The End of the Beginning: Eight of Sabin Howard’s Doughboys Get Ready to Go Back to Europe

Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming The drums rum — tumming everywhere.
-“Over There” by George M. Cohan, 1917

Sculptor Sabin Howard is preparing to ship eight doughboys, a little girl, and two iterations of a mother figure back to the foundry in England for molding and casting into bronze.

Sabin Howard’s A Soldier’s Journey, initial scene
Sabin Howard’s A Soldier’s Journey, initial scene
Sabin Howard’s A Soldier’s Journey, beginning scene, photo by Andrew Holtz

It’s been a treacherous slog through the malefic synchronicity of the global pandemic as Sabin and his team sculpted the first eleven figures of A Soldier’s Journey, the sculptural heart of the National WWI Memorial to be installed in Pershing Park, Washington DC.

One year ago, I wrote about the start of principle sculpture. At the time, we had received only the first grouping of clay-covered, pre-sculpted foam figures from Pangolin-Editions Foundry in Stroud, U.K. Since then, all thirty-eight figures have arrived in our studio.

It was unthinkable last August that the whole world would pause this spring in an effort to slow the spread of a tricky and dangerous virus.

Great disease was mighty and the people were sick everywhere.
It was an epidemic, it floated through the air.
Well, we done told you, our God’s done warned you,
Jesus coming soon…
The doctors they got troubled and they didn’t know what to do.
-“Jesus is Coming Soon” by Blind Willie Johnson, 1928

Given our tight deadlines, Sabin and I rented a small house near the studio. We formed a quarantine pod with our sculptors and models and our daughter Madeleine. The guys worked ferociously, taking off only two days in June, to bring the digital pre-sculpts to the level of Sabin’s vision: high art.

The word ‘vision’ is deliberate. My husband is a relentless visionary. Sabin intends to play forward the human fingerprint in spite of, or perhaps because of, the digital age. To that end, he made strategic use of digital technologies. He employed photogrammetry, Z-brush software, and CNC-milling. This technology gave him an advanced armature for his sure hands to sculpt on.

Sabin Howard sculpting the Kneeling Dad, figure 2 in A Soldier’s Journey; model Paul-Emile Cendron

Sabin says that real art is made by the hands, the head, and the heart. That, along with the skill and excellence of the artist, is what gives art its power.

Sabin Howard’s Standing Mom
Sabin Howard’s Standing Mom
Sabin Howard’s Standing Mom, Figure 3 in A Soldier’s Journey

And powerful Sabin’s figures are. His Standing Mom, the third figure in the relief, rests her hands on her husband’s shoulders with sorrow and grave concern. Her husband is going to war. Beautiful Standing Mom’s face is one of the most poignant and expressive of Sabin’s female heads, reflecting the anguish felt by those who stay behind as their loved ones leave for battle.

They’re breaking the hearts of mothers Making butchers out of brothers
You’ll find more hell up there than there is down below.
Kings up there
They don’t care
For the mothers who must stay at home Their sorrows to bear
Stay at home
Don’t you roam
-“Stay Down Here Where You Belong” by Irving Berlin, 1914

The first three figures of A Soldier’s Journey, August 2020, left; August 2019, right

Standing Mom has come a long way from the blank, Barbie-doll mannequin that she was when she was pulled out of the shipping container last August. Now she’s a real woman with care writ all over her being. Sabin sculpts from life to achieve a precise specificity that resonates with the personal and intimate as well as with the universal and archetypal.

Sabin Howard’s Heroic Mom before and after sculpting
Sabin Howard’s Heroic Mom before and after sculpting
Heroic Mom, Aug 2019, top; Aug 2020, bottom

Heroic Mom, the fourth figure in A Soldier’s Journey, trembles with anxiety. She clasps her husband’s arm as he heeds the call to join his comrades-in-arms. She represents both an all-too-human woman who fears for her husband’s life as well as the United States, which was initially reluctant to enter the war in Europe.

At the start of principle sculpture, Heroic Mom was generic and emotionally flat, though the digital pre-sculpting imparted a false gloss of finish.

In fact, to the uninitiated eye, the figures looked close to completion from Day 1 in the studio. Sabin fielded some obstreperous questions: “Aren’t they good enough? Why will sculpting take so long?”

As if sculpting eleven figures to the level of high art in twelve months, even with a talented and dedicated team and the head start of digital prep, is anything short of miraculous!

Sabin Howard in front of the initial scene of A Soldier’s Journey

Before-and-after photos reveal the sculpture’s journey from then to now. It’s a journey of transformation, the transformation of art. Sabin explains that figurative art isn’t realistic at all, in the sense of a photographic copy. It’s abstract. It’s based on the artist’s perception and education. The figure is metabolized and created anew by the talent — genius — hard work of the artist.

Departing Dad, the fifth figure in the relief, has a handsome, unscathed face from the world as it was before the devastation of the Great War. He has a Victorian or neo-classical aspect, but he also evokes the Adam in the Sistine Chapel.

Sabin Howard’s Departing Dad
Sabin Howard’s Departing Dad
Sabin Howard’s Departing Dad from A Soldier’s Journey

Crouching Guy, the eighth figure, looks ready to explode into action. He’s coiled into his reach for his gun, his back hand clenched into a fist. A year ago he was stiff, bald, and generic. Now he’s a powerhouse, his face fierce with focus.

Sabin Howard’s Crouching Guy before and after sculpting
Sabin Howard’s Crouching Guy before and after sculpting
Sabin Howard’s Crouching Guy, Sept 2019 on left, August 2020 on right
Sabin Howard’s Crouching Guy, Figure 8 from A Soldier’s Journey, August 2020
Detail of Sabin Howard’s Calling Guy, Figure 9 from A Soldier’s Journey

Calling Guy, the ninth figure, is barely even human anymore. His face contorts, mouth open, with the animalistic rage of war.

Sabin Howard’s Middle and Inner Triad Guys
Sabin Howard’s Middle and Inner Triad Guys
Sabin Howard’s Middle and Inner Triad Guys

Middle and Inner Triad guys, figures six and seven, now have distinct individual personae, as do Gun Guy and Screaming Guy, figures ten and eleven. Sabin was mindful of the rich diversity of soldiers in the Great War, of whom a great percentage were European Immigrants, African Americans, Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, and Native American Indians. Sabin included African Americans (Inner Triad Guy and Gun Guy) as well as a man of apparent Middle-Eastern descent (Middle Triad Guy) in this first section; later sections include a Cherokee man, a Chinese-American, and two more African Americans, among other ethnicities.

Sabin Howard’s Gun Guy and Screaming Guy
Sabin Howard’s Gun Guy and Screaming Guy
Sabin Howard’s Gun Guy and Screaming Guy, Figures 10 and 11 in A Soldier’s Journey
Sabin Howard’s The Daughter
Sabin Howard’s The Daughter
Sabin Howard’s The Daughter, Figure 1 of A Soldier’s Journey

A Soldier’s Journey is a rare work of art: a war memorial that includes the family. Of the thirty-eight figures telling the story of a soldier’s journey from home through the hell of trench warfare in Europe, seven are female. For purposes of memorializing this war to end all wars, it’s essential to remember that soldiers who fight and die leave behind broken-hearted loved ones.

Sabin Howard’s Departing Dad and Middle Triad Guy
Sabin Howard’s Departing Dad and Middle Triad Guy
Detail of Sabin Howard’s Departing Dad and Middle Triad Guy

Even so, Sabin intended not to glorify war and its atrocities but to speak to the deep brotherhood of arms, our common losses, and our shared grief. From the beginning to the end of the relief, figures are intertwined and overlapping. We are all connected. We are dependent on each other, especially during times of hardship, conflict, and loss. We remember our fallen soldiers, their valor and their sacrifices, as we remember our own humanity.

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The Torch: be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

— “In Flanders Fields” words by John McCrae 1915, piano accompaniment by John Phillip Sousa 1920

A Soldier’s Journey ends with our hero’s triumphant return home, a section we anticipate completing in early 2023. The Allied Powers defeated the Central Powers in 1918. A hundred and some years later, the time draws nigh for a memorial to World War I in our nation’s capital. For the installation, our doughboys, and the daughter and mother, go now to the foundry in England.

We’re all working together in the studio to send them off. In a time of more, and closer, togetherness than we ever expected, we’ve built an open-hearted and respectful, often playful, sometimes irreverent, community of good-spirited souls. Sabin and I were grateful to be able to bring Madeleine into the life of the studio during her remote learning. What a gift for a young woman!

Lunch in the studio, with Charlie Mostow, Madeleine Howard, and Evelyn Christina Tonn
Model Mark Puchinsky with sculptor Sabin Howard

And so I acknowledge the hard work, commitment, and can-do shine of everyone in the studio: Sabin whom we fondly call ‘il Duce’; talented sculptor Charlie Mostow, who was a Buddhist monk in a past life, and whose beautiful wife Jessica Artman, an accomplished painter in her own right, cooks better than I ever will; sculptor ‘Raymond’ whose shyness about publicity belies his MacGuyver-like ingenuity; high-spirited model, tech genius, and television actor Mark Puchinsky; ‘working hard/hardly working’ actor and singer Zach Libresco, one of the kindest people anywhere; handsome Anton Floyd, whose time as a marine gave a proud bearing to his pose; gorgeous singer, dancer, actor, and multilingual Evelyn Christina Tonn, our Standing Mom and Heroic Mom model and the grace of the studio; good-natured opera singer and model Mackenzie Rogers, who pitched in to help me with clerical scutwork; charismatic Rene Ifrah who earned world-wide acclaim in the TV series Homeland; elegant, upbeat Chadd Blaylock who brings good vibes with him; young art student Christian Nosal, who’s eager to do anything at all to help us out and to learn from Sabin.

Models Evelyn Christina Tonn and Anton Floyd
Models Evelyn Christina Tonn and Anton Floyd
Model Evelyn Christina Tonn, left; Model Anton Floyd, right
Model Zach Libresco, left; Model/Cinematographer Paul-Emile Cendron, right

About Paul-Emile Cendron, the crucial model for the heroic father and soldier and my co-conspirator in our documentary Superhuman: Sabin Howard Sculpts the National WWI Memorial, I can only say: Paul rocks. He’s a creative genius in his own right. I look forward to following his career over the next few decades.

Shout out to our gifted photographers Andrew Holtz and Crystal Cox; to our inimitable Mario Monti, carpenter, wood worker, and problem-solver; to accountants Nancy Luiso and Barry Albano of Shandling and Landsman and bookkeeper Dominique Brondel, the three of whom keep our numbers tight and straight; and to former Army ranger and veteran Chris Rehnberg (thank you for your service, Chris!), who advised me about security. Of particular note: brilliant attorney Kim Larsen of Bressler Amery, whose counsel has been indispensable, and whose bomb-proof personality is an inspiration to me. You folks are awesome!

It’s a privilege and a delight to work with all these extraordinary people.

Paul-Emile films Sabin Howard, A Soldier’s Journey in the background

Stay tuned for further dispatches as the doughboys arrive at Pangolin-Editions Foundry in the Cotswolds and reincarnate as bronze sculptures.

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

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