The Many Faces of Sabin Howard’s National WWI Memorial
Five months into principle sculpture on A Soldier’s Journey, the 58’ long figurative relief commemorating WWI, we have settled into a warm rhythm in the studio. Workday mornings start with coffee and conversation around the kitchen area. Then the models peel off to change into their uniforms while the sculptors arrange the props and adaptations necessary for the models to hold their poses for long periods.
The studio boasts three gifted sculptors: my husband Sabin Howard, the lead sculptor; Raymond, an articulate and devoted classicist; and Charlie Mostow, the youngest of the artists, whose talent and determination are a force of their own.
We’re also blessed with a talented and diverse posse of models for the figures: Evelyn Christina Tonn, a musical theater actress known world-wide for her roles in Chicago; Paul-Emile Cendron, a writer-director-actor (who is also working with me on the documentary about Sabin sculpting the memorial); Zach Libresco, an actor, singer, and clown (and definitely the clown in the shop!); Mark Puchinsky, who recently appeared in Madame Secretary and The Blacklist; Rene Ifrah, who was nominated for a Screen Actor’s Guild award for his portrayal of a character on Homeland; Leah Hofmann, who has graced the stages of Broadway and Lincoln Center, and whose etch-a-sketch art must be seen to be believed; and mezzo-soprano Mackenzie Rogers, who has performed in operas all over the world.
Even the Mayor of Englewood, New Jersey has agreed to pose for Sabin! Mayor Michael Wildes attended our Holiday Reception and was delighted by the relief. Approximately 225,000 Jews served in World War I, and Mayor Wildes’ classically ethnic face will do homage to their courageous service.
With the abundance of talent and humor in the studio, it’s a lively place. I run the shop so it falls on me to ensure, kindly but firmly, that everyone buckles down to the work at hand. It’s good fun to listen to Zach trill The Lion Sleeps Tonight in his piercing falsetto; it’s entertaining to listen to one of Paul-Emile’s anecdotes. However, as I remind everyone, we have a schedule to keep.
The sculptors appreciate my concern. Sculpting is high-focus work; it’s like writing that way. Sculpting requires concentration at an extreme intensity, concentration that is both laser-sharp and miles deep. To accomplish figurative work at the High Renaissance quality Sabin demands for this national memorial, the sculptors must be wholly absorbed in their work. That requires some protection.
As Cal Newport writes in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (NEWPORT, CAL. DEEP WORK: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. GRAND CENTRAL PUB, 2018.): “…Deliberate practice can not exist alongside distraction, it instead requires uninterrupted concentration.” (Newport, p. 35).
Newport explains the neurological underpinnings of what he calls deep work:
The new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well-myelinated.
By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits — effectively cementing the skill. The reason, therefore, why it’s important to focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction is because this is the only way to isolate the relevant neural circuit long enough to trigger useful myelination. (Newport, p. 36).
I’m not just referencing a cool new book, though that’s a great pleasure. (I recommend Deep Work.) I’m explaining the neurobiological necessity for sculptors — and artists and writers and any kind of creative producer — to focus. In fact, Newport titles the section in his book following the quote above, “Deep Work Helps You Produce at an Elite Level.” (Newport, p. 37).
Sabin Howard’s sculpture studio is a place where the sculptors are producing at an elite level.
Protecting their focus also means I have the unenviable task of limiting visits to the studio. We’d love to have everyone drop by. Sabin’s studio is a fascinating place, like something from another time. It’s akin to visiting Canova’s workshop or Carpeaux’s studio: visually rich, texturally dazzling. The relief is impressive. It’s awe-inspiring. I wish everyone could experience it for themselves. That’s just not practicable. Visitors, even the best-intentioned ones, are disruptive. Every time a guest knocks on our door, we lose hours of productivity. We’ve had to institute visitation policies.
In the end, when Sabin’s brilliant, evocative sculpture is installed in Pershing Park, Washington DC, commemorating the veterans who are gone but not forgotten, it will be worth all the hard work and sacrifices.
Even now, as Sabin, Raymond, and Charlie sculpt the first eleven figures, their deep work is paying off. It’s magical — I’m so grateful that I get to see it. This is a tough job that I’ve taken on; I have to deal with some difficult people. (Stay tuned for my memoir about this journey!)
Yet with all the complex challenges of bringing forth a national memorial, I am witnessing something wondrous: the birth of a magnificent piece of art.
The faces taking form tell this story. Sabin’s genius is such that every figure in the relief is at once a human individual, a mythic representation, and an allegorical embodiment. They’re personal and transpersonal.
A Soldier’s Journey tells the story of a soldier leaving home to heed the call to arms. He joins his comrades in battle, he experiences the devastating cost of war, including shell shock, and ultimately, he returns home, a transformed man.
The Mother in the initial scene isn’t simply a wife and mom who is sad to see her beloved mate depart for the horrors of war. She’s also our great country. The United States was reluctant to enter into The Great War.
In mythologist Joseph Campbell’s writings about the Hero’s Journey, the Mother is the familiar world, the ground of being which must be left behind.
The Mother is shown twice in the initial scene, as Figure 3 and Figure 4. In the first instance, she stands behind her kneeling husband, her hands resting on his shoulders. Sabin sculpted ‘Standing Mom’s’ face with a prettiness not usually seen in his female figures. She’s soft, sweet in her bones, and poignant. Evelyn’s great beauty and bone structure were an asset in this endeavor.
In Figure 4, the Mother grips her husband passionately as he leaves. ‘Heroic Mom’ is anxious, concerned, courageous. She’s filled with the tension of love and loss. Her lips are dramatically parted, the sinews of her neck stand out, taut and defined. She reminds me of Bernini’s superb Bust of Costanza Bonarelli.
‘Kneeling Dad,’ Figure 2, is under Sabin’s masterful hand now, as I write this piece. Sabin claims that sculpting is drawing, done three-dimensionally; the lines on Kneeling Dad’s clay face clearly illustrate Sabin’s premise. Kneeling Dad feels sad. He’s asking forgiveness from his young daughter for going off to war.
Kneeling Dad, so well portrayed by stalwart Paul-Emile, is the hero called forth on a journey he did not choose — the journey that chose him.
‘Crouching Guy,’ Figure 8, bends low to grip a gun. His face is set in lines of fierce determination. Under Sabin’s direction, Charlie has done the initial set-up on the face. Charlie’s work is to establish a base for Sabin, so that Sabin can start much further along and sculpt swiftly to completion. Soon Sabin will take over the figure and finalize this face with its dogged ferocity.
‘Calling Guy,’ Figure 9, shows the bestiality of battle. Handsome Rene Ifrah poses for him, and the lines of his face are recognizable, but just barely. Calling Guy beckons for his brothers-in-arms to join him in battle. Sabin rendered him as possessed by the cruelty of war as by a demon. Calling Guy’s eyes bulge and his brow furrows under his helmet. Wilfred Owen wrote, “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori” and this face gives the lie to the sweetness of dying for one’s country.
A hundred and two years ago, our brave doughboys made that sacrifice. We are finally honoring them with Sabin’s splendid memorial relief. Day by day in the studio, line by line, face by face, with the sculptors focusing deeply on every expressive fold and limb, this relief is coming into being.
Stay tuned for more articles. Take a look at our new website for following the making of this memorial: sabinhowardsculpture.studio. Also, do check out my YouTube channel. Here’s a video done by our daughter Madeleine Howard when we came back to work after the holiday break.