On August 26, 2019, Sabin Howard and his elite band of sculptors set forth to sculpt A Soldier’s Journey, the sculptural heart of the National World War I Memorial in Washington DC. A Soldier’s Journey is a 58’ bronze relief featuring 38 heroic-scale figures.
Like a movie in bronze, these figures tell the story of a doughboy engaging with the Great War. He leaves his family, heeds the call to arms, travels overseas into the chaos and frenzy of battle, endures the trauma and loss of war, and finally returns home, shellshocked and transformed and victorious.
It’s now the end of August, 2023, four years later. Only the final 5 figures remain in the studio: a trio consisting of the flagbearer, an inner soldier, and a nurse in dress uniform, and finally the doughboy father returning to his daughter. Our hero hands his helmet to the girl. She was alpha, the first figure; now she is omega, the last figure. She gazes inside, the next generation seeing what’s to come: World War II.
The sculptors will put down their tools at the end of this December. December 28 to be exact: meeting our contractual deadline.
It’s been a complex, intense ride. We studio folk weathered a pandemic and lock-downs. We remarked on the sad synchronicity of a pandemic breaking out again after the one that raged through the world in 1917. And we were saddened at the fall of Kabul and the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.
Sabin and his team are memorializing soldiers and nurses who sacrificed everything for the War to End All Wars. Yet here we go again.
The four years have deeply scored our personal lives, while I managed the project and Sabin sculpted it. My stepdad and mother died. My middle daughter had her second baby — I drove at the very top of the speed limit, plus 5 mph, in the middle of the night to reach her in Virginia. Sabin’s oldest daughter got married last weekend. Our daughter Madeleine, the model for the daughter, graduated high school. She is set to matriculate at university abroad this fall.
In the business of creating a sculpture that’s unfolding on the global stage, we’ve been down in the trenches with our shirt sleeves rolled up. There’s trucking issues, shipping concerns, and labor shortages. It’s hard to find good models. The cost of supplies, and of our energy, has more than quadrupled since Sabin started sculpting the relief.
We also deal with the challenge of copyright violations. The most egregious was probably the Dundalk Memorial in Louth County, Ireland. It was outright theft. They wholly stole the first 11 figures of Sabin’s design to the very last detail, the curve of the Heroic Mom’s cheek (figure 4) and the determination on the Departing Dad’s face (figure 5).
The Louth County Council acknowledged the rip off with unabashed insolence. Shame on them. I thought better of the Irish. They are immensely creative in their own right. Surely Irish artists can come up with a design of their own for their WWI Memorial; surely they needn’t resort to theft. Somewhere in heaven my Scottish grandmother is shaking her head.
They were persuaded on threat of legal action to destroy their stolen image.
The studio suffered vagaries and perturbations. We changed sculptors and swapped myriad models in and out. Only Sabin’s foremost aid Charlie Mostow lasted for the whole marathon. I say of him that Charlie was a Buddhist monk in his last life. Nothing fazes him. His wife, painter and sculptor Jess Artman, agrees.
Jess herself took a turn at sculpting the dress of the final daughter and several soldier’s feet. It was fun to have the additional estrogen in the studio, and I admire her delicate fingery sculpting.
Sabin and Charlie sculpt from life; there are always guys lounging around the studio in original WWI uniforms.
Starting with the Cost of War scene, Sabin wanted models who had actually seen combat. He felt he could truly portray the suffering of post traumatic stress only if he sculpted from veterans. Their faces register deeper pain than most. So a former army ranger, a Navy seal, and a few marines held poses. Sabin and I are hoping that Marine Ricky Zambrano follows us into the next project.
Imagine if a camera inside Daniel Chester French’s studio captured him creating the astonishing and beautiful Lincoln Memorial, with its gorgeous gravitas, or if someone had shot Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel: the world would be a better place for being able to see the masters in action.
Even so it’s a great blessing that I am able to document this whole process. It’s been hard work and expensive — Sabin sold sculpture to fund our camera equipment and cinematographers — and worth every unexpected moment.
It never occurred to me to become a filmmaker. The Universe has its own unsuspected creative impulses, sometimes quite merrily deployed. As my beloved Granny Bee used to say, “It’s a long damn road that don’t turn.” I put down writing novels and turned to a good Canon C300 Mark II and Final Cut Pro X. Here’s The First Eleven Figures: From Vision to Bronze.
Recently I completed The Sculptor’s Wife: A Love Story in Documentation, a 25 minute short documentary now making its way through the film festivals. It’s done better than I expected, winning nods from 15 different festivals, including winning an award for best Sound and Music. It will actually show live in California next month!
The Toronto Documentary Feature and Short Film Festival sent a video of audience feedback, which was marvelous. I’m used to sending forth stories on the printed page. If I’m lucky, a reader emails me. The immediacy of seeing people’s faces after they’d watched my film left me bemused and delighted. What fun!
In the fall of 2024, after the installation of A Soldier’s Journey 150 yards from the White House, Sabin and I as Superhuman Film Productions will release Heroic: Sabin Howard Sculpts the National WWI Memorial.
This feature length documentary is the epic story of Sabin’s race against time to sculpt 38 figures to the level of Renaissance art — this while battling the forces of bureaucracy, the monetization inherent in the current art world, and the devaluation of the great figurative tradition of the Western world. Sabin is making art that holds sacred value, art that upholds the sacred values of human nobility, in a time that people are tearing down statues.
Supporting Superhuman, of course, is a team of people. The indefatigable Charlie Mostow has been a first rate First AD. He has pitched in every time I needed help, from collecting footage to plucking clay out of tripod wheels to charging batteries. He even bled for the camera. As the director, I appreciate the drama; as his project manager, I sternly advised him not to endanger his hands. I said, “Charlie, we pay you for your hands.” Next project I might consider insuring Sabin’s and Charlie’s hands.
Our studio photographer Andrew Holtz stepped in at a crucial juncture to keep the filming going. No Andrew, no film! He’s a stalwart. Andrew brought on cinematographer Jeremy Fain, whose work is exquisite and whose ready smile is much appreciated in the studio. Our model Yunus Akbulut, whose day job is bodybuilding and posting much admired Instagram videos, picks up footage every week when needed.
Our valiant studio assistant Serena Pak does a yeoman’s work. She tackles any detail that needs handling, from securing our film footage files to pointing the camera at action unfolding to making sure our subjects sign photo and video releases.
Our daughter Madeleine has pitched in with such good humor, filming and editing and advising on music and washing dishes, in addition to modeling for the once and future daughter, that I gave her an associate producer credit. She’s earned it.
We have a few months left in the studio. Then we’ll ship out the last 5 figures to the foundry in the Cotswolds for molding and casting into bronze. Sabin, Charlie, and I will take up residence there for a few months, Sabin to oversee metal work and patination, Charlie to make the master plasters that safeguard the sculpture against loss of molds, and me to work on the assembly edit of the documentary.
There’s a story coming…a story about art and love and suffering and stumbling and rising. A human story, made by human hands: Sabin’s and mine.