Sabin Howard Blog

Designing the National World War I Memorial Sculpture: Adam Savage- TESTED







visual structure of storytelling in A SOLDIER'S JOURNEY

A SOLDIER'S JOURNEY  balances a range of opposing feelings and actions in the same epic composition.
It reflects both what is civilized and what is savage about humanity in a story that explains The Great War.
The ideals of heroism, family, and caring are juxtapositioned with the violence, terror, and aggression of battle in the WW1 relief sculpture. 

The WW1 relief sculpture is uniquely suited to fit within Pershing Park because it is a multifaceted view of humanity and because it goes beyond the traditional glorification of men in battle.

It is a complex story that narrates the full spectrum of human feelings.
Clarity in visual narration has been established through simplicity of design and structure.
The geometry of the structure is laid out in this way with meticulous purpose.

The purpose is to create a universally understood story regardless of age, culture, or society.


A Soldier’s Journey is divided into 3 acts; a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Each of these sections is equally divided into beginning, middle, and end.

Each section of the story thus has a start action, a movement or transition in between, and an end or exit action.
The mathematical spacing of the parts is the story and that spacing is critical for the understanding and clarity of the visual narrative.

Because each section has opposing feelings and actions at each end, a specific distance is needed to bridge the gap. 
The transition between the opposing feelings has to be a certain distance in order to create visual clarity in the story.

Pacing is critical for clarity in telling this story to the Memorial visitor. 
The Spacing between these parts is how I have created pacing.
For example, you cannot ram a battle scene into a quiet scene; nor can you lurch from a quiet scene into an energetic scene without the proper transition and spacing.
Parts need to build into each other and flow with the correct rate of energy and speed to maintain harmony of the whole. 

Transitions are crucial to all forms of narrative storytelling, whether visual, verbal, or musical.

Act 1: Separation and Departure

1. START- The initial scene begins with a group of three which is the nuclear family. The scene is static, stuctured vertically, and quiet in mood. All the family members gaze within the circle.

2. TRANSITION- The middle scene shows the change in mood. The father is pulled forwards by his comrade soldiers, away from his vertical and static-posed wife. There is a building tension in movement as the soldier is pulled away from home. 

3. END OF ACTION- The final scene presents guns for the first time. It is the beginning of aggression. The men pick up their guns and thus begins a charged move forward.

Three women occupy the left of the scene. This is Venus or love, represented in family.  Venus is self-contained and in harmony and balance.
Men with rifles ready and aggression in their faces marks the right of the scene. This is Mars, the aggressor of war. 
The middle scene portrays the transition and tension in a tug of war between home and war. 


A clear space marks the rest note between speeds and scenes.
In act 1: soldiers preparing for war.- In Act 2 soldiers are in the full charge of battle.

Act 2: Initiation of War

1. START- There is a marked crescendo from the previous scene. This leads to full Mars unleashed, which is war. War is humanity out of balance. The men charge forward in an explosion of animal aggression. The kinetic frenzied energy is at a maximum of intensity in gesture and feeling.

2. TRANSITION- There is an empty space or a void where the charge drives vertically down into the ground. The void is the transition between the aggression of war and its inevitable outcome: death.

3. END OF ACTION- The result is the Cost Of War marked by a Pieta scene. From this death, the poses and figures rise to the shell-shocked soldier to the right.
    He marks the transition to the next chapter. It is a moment of quiet contemplation, in direct opposition to the battle scene at left.

The verticality of the shell-shocked soldier stops the flow of action forward. It is the only figure that faces directly out at the viewer, engaging the viewer in a moment of maximum contemplation.
The pose acts as a full stop. The traumatized soldier is flanked on each side by nurses and by the epogee of an arc both forward and side to side. The nurse’s heads are turned away from him. There is also additional space around him as a solemn statement of alienation. This is one of the quietest areas of the story. The space allows the figure to breathe in the solitude of the moment.
This is the father re-emerged and transformed.

Act 3; Return and Future

1. START- The scene is marked by soldiers emerging diagonally from behind the shell shocked-soldier.This diaganol continues with the nurse and wounded soldier. They are exiting the war.

2. TRANSITION- The middle scene is marked by 2 groups of 3 soldiers.  This first group is a connection between the past as a soldier looks back and advances towards the final scene. The first group also connects with the nurse behind them. The second group joins visually with the final scene. The composition is now moving parallel to the viewer in a more solemn and contemplative fashion. 

The 3 groupings are needed to create the correct speed to exit the war and to explain the gravitas and epic nature of this historical moment; The figures moving in diagonal to the picture plane is active whereas the figures moving parallel to the picture plane is contemplative. 
The flag is the zenith of the diagonal, rising up from the void in the center of the composition and proceeding forward to the end.

This area shows contains many complicated stories and they are all stitched together to flow forward to the end scene.


The final scene is the quietest and most solemn moment. It is a full stop.
The father hands his daughter the helmet. She looks down into it divining the future. There is weight on the back of the child's head.
The composition is designed as a Egyptian hieroglyph were the figures face the viewer in Silhouette.
This marks the future generation being handed the next war.



"Figurative sculptor Sabin Howard has just been selected to complete the sculptural components of the National World War One Memorial in Washington, DC. In this interview, Howard talks about how he arrived at the concepts behind the sculptures for the memorial (which will include a frieze in bronze over 80 feet long), and his approach towards his art."



Here is a link to the sculpture story behind A SOLDIER'S JOURNEY;




I sat down this afternoon and made some measurements with my calipers to show the underlying structure of the story. I wished to share how carefully knit the structure of this composition is.

1. The geometry of the structure is laid out in this way with meticulous purpose. It tells the story. If you rearrange the structure, you will destroy the story.
The mathematical spacing of the parts is the story and that spacing is critical for the understanding and clarity of the visual narrative. 

2. Pacing is critical in the art of storytelling. Spacing is how you show pacing in a visual narrative. The rate of speed that the figures progress in the composition is specific to telling the story. The rate of speed is the force or kinetic energy of the figures. You cannot ram a battle scene into a quiet scene; nor can you move from a quiet scene into anq energetic scene without the proper transition and spacing. Parts need to build into each other and flow with the correct rate of energy and speed to maintain harmony of the whole. 

The relief was carefully constructed to make specific groupings with specific lengths or visual weight again to explain the narrative. Specific transitions were built in to the relief for clarity of story.
Reducing any of the sections will destroy the figure groupings. The groupings will blend together without purpose or sense and the kinetic energy of the specific sections will be lost.

I have made a musical analogy at the top of the diagram which refers to the pace of the action.

3. The composition was knit with a precision towards symmetry. This is a key element to make something sacred that is also remembered. People remember symmetry.

Symmetry creates a sense of balance and unity that is essential to maintain a hierarchy of importance in the relationship of the parts to the whole.

The wall has these 5 specific narrative scenes;

1. Homefront
2. Departure
3. Battle
4. Cost of war
5. Return

Each section is carefully designed to fit precisely and exactly within the hierarchy of the whole.




Two years ago I was faced with the task of-How can I tell a story that everyone will understand clearly.  How can I tell a story that has universal meaning.

And in so doing create a WW1 Monument honoring the men, and women that went through this horrific moment in global history.
Well now I'm on the other side of that in terms of the storytelling for the 9” sculpture Maquette. What WW1 looked like is told through a visual narrative called A Soldier’s Journey. It is a story of a soldier and father, who departs from home and family, traveling to the distant shores of Europe, experiencing the horrors of war, only to return  home again forever changed.

35 years ago when I began learning the craft of making art, I was always taught to work from general to specific. And that lesson became my mantra as I proceeded in this incredibly complex design.

It took 9 iterations over 12 months, with 12,000 pictures taken of re-enactors in my Bronx studio to create a story of transformation and change that would explain this War to the Memorial visitor. The strangest part of this process is that I was unaware as I assembled the scenes and drew out the final drawing that I was working in the template of what Joseph Cambell calls a Monomyth. It has also been referred to as the hero's journey.

test print- Clay sculpture- Initial drawing concept of A Soldier's Story

It is only recently that my wife, Traci Slatton, an internationally published author, and a gifted story teller, looked over at me at 6am one morning over breakfast and said, “ You know that Soldier’s Journey that you are doing is right out of the template that has existed for ages in many different cultures of myth.”

Joe Weishaar my designer partner had said to me back in the fall of 2015, “ Create a beginning, a middle, and an end." But I was completely unaware that what I was doing visually fit an age old way of telling stories.

Traci continued and filled me in,” You ought to read up on this. Joseph Campbell refers to it as, "mankind's one great story." This structure of narrative involves a herowho goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory. (Just to name a few, it is found in Native American culture, Greco Roman culture, and Judeo Christian culture.) The protagonist then comes homechanged or transformed and wiser by his passage through this perilous task.” My wife has always been very instrumental in helping me find the right track for the story in my art. When you live with somebody that's gone to Yale and Columbia, there is bound to be an intellectual conversation at the breakfast table! Picking up one of Joseph Campbell's books on the dinning room table she filled me in on the road that I had taken. It was a little shocking to realise that somehow I had downloaded a storytelling template that had existed for ages in many different cultures to explain the story of WW1.

With more reading I found that Campbell defines the function of mythology as the provision of a cultural framework for a society or people to educate their young. Every epoc, every culture, every society has myths. It provides society with an explaining mechanism for coping with the human condition. Myths provide people with a means of coping and guiding their passage through the different stages of life from birth to death.”

 Mythology makes us aware that we are not the only ones going through this moment in our life. And it also makes us aware that we belong to something bigger than ourselves.  This leads us to a realisation that these themes portray universal and eternal truths about mankind.

Why had I gravitated toward this way of explaining what WW1 looked like. For me myth has always been a way to fit the sculpture into a framework that uplifts with power.
 I was deeply affected as small child living in Italy and being surrounded by the visual splendour of the art and the architecture. There was always a sense of going beyond the mundane or average in the sculpture and art. Art spoke about grandness and fit within the structure of heroic narratives. This art was a represention of us in sculpture and drawing presented in such a powerful and visceral way. It was art that rose to the occasion. Sculptures like the Michelangelo Moses carried such force and emotion. And to a 5 year old standing in front of the 10 foot high Moses ready to spring and discharge his ire and fury, this had a lasting effect!

 Myth speak of heroes. Myths place us in a universe were we belong to something bigger than ourselves. And certainly the soldiers that entered into this hell and walked away were incredibly brave and heroic. This war transformed millions of people’s lives, and even though the transformation was devastating on a global level, there is an element of the human race rising up above the ashes.

I believe it would be a grave injustice if these soldiers and women represented as average. I would expect that the art would take the real in the mundane and elevate it to a higher stature to show its historical significance. To show the monumentality of what these people went through. Using the monomyth template story creates an amazing structure to deliver a relief wall that is dramatic, emotional, full of movement, emotion and force.  It's a way to represent the men and women as larger than life. The relief wall tells the story in such a visceral uplifting way that no one can walk away from this bronze wall without being affected.

Below I have broken down the structure of the monomyth and included a diagram from Campbell. I have also included a diagram of the protagonist(father /soldier)as he moves through his journey in the relief wall.

Campbell describes this template of the division of the story in 3 “acts” or sections;

1. Departure
2. Separation
3. Return

1. In the departure part of the narrative, the protagonistlives in the ordinary world and receives a call to go on an undertaking involving risk. The protagonist is reluctant to follow the call, but is helped by a mentor figure.
2. The initiation section begins with this protagonist then crossing the threshold to the unknown, where he faces tasks or trials, either alone or with the assistance of helpers.
3. The hero eventually reaches a crisis in his adventure, where he must undergo "the ordeal" where he overcomes the main obstacle or enemy, undergoing an elevation or apotheosis and gaining his reward.
In the return section, the hero again traverses the threshold between the worlds, returning to the ordinary world with the understanding or knowledge he gained, which he may now use for the benefit of his fellow man.

The diagram is loosely based on Campbell (1949) and more directly on Christopher Vogler, "A Practical Guide to Joseph Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces" (seven-page-memo 1985)

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