With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

An Exclusive Look at the New WWI Memorial

“Light is everything,” says the sculptor. And, all at once, it is.

You see light as if for the first time. Not as some condition of simple illumination, but as the maker of solids, the hand, the hammer and the chisel, the creator. You see it sifting down from the ceiling and sneaking through the glass doors, cascading from the two big windows up front, the long room filled with it in every angle and on every surface, the whole place swelling with daylight pouring through the glass bricks out back. Iron light, straw light, light bright as brass, sun-yellow light corkscrewing from the skylights to settle across every unfinished face and figure. Light gathering in the folds of the uniforms, washing the boot tops and the rifle barrels, radiant, hard as marble, soft as lambswool, painting the floors, drifting into the corners like snow, sleeping in the shadows. Light on every body—indifferent light, animating light, sanctifying light.

The sculptor is Sabin Howard. While his tools and materials suggest Howard works in clay and bronze, his true medium is light. And this sculpture, A Soldier’s Journey, years in the making, will serve as the centerpiece of the National World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C. When complete, Howard’s immense frieze will tell the story of an American reluctantly answering the call to war—a deeply personal and individual story and the grand symbolic story of the nation all at once. Across five scenes and 38 larger-than-life-size human figures, it will be nearly 60 feet long and ten feet high. And it may become the greatest memorial bronze of the modern age.

Sabin Howard is avid. Born and raised in Manhattan, in his youth he and his parents, both educators, routinely visited Italy, where his mother was born. He spent summers there with his grandparents. Back and forth, back and forth. Florence, Turin, Milan, walking museum after museum after museum. Those long cool marble hallways echoing, echoing. He spent almost as much time there as he did in the States, almost as much time in the 15th century as in the 20th. Very early, in his teens, immersed in the art of the Renaissance, he knew what he was called to and what he was born for and where his gifts were meant to take him.

Those talents, honed for years as both student and teacher at places like the New York Academy of Art and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and in his Bronx studio and across tens of thousands of hours of drawing and sculpting and succeeding and failing, have led him here: a converted printing plant in Englewood, New Jersey, and perhaps the most ambitious artistic commission of the 21st century.


For Howard, the process began with 12,000 photographs of models in action. Then dozens of preliminary sketches. Sometimes the models couldn’t find the pose—couldn’t understand what Howard was after. “What is the pose depicting,” they’d ask him. “I began to realize this is a very movement-driven process,” Howard says. So he told the models to perform the action—to crouch, to lunge, to charge, to fall—and he shot the whole sequence on his iPhone in “burst mode,” which takes multiple photographs in rapid succession. “From the burst, we would extract the one pose of the 12 shots that explained the action—when you have a change occurring as you freeze a figure in time.”

Eventually, the models traveled with Howard to Britain, to a studio with a custom-built photogrammetry rig. One-hundred-sixty cameras in a 360-degree spherical arc around an elevated platform. The models, in authentic period attire, posed and recomposed and shot from every conceivable angle and captured in high-definition until, at last, Howard had 30 final drawings and a 3-D digital rendering of the tableau he sought. Forty hours a week for two years. From the renderings, a maquette, a small-scale model, five feet long, was made. Then a full-size steel-framed foam armature, milled in England and shipped over in huge sections. It’s upon this foam surface that Howard applies the clay that brings it all to life.

Read entire article at Smithsonian