Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, October 14, 2017

"A Soldier's Journey" Explored with U.S. WWI Memorial Sculptor Sabin Howard

By Patrick Gregory

The design for America’s proposed new National World War I Memorial in Washington, DC, has reached another key stage thanks to an innovative collaboration between the memorial’s sculptor and computer artists in New Zealand. Sabin Howard, the leading classical sculptor, has taken designs for the memorial from his studio in New York to Wellington to work with leading 3-D modelling specialists. He’s been talking to Patrick Gregory.  

Sabin Howard with his new working model of "A Soldier's Journey", developed in
partnership with digital modelers, Weta Workshop, in Wellington, New Zealand
(Image © Weta Workshop/US World War I Centennial Commission)

It's over 18 months since the WWI Centennial Commission chose Sabin Howard and architect Joe Weishaar’s design for the new national memorial in Washington, but it has been time busily spent taking the original concept through a number of different design stages. For sculptor Howard that has meant 60-hour weeks in his Bronx studio while discussing and developing the various iterations of his ideas through a detailed committee process; and now he has a new set of partners on the other side of the world. All are helping shape the final design.

Howard's focus has been on the wall of remembrance which will be set in the middle of what is to be a newly configured Pershing Park, off the National Mall in the capital, not far from the White House. In particular, the centerpiece of that wall, a 65-foot bronze bas-relief.

Detail from Sabin Howard's drawing for the bas-relief on the new
National World War One Memorial in Washington
(© US World War I Centennial Commission)

Entitled "A Soldier's Journey", the layout and figurative design of the sculpture has been put together very deliberately and with great precision. It is, explains Howard, constructed in a geometric and mathematically precise manner, but he hopes it manages to achieve something which is "not esoteric and classical but more expressive and emotional".

For that he has developed a 38-figure composition which flows from left to right, moving across the length of the relief, characters overlapping, straining, toiling on the way. The composition seeks to tell different stories within one framework. The main narrative is a two-in-one affair: a soldier’s journey through the Great War as he leaves his family to go to the front, charting his battles there and his ultimate return home; the second is of America’s journey in the war. Together the two form an allegory: the soldier’s personal war representing America’s journey and its coming of age through the conflict.


Within the overall narrative, though, individuals have their own recognition. It is a layer-on-layer approach. Each figure has a place within a set group, with these various groups or tableaux then coming together to form the bigger picture. Indeed the 38 figures are actually a cast of characters, some appearing and reappearing as the story progresses, including four principal figures: a father, who also represents America, the child who is the first and last figure in the work, the wife and the hero. 

It has been a gradual process involving real-life actors coming to Howard’s studio. All have dressed in WWI uniform and period costume to get into character, helping enact different scenes which the artist could then photograph for use in drawings. However even then, Howard says, he had to make sure he got things just right: "For each figure in the wall of 38 there's been an average of 12 to 15 iterations per person."

Photographs of actors striking action poses for the
U.S. First World War memorial design
(© U.S. World War I Centennial Commission)

Throughout all of this time, one of the aspects of the creative process he has grown to value most has been the input of others to the design. He has worked through his ideas with, among others, the Centennial Commission’s Vice-Chair Edwin Fountain, the U.S. Commission of Fine Art and the National Capital Planning Commission. The effect of the collaboration has both surprised and delighted him: 

"I felt [at first] like 'what the hell is going on here?'. I’ve never collaborated before in my life—it’s been dictatorial! But from this process I’ve changed my mind. I’ve really grown as an artist in ways that I never imagined. It was a learning process because I’m not just doing this for myself and one client, I’m doing this for many people and I think there are certain figures and focuses in the final iteration that I never would’ve arrived at on my own, but which elevate the piece."

The positive experience of that initial collaboration meant that Howard was open to more team-working, this time at the Weta special effects and film prop studios in Wellington, New Zealand, when the opportunity presented itself. The invitation to do so arrived earlier in the summer and came at exactly the right moment for Howard, a time he recalls as one of "turmoil".

New Zealand "calling"

He had come to the realisation that he wanted to speed up the process of producing a working model to present to the Fine Arts Committee. He did not want to drag that process out for two or three years. Suddenly, out of the blue, came an email from Sir Richard Taylor, the head of Weta. Taylor, whose work includes the Lord of the Rings series and "Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War" sculpture exhibit, was an admirer of the sculptor’s work and was going to be in New York shortly afterward. Could he call by to see Howard when he was there? He did so and the two quickly hit it off. Howard describes it as an instance of "synchronicity", things coming into his life at the right moment. 

"It was like a brotherhood between us. It was like a calling. The door opened. It doesn’t always open." The door came in the form of an invitation to go to work with Taylor’s team of 3-D artists in New Zealand and two weeks later Howard found himself on a plane to Wellington.

"It was completely new to me. I don’t work with computers—and I get eight sculptors who are digitally taking my drawing and recreating the figures three-dimensionally on a screen. What happened was that we got to create five different reliefs in two weeks. This is something that would've taken me a year and a half, easily."

3-D imagery of the bas-relief produced at the Weta studios
(© Weta Workshop/US World War I Centennial Commission)

But it was not just the speeding up of the process which appealed to him. It was also the fillip it gave to the artistic process: "This tool enabled me to understand very quickly that at 150 feet away, if I made the relief too flat, it would not carry the emotion and drama necessary to portray the act of war and the cost of war."

That trip was in July, since when Howard has been back in the U.S. showing the 3-D imagery and working models; but he is returning to Wellington in October to begin work sculpting the work in clay, a process he hopes to complete by December. In February he should have a 3-meter final version to present to the committee in Washington.

He has been energized by the whole process, and the impetus given him by these new working methods has left him buzzing: "I am beyond excited—because this is like looking into the future."

Source:  This article was originally published in Centenary News on 27 September 2107 (Link)


  1. Very interesting story! Can't wait to view the final product in D.C.

  2. Glad to see 3-D computer technology applied to greatly reduce the time and cost of this project.