Hanumanasana-like.
The core of each figure is also important. Sabin talks often about the hierarchy of importance in art, how the artist skillfully assembles a thousand details to create a work of art. In this scene, the cores will be sculpted to a high level. The core holds the energy of the soldiers as they erupt out of the trenches. Each core must be sculpted to show tautness, pressure, and strain. Sabin looks always for the skeleton and musculature beneath the fabric of the uniforms.
Sabin stood in front of figure 13, whose abdomen is compressed against his quad, and said, “I’ve got this one. It’s Michelangelo-like!”
I thought my husband was referring to the asymmetry of the figures and the compression of arm against torso in the Maestro’s Slaves.
But figure 13 is far more active than Michelangelo had access to in sculpting. This figure shows tremendous forward momentum. His upper body stretches forward at a dynamic angle, continuing in a straight line off the diagonal of his back leg. He’s caught in a split second of aggressing against both gravity and enemy combatants.
One of the wags in the studio named figure 13 ‘Exploding Guy’ because of the extreme force of the figure moving forward. It’s a tough pose. A few models rotated through until we found one who could get into the pose and hold it for twenty minutes.
The sculptors assist the models by building supportive adaptations. Sculptor Charlie Mostow spent a whole morning building blocks, stands, and stair-like structures for the models to lean against or rest on. The studio was filled with the smell of sawdust and the high-pitched whine of the circular saw.
Charlie had previously shepherded the models to our tailor. Their pants needed to be sewn to the specifications of the scene. The guys wear original WWI uniforms. Some of the century-old pants are fraying. Moreover, the leaner, smaller guys of a hundred years ago weren’t necessarily dropping into yoga poses. The wool pants needed patching. They also had to be altered to fit closely where the sculptors need to see the underlying flesh while also being loose enough to allow the full extension.
It’s been a few days of work on the battle scene and the guys are settling into a groove. I’ve ordered an extra yoga mat and some blocks so the models can stretch during breaks. The studio inversion table is suddenly getting a lot of use.
The sculptors are also getting into their rhythm. Raymond has attacked figure 15. Charlie is schooling himself on figure 17. As they work with the figures, names emerge: 12 is Flying Guy, 17 is Running Guy. Sabin joked that 14, a figure on the ground, is ‘Lying Down Guy.’
I suggested that my husband bequeath another name to the hapless doughboy. The informality of our names reflects the sculptors’ intimacy with the figures. They’re terms of endearment. We like these guys, and we’re proud that they are meant to honor those who served in the Great War. Moreover, Sabin and I believe that art is to be lived with and loved.
Even so, ‘Lying Down Guy’ might be a bit casual. Sabin came up with ‘Wounded Guy’ for figure 14.
We have one year to complete this grouping of nine figures, one year before these doughboys undertake the same voyage across the Atlantic as the first eleven figures. I would never have foreseen all the events of 2020. I wonder how 2021 will unfold. What surprises, what new challenges, are in store for our gallant studio crew? Sabin says, “Rise to the occasion. Strive.” I suspect his mantra will aid us.
A Soldier’s Journey will be a fascinating work of art when installed in Pershing Park in 2023/2024. The first half of the relief is a study in contrasts: the juxtaposition of the graciousness of the family at home with the brutality of raging soldiers ten feet away. The composition compels attention and elicits emotion.
Stay tuned for more dispatches as the battle scene progresses, and enjoy this video from the studio.