Sculptor Ulrich Henn used razor blades to carve his first works from ammunition box scrap in an American Army prisoner of war camp in Italy during World War II.
Thirty-four years later, Henn has just completed four full-sized wax models from which great bronze doors for the western facade of the Washington Cathedral will be cast.
The doors, about 16 1/2 feet tall and 8 feet wide, are a far cry from 54-year-old Henn's first commissions -- restoring stone and wood church figures damaged during the war.
"I traveled from Scotland to Sicily repairing church ornaments and saints' fingers," Henn said in an interview.
With only nine months of formal training after his release from the prisoner of war camp in 1945, Henn made the whole of Europe his art academy, sketching and studying works of the masters during his travels.
Henn's bronzes, primarily church pieces but including fountains and outdoor sculptures, stand in more than 50 West German cities and towns, in England and Luxembourg.
In 1975 Henn was chosen from among 30 artists to design doors for the Washington Cathedral.
Henn visited the cathedral, then returned to his studio in Leudersdorf, an Eifel Mountain farming village 36 miles south of Cologne, and set to work.
He said he received philosophical guidance but not artistic instruction for the doors from Francis B. Sayre, then dean of the cathedral.
Henn's figures for the central doors include Moses at the burning bush and Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, both surrounded by dogwood trees. The two side doors show figures of St. Peter and St. Paul, for whom the Episcopal Cathedral is named.
"I wanted to show that a church is not a house only for the holy," Henn said. "The biblical characters were men, with moments of weakness and of doubt."
Henn has been asked to design the remaining two doors for the western facade. But as construction is financed by donations, he is unsure when and if the funds will be available.
Henn's doors are being cast in England and should be hung in Washington later this year.