Sabin Howard is a master figurative sculptor and authority on modern classicism. Raised in New York and Torino, Italy, he studied at the Philadelphia College of Art, earned an MFA from the New York Academy of Art and taught undergraduate- and graduate-level art for 20 years. In 2016 the World War I Centennial Commission (created by an act of Congress in 2013) chose Howard to sculpt a bronze relief for the National World War I Memorial under construction in Pershing Square in Washington, D.C. On track to be completed by the end of 2023, his larger-than-life sculpture is 58 feet long, 10 feet high and comprises 38 bronze figures. Howard [sabinhoward.com] began sculpting the figures in August 2019 and continues work on the project at his studio in Englewood, N.J. He spoke with us about his methods, vision for the work and approach as an artist to the theme of war.
Is this the first time you have depicted human figures at war, and have you found it challenging to capture violent conflict in art?
It is the first time, absolutely. It’s not the concept of doing violence in art. When I was posing models in the beginning in my studio, dressing them in uniform and coming up with the story line it became emotional, because I realized how tragic this war was. If you look at the millions of people who were killed, it is such a number outside our human concept of what is possible. If millions died, then how many people were affected?
Do you use live models for all the figures?
Yes. It’s so important. This is a really human project. I think so many times things get moved away from heart space and moved into cerebral space. The thing that affected me most was when I started the project—I started looking at pictures on Google of the people involved in the conflict. They remind me of my young daughters. There’s a scene I saw where these guys, who must have been, like, 19 or 20, are on a train saying goodbye to their girlfriends, moms and dads. There is such an innocence to it. That was very impactful, because we are descendants of these people. It has deeply affected our society in a much greater way than we actually acknowledge. If someone goes to war at 17 or 18 and comes back a few years later inextricably scarred mentally and physically, and then has a family, they carry those wounds and pass them on to their children. And their children will bear that tragedy and pass it on to their children. I can specifically attest to this, because I have several examples in my family of my ancestors passing on emotional wounds to the next generation.
Who did you ask to represent the figures?
The models I used in the beginning were actors, but they did not carry the gravitas. A British friend came to me, and I asked him, “Why do you want to be one of the models for me?” He explained that his great-grandfather and great-uncle had been in World War I. My daughter Madeline Howard is the first and last figure. My daughter Julia, a doctor, portrayed a nurse and appears holding a gassed soldier. I also have combat veterans as my models. We have conversations so that I can know better how to create the emotions and feelings that happen when people are thrown into this ugly mix.
You’ve made a concerted effort to incorporate the veteran experience into the memorial.
I have to, because someday there’s going to be a vet who visits who might be a paraplegic, and I want him to know that I did the right thing by him. I am so blown out of the water when I see what happens to people, and how they are so courageous. I’ve done a lot of scary things in my life, but I’ve never been shot at on a regular basis, nor seen my friends and comrades be shot or blown up next to me. And for them to have to continue the next day, and to have to re-enter society with no help from governments or agencies to help them come back—it’s disgraceful what has happened. And World War I was the beginning. Shell shock was seen as a new thing then.
This is a war about human beings. I make art about human beings. I have never done a war memorial, and it has been an incredibly educating experience in humanity. War will forever exist, because hierarchy is part of our human nature. It’s inextricable from who we are. Humans and governments specifically are just so corrupt that they will continue to play this card when there are problems economically or other problems they want to avoid and they wish to change society. [War] is a way to escape problems. World War I was a fine example of that.
What is your design concept and how are you expressing it?
The overall design was huge and epic, almost like a voyage. I was given almost carte blanche, which is amazing. It became a very artistic, heartfelt project. Edwin Fountain, former vice chair of the World War I Centennial Commission, wanted something very similar to what you see in front of the U.S. Capitol building, the [Henry] Shrady sculptures. I came up with 12,000 pictures of models over nine months—all different iterations of individual poses. Those individual poses then fit into 18 full-length iterations. I saved all those iterations until we finally developed A Soldier’s Journey.
I learned a tremendous amount about how to compose. I’ve never done this before. I used all my drawing, anatomical and sculptural skills to come up with these compositions that finally evolved into A Soldier’s Journey. My wife, a novelist, explained to me that A Soldier’s Journey is a rendition of a hero’s journey, like the Odysseus tale and eventually the Joseph Campbell story—leaving home, entering into a conflict or adventure and being dramatically affected by it, which leads to a transformation. Then the transformation of the hero or person is brought home with them and re-entered into society, so society can grow to the next level.
Unfortunately, in this story it doesn’t seem like the planet is really learning. The memorial to me is about healing. It depicts all those stages and shows the cost of war in a way that has not been shown before, because of how I work directly from models. The models are very emotional in their facial expressions, gestures and morphology. It’s very descriptive and becomes a humanistic, visual narrative of what it means to go to war and come back.
What goes through your mind when you are creating the emotions on their faces?
I’m working on the shell shock figure right now. This is the most important head on the wall. It’s the dad who has returned from battle and has become shell-shocked in the process. In the beginning I had one of the actors pose as the dad, and I switched another model in and took his features to tell the story on a deeper level. This model is an Army ranger who has killed people in combat and has also been shell-shocked, although not shell-shocked on the same level as people in World War I.
I look at elements of the head, like around the mouth and the eyes and the skull, and think how to portray specific feelings. When we move our facial muscles over the bones, those muscles explain emotions because of how we move our features to express our feelings. Also, I think about how the head is pitched over the rib cage, how the rib cage is angled, how the shoulders or the shoulder girdles are pitched. I learned how the body is assembled through a proportional and anatomical system that is very scientific. You do not arrive at your art form as an accident. You are looking at what you see, and you deduce. Then you can pose the model as you wish to bring out a specific story.
It’s pretty advanced in terms of figurative art. It’s what used to happen, but art schools have eliminated it from their art programs. World War I decimated the figure in the art world. Creating a figure presupposes the concept that the universe is assembled with a specific divine order—not necessarily a God, but there’s a sense of order. It’s not chaos. Things are not isolated. Humans are not alienated as they are today because of how modern art perceives them. Modern art perceives them that way, because that is how society perceives our humanity today. That stems directly from World War I. Figurative art just shut down in the 1920s. You move into abstract expressionism and Picasso. It’s a complete decimation of the concept of assembly of divine nature.
Have any works from ancient or Renaissance artists inspired you?
I don’t draw inspiration from them only. It’s much deeper than that. I use the same methodology in my creative process. I’m working from life. I’m using similar tools to what they used. I’m using the concept of how light falls over form to explain form. My methodology of working goes back to the way art was made as far back as the Riace bronzes or Hellenistic art. I’m very attracted to Hellenistic art and to Michelangelo’s art. Their art is not archaeological but still incredibly vibrant. It cannot be done today, but the way that it is done, the process, can be played forward into modern times.
I use a lot of technology like photogrammetry and milling of foam as my armature, but then I go back and work traditionally the same way that they did. That’s the difference. A lot of artists today are just chucking it out using all digital formats. They don’t work from life models. They work from a computer screen and photographs, which are flat images and already a translation from nature. I’m working directly from nature. It’s very important.
You have said that without digital tools the project would take a lifetime. What are the limitations of the technology?
The technology translates reality through a machine. This makes a digital fingerprint when you turn that into a sculpture. A human being looking at another human being translates the reference model into art through human perception. We have five senses—and a lot more senses we’re probably not aware of. We translate things through our education. I see things on the model that a layperson would not see because of how I’ve been educated in assembling the piece of art. I’m specifically looking for things that make the art more human.
It’s not about making it smooth or perfect in the least bit. It’s a lot more about the construction of the body. It’s a complete 180—very revolutionary and rebellious. It’s not what the rest of the world is doing. But the fact that this piece is getting so much attention I think will change the direction of art in a big way.
I’m a firm believer that technology is very important and serves us. I think what has happened is that society thinks it’s going to be a solving feature and make our life easier. It does in a way but also detracts from our actual humanity, because it takes away the experience not only of making art but of what it means to be human on a whole bunch of different levels. I’m a strong proponent of, Don’t forget being human, because otherwise you’re not going to get the most out of life. It’s not always the easiest thing, and not always the most fashionable thing, but will lead to a higher level of consciousness and greater understanding of life itself and how we fit within the universe. We are not separate beings—we are part of a grand scheme. If you look at a brain or how a body functions, it’s incredible how complex it is, well beyond what a computer is.
Have any of the 38 figures proved personally meaningful to you?
Yes and no. This is a difficult question. Every time I jump onto a new figure I enter into the same level of doing my best. Every single thing I touch, I’m in it. I’m not treating it less than the last one. I might spend a little bit more time on a face here and there—for example the shell shock figure is very important and the central figure of the whole panel, and the screaming soldier in the very middle of the whole composition is also a critical figure.
There are elements that also come from my own personal experience. I have learned a lot about military culture [from models who are veterans].
How have photos from World War I influenced your creative decisions?
They gave me a deeper conceptual understanding of the human beings that went through this experience. I did not use pictures to come up with poses. The poses came from a dialogue with the client and my own ideas. For example, we wanted to do a figure charging, to keep it simple, and thought of making a grouping, so that they’re running together. I came up with the concept of a school of fish, swimming forward together. I would pose the models and come up with props that would hold them in positions they couldn’t hold. That was a launch-off point. It was a huge amount of effort. It came from just studio practice. The photographs of World War I were more about the actual education of the artist.
How do you ensure that weapons, uniforms and other historical details are accurate?
That’s pretty simple. I bought World War I guns and have a whole assembly of actual World War I uniforms. The models wear those uniforms, and we trash those uniforms. They use the same uniforms day after day, because the texture of the cloth is so important. I have the nurses’ uniforms as well. They [the models] use the actual uniforms. That is accurate.
The work appears very intense and time-consuming. How do you keep your energy going while you’re working in the studio? Do you listen to music?
No, I don’t listen to music. It’s like taking a college exam every day for eight hours. I’m not saying I have an extraordinary amount of energy for a human being. I have a support system and a way of working as an artist as well as a way of maintaining my health. The culture in the studio is very physical. We have a pull-up bar. Everybody does pull-ups and weights in the studio. Everybody I’ve hired is very dedicated to becoming a better human being and reaching their potential in their own way. There are no slackers in here. Our culture is very much about elevating our physical and mental state.
I ride around 150 miles a week on a bicycle—I ride hard, I do climbs, I push myself on a daily basis physically. This morning I got up, and I rode around 22 miles in like an hour and 10 minutes, with hills, over 1,200 feet of climbing. Then I came to work and just finished eight hours of sculpting.
I’m very grateful for what I’ve learned from the military people I’m surrounded with as models. You make a plan and then execute it. There is no excuse. That’s it. That’s what you do.
What has been the most challenging aspect of the project?
There are two. One is what we’ve just been talking about—how do you maintain focus and stay at peak potential for four years on a daily basis? I haven’t had a vacation since Christmas. I’ve taken only two days off since then. We take weekends off. We work Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 5. We just slam.
I’ve learned how to lead this crew because we have to accomplish the mission. We have to come in on time and at the highest level possible. I’m very much, “Let’s get the job done.” There is no alternative. This is too sacred and too important for too many people.
What do you want visitors to the memorial to take away from the figures?
I want them to have a visceral reaction to all the emotions we carry and experience as human beings. That’s what this story is about. A lot of memorials are very true and faithful to the military garb and the gear, and that’s very important. But to me as an artist those are just cerebral matters. What I am dealing with is what happens to the heart, feelings and mind when they are passed through battle and butchery. It’s like a meat grinder that these soldiers passed through.
You mentioned earlier that you wanted to bring out the healing process. How does healing occur in the story of the figures?
It happens throughout. First of all, it’s not only men, and it’s not just men charging, or glorifying war. There’s none of that here. This is about women and men. The first scene is the family. The family is affected as dramatically and drastically as the men on the battlefield in a different way. The women and children left behind have to deal with this, and when the men return, things are not normal. It makes you aware of that. The soldiers are not generic. They have very specific faces, and the faces, gestures and body types tell the tale of a specific psychology. This is a memorial to our humanity.
Is there anything else you would like people to know about the memorial or the artistic process?
What it means to be human is so strong in how this thing has been put together, how it’s run and how it’s created. It’s made by human beings. Then it goes to a foundry, and the people at the foundry [Pangolin Editions] also have 20-plus years of experience.
I have 75,000 hours under my belt of working with life models. That’s an average of 2,000 hours a year from life. I’ve been looking at human beings for that many hours. And my wife, Traci Slatton, knows a lot about humanity as well. My wife is half the team. She runs the administrative aspect of putting this project together.
There’s a lot of depth to figurative art. It’s not just the nuts and bolts of how you put a figure together. It runs into, What do you have to say? How do you make a form that is a visual narrative of that story?I’m in service of the tradition that I’m following, and I’m also in service of all the people who will come and see the sculpture. This is not about my ego. It’s about being in service of others. There’s a problem in our society called “the disease of me.” There’s no room for that in this project or in this studio. It’s all about us as a team and how we play this forward and reach the end zone.