Tragedy often strikes early.
For most of us, the shapes of our psyches are forged in our youth. We never forget that sting- the first time we were punctured by the fangs of an unforgiving world and its harsh realities. What’s worse is that we carry that infection well into our adult lives. These traumas influence our perspective and, therefore, our decisions and, therefore, our path. My defining moment came just days before my sixth birthday, and literally came knocking on my door in the form of two servicemen.
My father’s untimely death created a void that I carried into adulthood, and sculpted my motivations as an artist.
Our youth also provides us with our first glimpses of the wonders of the world. Just as our childhood dumps tragedy upon us, it is also a time for first love- the first time we discover someone, some place, or something with which we fall in love. We’re new here, so everything is new to us. It might all seem old, boring, or tedious to the adults all around us; but we are soaking it all in. And just like our introduction to pain, we also carry our moments of first love well into our adulthood. I remember when I first fell in love with Art. It was the moment I first considered a life as an artist. Ironically, it was the summer after my father’s death. One of his Army buddies that served with him in Vietnam invited my mother, my brother, and me to Germany. I recall in great detail our excursion. It wasn’t meant to be a vacation. It was meant to provide an escape. I understood that even at seven. It was the summer of ’68. Dressed in standard air travel attire, my brother and I wore suits and ties. My mother was still in mourning black, even one year later. My mother reminded me of the images I had seen of Jacqueline Kennedy on TV. The country’s collective memory of the assassination of President Kennedy was fresh. If you factor in the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and the horrors of the war in Vietnam; the mid to late 1960’s was a dour era, not just for my personal, nuclear family, but for all Americans. My young mind could not obviously comprehend intellectually the broader tragedy, but I certainly sensed it. My mother fell ill at our layover at JFK International in New York City. The airport staff provided us with a large, dimly lit, almost dead silent, and lavishly furnished meeting room where my mother recovered on a Victorian style divan. Imagine the scene. My mother’s black silhouette was sprawled across burgundy velvet cushions as if she had just fainted upon them. The lights were low in order to reduce the affects of her headache. She had a moistened cloth on her forehead and the back of her hand upon it. My brother and I were at her feet doing our best not to disturb. We ran our Matchbox cars back and forth along the carpet. We were an island isolated. Four simple walls separated us from the busiest airport and the most bustling city in the world. This scene, as I recall it, could have been a painting hanging at the Louvre.
At some point during our flight over the Atlantic Ocean, the flight crew summoned my brother and me to the cockpit. Yes, you heard that correctly. We entered the cockpit and were greeted by the pilots. It was my first glimpse out the front window of an airplane. The pilots pinned plastic flight wings to our lapels. I recognize now that they were probably ex-military. They probably added up the clues- my mother’s dress and demeanor and the fact that she was unaccompanied. She was probably also flying under some sort of bereavement or military pass. I sensed that the flight crew knew our special situation. There was a feeling of sympathy in their speech and actions toward us. They spoke softly and reverently. As a side note, since we are discussing how first encounters as children can affect your later decisions; my brother later in life became an Air Force pilot and later still a commercial pilot. My defining moment was a few days away.
During our stay in Germany, our escort family lead us throughout Europe. My defining moment occurred in Rome. One moment my brother and I were chasing pigeons around St Peter’s Square, and the next moment we were lead into the Sistine Chapel- the Pope’s Chapel. I guess the reason that I was so stunned by the sight was because I had no preconceived notions about the room. I was just hit with it all at once. I wasn’t really aware of where we were. I didn’t comprehend the significance nor the history or culture of my location. I was just open. I remember standing in the middle of that church with the work of Michelangelo above me. Remember that this was 1968, before the cleaning and restoration of the ceiling. At that time, the frescoes were smoky and murky. It had an antiqued appearance from the soot of over four hundred years of worship. I became isolated in wonder. Everything else and everybody else disappeared. It felt like I was underwater. Once again, I was alone in one of the busiest locations on Earth. The thought that entered my mind at the time was, “This was somebody’s job? Somebody had a job that allowed them to paint pictures on the ceiling and on the walls?” But, more importantly, I sensed the power of the work. One cannot stand in that room and not be moved spiritually. So, my first experience with Art was at the top of the food chain as compared to the other functions of Art. At seven, I had obviously colored and painted some pictures that I’m sure had hung on my fridge at home. I knew that people decorated their homes with pretty pictures of vases of flowers and rivers and scenery; but being confronted with this artist in this room in this city, I was introduced to the prospect that Art had real power. It could effect a spiritual transformation. Whenever I consider ancient artworks, I sense that at least part of the artists’ motivations were to “please God”. Whenever I am involved with a new project for my memorial statuary, I strive to reach such lofty goals.
Fast forward to my adulthood, the early 1980’s. I was studying Art at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Florida. Incidentally, my tuition was partially funded by Veterans benefits that I received being the son of a deceased service member. Simultaneously, a young woman of about my age Maya Lin had just designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, referred to now as The Wall. A few years later, I graduated, got a job teaching Art, got married, and began a family of my own. What followed was truly miraculous. The Wall came to Pensacola, my backyard. After a travelling exhibit came through town, several locals decided that Pensacola should create a permanent replica. Since the early 1990’s, Pensacola has hosted The Wall South at Pensacola Veterans Park which is perched on Pensacola Bay. I feel so fortunate to have a memorial erected to my father and his comrades so close to home. It is a place I have visited hundreds of times over the past couple of decades.
Because of copyright concerns, the one item that the Wall South did not
have was a copy of Frederick Hart’s bronze sculpture, “Three Servicemen”. This is the point where the stars aligned for me. The two most important events, the best and the worst, of my childhood collided. A memorial to my father’s memory was laid at my feet, and it was in need of a powerful piece of Art. It was my opportunity to use the talents that I had developed as an artist and also pay tribute to my father and his sacrifice. I had the chance to provide closure to my worst memory by using the talents that began with my best memory. I could create something that might not “please God”; but I believed that I could, at least, “please Father”. The next couple of years were magical. Through a series of events, an image of my daughter was used as a reference for a new bronze memorial at the park. It was meant to represent children like me who lost a father in the war. My daughter was born on 11-11-96, Veterans Day; and, on her fourth birthday, in 2000, the following statue was placed permanently at the Park.
And so began my career as a sculptor.