Sabin Howard Blog

Changing Things Historically

Changing Things Historically

Last Thursday I flew back the 9,000 miles to New York City, taking a break from the green, windswept city of Wellington, New Zealand. I had completed the first part of the 3 meter-long sculpture maquette. It was a moment for me to reflect back on this pairing of digital technology and traditional drawing and sculpture. And I had that chance this week as I stood in front of an audience in the offices of Changing Our World (the principle fundraisers for the WWI Memorial) in Mid-Town Manhattan. 

Wellington, NZ


I had been asked to speak to the company about the WWI Memorial Project. And as I stood in front of the audience my thoughts about the alchemy created in this pairing of modern and traditional suddenly started coming out of my mouth in a very heartfelt way.  I spoke about my 30 plus years of working in clay to sculpt heroic figures. I spoke of Italy and the 50,000 hours that I had spent in front of life models in my studio to create those sculptures and drawings.  Without thinking, my words came out, and they carried a lot of emotion because I understood the finality of what I had just said.  

The significance of time in the creation of my art had changed. I would never go back to solely creating sculptures where the element of how long something took to make did not matter. I fully understood with a twinge of sadness, that that era was over. Even a few months ago I saw it as the end of my official sculpture training. That old door had closed. A new door had opened with this epic public project. There was a major deadline to meet. I would be creating Art in the Arena! 

When I began work on this Memorial Project back in January of 2016, I was immediately so excited.  I wanted to share my passion with this group now. As I began my talk with this audience of 20 and 30 year-olds, I realised that they did not share that same excitement. There was a certain sense of disinterest as they slouched with cell phones in hand, checking their emails and messages. There certainly wasn’t a lot of electricity in the room. After all, I was speaking about a war that had happened 100 years ago, and memorials as of late have been underwhelming even on a good day. But as I began to tell them my story of growing up in New York City in the 60s and travelling to Italy, and how at age 19 I could not draw, and how one day I decided to become an artist, ears perked up.  

And as I continued explaining what was happening in this project, an excitement started to creep in. Heads began to lift. Cell phones were put down and postures began to change. A charge had hit the room. All of a sudden everyone was sitting on the edge of their chair in rapt attention. They were witnessing, and being let in on, a huge secret that would blow the roof off the art world. They were witness to a historical change. This was the first group of people to see the 3 meter-long maquette outside of Weta Workshop in New Zealand. I was explaining what I had gone through to get here, how I had received a calling. I was letting them in on my journey. I spoke about how sculpture was once the visual medium to bring people together and tell a story, and how film had taken on that job today. And I explained, I was about to change that!

I had travelled to Wellington and discovered the warp speed that digital technology could afford an artist in his creative process. I knew as I stood in front of this group, that this relief wall would bring back the excitement and power that art once had for the general public. I felt like we were in a back room planning a revolution and this group of young 20 and 30-year-olds were privy to the "Visual Explosion" about to be launched. I talked about the correlation between my relief and film. How in film, as we sit there, the scenes change in front of us. I spoke about how in the future people would go visit the Memorial and as they travelled from one end to the other the scenes would change. Memorial visitors would become active observers receiving a spark from the past.  They would be sucked into the story and feel emotions about the characters that have travelled to those distant shores, and experienced the carnage. The witnessing of what WWI looks like as told through the relief would create feelings that would be a catharsis of sorts, very similar to what happens in movie theatres at the mall.

And this young generation of listeners understood that a true revolution is about to happen. They understood what is coming and what you will see at Pershing Park will be playing forward the rich and full tradition of figurative art in all its aesthetic power and glory. As Edwin Fountain, the Commissioner of the WWI Centennial Foundation says, “You will see a killer sculpture." All of a sudden, the audience carried that same excitement for the aesthetics of a bygone era. They saw my vision of bringing to life the emotions of film with the intensity of Michelangelo and the beauty of Leonardo. They were inspired by my vision of this aesthetic being reinvented to fit today’s world!

There was palpable excitement in the room as I told them this story of A  Soldier’s Journey.

The visitor will see the husband pulling away from his wife as she grabs his arm in fear of never seeing him again. They will see the soldier launching himself out of the trench with an animal aggression in his eyes. They will see the sadness of war as the nurse holds the gassed soldier in her arms.  And out of all this death and destruction they will feel the desperation of the father figure emerging out of the battle scene, staring directly out at you from the relief. For this is a visual narrative told in a three-dimensional material, bronze. It is a story of our humanity. Of how we are born, travel through our life, only to return at the end handing our experiences on to the next generation. 

They saw how this art was a return to the visual. I explained how this relief breaks away from the ideology of post-modernism where the importance of the book about the art has superseded the art that it writes about. And they got it.

It was a moment that I will never forget. It was an acceptance from the younger generation. It is a generation that is not literate in the culture and esoteric values that I carry with me. When I began this project, I was determined to bridge the gap between this outdated tradition and imbue it with the excitement of the new. That is why I had flown to Weta Workshop to make use of this cutting-edge technology.  And as I stood there, I realised at that very moment that it was not the technology that was the answer. It was the vision that drove the technology, that allowed this aesthetic to be reborn.  The technology was just a tool. It was all about the artistic vision.

And it made me happy to know that what I cared about was also something of great value and importance to this younger generation. I left there with tremendous excitement knowing that when this relief wall materialises at Pershing Park, I will be able to change the direction of art history and put figurative art back on the map as the cutting-edge art. I will have given back to others with my life task of creating a contemporary Renaissance Art. And in so doing, I will make art vital again to the general public!

There is no stopping this now, it is coming on like a crashing wave on the beach. 

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Playing forward the re-humanization of art


Playing forward the rehumanization of art

When I left my studies in Rome Italy in 1987, I really wasn’t attuned to what was going on in the current state of the post modern movement.

I wasn’t aware that a major coup against the rich tradition of the past was in effect, hell bent on the de-humanization of the figure in the art world. And in a move similar to the rebellious tantrum of a pre-pubescent boy, the energy of contemporary “art “ was in a state of complete rebellion. “Art” was proceeding with a grand disillusionment away from what we had held so dear in the past, and proceeding full force towards the leering and sardonic grin of irony.

I came to art late in life at age 19 with the thought that there were three artists to pay attention to and emulate; Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael. And in my ignorance, I had no understanding that anything else existed in the art world. So when I answered my call to be an artist on that fall day in October 1982 my sights were on the sacred quality of art that I was all to familiar with from childhood, not on what was going on around me.

From that moment on I worked with life models, drawing and sculpting traditionally 5 to 6 days a week, from 9 to 5 for over 25 years. An obsessive quality drove me forward. I spent years in a boarded up room, blocking out the light of day and regulated my own light and how it fell on those life models. Those life models were my reference for creating a representation of us that spoke of another world. When visitors came into my studio people remarked that you didn't know what time of day it was, nor what the weather was like outside. There were no seasons, nor a sense of time in that room. I wanted to work in an environment where time stood still and there would be no distractions. I just had this driving force to create figures that represented us and spoke of the sacred.

I was after a mythical sublimity with an earth bound reality. I was after emotional depth, outwardly and inwardly alive. I strove for a psychologically and physically real figure full of weight and bound by gravity. My goal was to create a seamless unity between psyche and soma, mind and body. It is what the art critic and art historian, Donald Kuspit says, "It is what makes Old Master portraiture so convincing--what gives their figures presence, suggesting that we are in their presence.”

I was after the Re-humanization of Art and I was learning.

I was hellbent on attaining this vision in my sculptures. And in 2011 rising up out of the ashes of irony there is a moment recorded by a cell phone shot that that has tremendous meaning for me. It was taken at a foundry in upstate New York. And it's taken at the end of the day by the foundry workers. It is a picture of the sculpture Apollo cast in bronze. It’s unfinished and still in a state of raw metal, the seam lines have just been welded and it's the end of the day when all the body parts had just been assembled. And in this moment of assembling all the cast sections of the figure, I remember we have just nailed the centre of gravity of that figure. It stands in perfect balance. My intention had been to make a figure that soared upwards and moved forward. I had never spent this much time or this much all-consuming energy on one piece. I used life models for 2 1/2 years of work. We had worked five days a week for 3400 hours. It was the end of a long process of studies, 10 years to be exact that culminated in this moment. In my studio it had been Clay, but here it was in bronze. That meant that this piece would outlive me now. I sat looking at that figure that late afternoon in winter and I had a sense of knowing that I had pulled off my dream. But I also carried with me a sense of sadness for I knew I would never do this again. It would be different. I would move on to the next part of my life.

I am glad that moment was caught with the cell phone shot because I will always remember it. It marks the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one.
I had no idea where life was taking me, and in 2015 I entered into the WW1 National Memorial competition. That summer I paired up with with the architect, Michael Imber and produced my first idea for the competition. I saw a picture of two US soldiers in Iraqi and that initial image was the spark that initiated the idea. With that germ of an idea I created my initial concept drawing for the WW1 Memorial. The drawing and idea was the concept for a sculpture in the round with two soldiers crouched together. The hero soldier holds his less fortunate brother in arms in a moment of compassion. It is a piece about connectedness and compassion that comes out in humans in the horrors of war. It was called the Brotherhood of Arms. Our team did not make the final selection. But in September I received a call from Joe Weishaar and joined his team eventually winning this esteemed competition. I was elated. This would be the next step in my art making journey.

As an artist you never know what's coming even in the next 10 minutes. And now 9000 miles away in New Zealand at Weta Workshop, I stood in front of the test model produced from my concept drawings. I stood there in the imaging room with photo lamps dramatically illuminating the 9 foot long Soldier’s Journey. Maddy, the photographer clicked a candid shot from behind me at that moment of introspection. An all too familiar feeling was happening. I knew that this was another moment in my life. It was another chapter. But this time it is the beginning of the chapter not the end. This time it is about creating a sacred art of re-humanization. And this time I am in service of something incredibly large and powerful. Everything that I have learned in the making of Apollo will be played forward in this sculptural relief that shows 38 figures moving forward in a processional composition towards the future. But what is different here is, that this is not an art only for the few. I have left behind that realm of esoteric creation and moved into the realm of artistic creation that is in service of many. I am now “playing in the arena”, as Teddy Roosevelt has said.

From my perspective the relief and story that I’ve created are a visual poetry of WW1 and plays forward history for all to understand what it felt and looked like. And in this moment I am reminded of how some of the great artists of the past dealt with similar epic projects. For me the past is something to learn from and play forward using those brilliant ideas created then and morphing them into the present and the future. I remember as a rebellious 15-year-old visiting Florence and having an epiphany about how powerful Michelangelos Medici Tomb was. It was that day under a hot Tuscan summer's sun that my Dad dragged me into the shade of cuppola of San Lorenzo. We went from the noisey blistering heat of San Marco market plac , to a cool, light filled room with a smell of incense. It was at that moment that a light bulb went off in my head. I had a spark of yearning to create something that carried that superhuman magical power. In the Medici Tomb in Florence, Michelangelo was accused of not making the 2 effigy sculptures of the Medici rulers realistic in likeness. History has changed that. Michelangelo’s representation of Guilano and Lorenzo is how we remember them today. Those two sculptures of the medici rulers carry far more power than a figure from this world could ever have attained. His work transcends the real world, and as Picaso would say years later, “ To tell the truth you must tell a lie.” This is the tradition that affected me that day and inspired me to work the way that I do today.

The mythology that I followed and used in my previous classical work has made its way to into this new work. In the middle of the relief sits the battle scene. It is a giant wave that moves forward and crashes into the ground. And through the iterations led by Edwin Fountain, I developed at least four major versions of this central section. The initial ones were too chaotic, with figures all going in different directions. The final and accepted iteration was the unification of these six men charging. I thought of the concept of a school of fish, or a flock of birds and how they look like one unit all moving in unison with one determined action in mind. A few months ago a university professor came to our house for dinner and looked at the concept drawing. She remarked on how this was a perfect rendition of what the God of War, Mars represented.The Greeks believed, Mars became present on the battlefield where he elevated men to super human strength. It's the transformation that occurs for men in that moment of extreme danger when time stands still and things move in slow motion. In my own life I have done many dangerous sports, such as rockclimbing and motorcycle riding. I am well aware of what the Greeks were talking about with Mars. And in those sports the mind is transformed with a rush of adrenaline and other chemicals that elevate the physical power and drive one forward in a focus and clarity that is unhindered and outside of our everyday vision and experience. As I posed the models I looked for ways to capture that psychology and feeling in each of their gestures. And in my idea of what that battle felt like to those soldiers, I created figures that flow forward in one aggressive adrenaline fuelled charge.

The figure that leads that charge also went through many iterations with Edwin. That pose became the catalyst for me working towards figures with greater drama and movement. For this project I changed my studio practice and art making process. Instead of posing the model on the modelling stand and then observing, I began having the actor act out the call to arms in motion. And in their movements I would find the one pose that explained the whole story. Edwin had also spoken about a Gunnery Sergeant. A very famous marine call Dan Daly. One of the most famous quotations in Marine Corps history came during this initial step off for the battle when Dan Daly yelled to his men,”Come on, you son of a bitches, do you want to live forever!” Edwin asked me to give him a figure that represented this moment at the Battle of Bella Woods when the United States turned the war and achieved victory. Again I began to transfer my previous classical work into this historical humanistic art. I looked back at what I had done with the sculpture of Apollo, a figure that leads with light. And I thought this would be a perfect pairing of Mars and Apollo in the relief. Light leads aggression. It is a fight led by correct principles. The Apollo pose is similar to my original piece with his heart exposed in a vulnerable position leading his charge. His arms spread to their maximum reach in a display of courage. It is a moment of rising to the occasion. The pose speaks of human vulnerability and courage and represents how the United States rose to the occasion in the war that turned the tide.

My reference to art history also became part of my vocabulary in choosing how to present these characters of the relief. In the initial section of the relief on the left, the wife of the principal character is derived from Lady Liberty. She is not only the soldiers wife but is also a representation of America. I was very struck by the painter, Delacroix, and influenced by his painting of Lady Liberty. In his painting, A woman personifying the concept and the Goddess of Liberty leads the people forward over a barricade and the bodies of the fallen, holding the flag of the French Revolution.

The winged victory of Nike at the Louvre Museum in Paris was also influential in the creation of the soldier’s wife. I looked towards references that would allow me to create a wall of honour and present the characters in a human and heroic ways. Again these figures represent a rising to the occasion presented in a emotionally dramatic and humanly heroic way.

Following the battle scene to the right is the cost of war scene. This scene begins on the ground as the charging figures are angle steeply down from above on the left. This is a different world as framed by a broken structure in the background. It's representative of the broken world and society that was destroyed by the war. This section has groupings that are strongly influenced by Michelangelo and Renaissance Pietas. I wished to portray death and suffering with the sacredness and a sense of caring from humanity. So I created compositions that intertwined figures into a brotherhood of arms and represented the camaraderie of our troops.

So as the giant wave of the charging battle scene crashes to the ground, this next scene of the cost of war rises up from that point on the ground. From the beginning of the cost of war this strong diagonal rises up towards the only figure coming out directly at the viewer. It is the only figure not moving towards the future. It is a moment of introspection, and acts as a full stop in the visual phrasing of this story. This figure is the principal player of the whole composition. He comes out toward the viewer at the three-quarter mark of the length of the wall. He is the father coming out from the battle scene. The soldier is trying to make sense and process what he has gone through. I was asked by Edwin Fountain to give the composition a figure that shows the thousand yard stare and has a shell shocked look. A vacant stare into nothingness. He is the hero of our story. The father figure represents America. And this moment represents the transformation that this country went through from an Agrarian nation to an industrial superpower. A sword is forged by intense heat. My analogy is that the father is forged and transformed by what he has seen in the war. He is a man, and the representation of a country forever changed. He is seeing once again in the very last scene of the relief. In this scene he hands his daughter his helmet. And she holds his helmet. She holds the doughboy helmet a representation of the history of WW1 in her hands gazing into it and divining the future. She is the next generation.

There is also a powerful nurse to the right of this soldier and she is inspired by the WW1 nurse Julia Stimpson. Stimpson served on the front line eventually changing the profession of nurses forever. She was seen as charismatic, courageous and determined. She made a huge difference during the Great War for many men whose lives she saved. My intention was to create a female figure that would be seen as a heroine, full of power and charisma as she stands directly to the side of the Hero in the next grouping of three soldiers moving towards the end of the war.

She is also part of the diagonal which rises up from the cost of war and continues up to the highest point in the relief which is the flag.

As we come towards the end of the relief there is a grouping of three men that carry this flag. This grouping represents the Johnny Comes Marching Home parade scene. And is influenced by the three figures often seen in the American revolutionary war that carry a fife and drum, and flag.

In four days I board a plane for New Zealand and return to Weta Workshop. Our next step is creating the clay version of this 9 foot long model of the relief wall. I look forward to being able to share my process and show that the art world has other options. It's an amazing moment in my life to be able to share my passion with so many. And be able to create something that speaks of the sacred and us in an uplifting way.

For me this is a catalyst and a spark in the art world. And we can only wait and see what other fires this creative spark will light.



Sabin Howard sculptures are classical figures that feel thoroughly modern while recalling the mastery of the Renaissance and ancient Greece.


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