Sixty clay heads rest on the artist's table -- five stacked in a glove box, the other 55 lying faceup in the studio's sunlight, like an organized toy chest of World War II action figures. Here are heads in fedoras and grim faces under steel pot helmets. Here's a shouting child in a newsboy's hat and women flashing celebratory grins beneath curled bobs.
They're the artist's leftover studies, precursors to the bas-relief figures lining the wide entrance to the National World War II Memorial. They're a smattering of the approximately 276 faces shown in the memorial's 24 bronze panels, appearing in scenes that evoke the war and the home front.
Behind them all is the wild-haired, 61-year-old Ray Kaskey, the Brentwood sculptor who made every bronze piece of the memorial. While architect Friedrich St. Florian has gained most of the attention for designing the expansive, granite monument, Kaskey is the one who produced the stories and the symbols.
In addition to the bas-relief panels, he sculpted the 4,000 shining stars, each one representing 100 deaths; the four columns, four eagles and laurel in the Atlantic and Pacific arches; the 900 bronze-green drain grates, the 56 rope sections, the 56 brackets and 112 wreaths.
You might say he created them all, but Kaskey would cringe.
"Creating," he says, disdain rippling his woolly, mad-genius eyebrows, "is so overused, it's meaningless."
He says the truest quote he ever heard came from painter Chuck Close, who told a radio interviewer: " 'Inspiration is for amateurs. You just get started and hope something will happen.' "
Kaskey prefers to call what he does "problem-solving," a term that seems well-suited to a memorial that lauds the no-excuses World War II generation for its approach to duty and work.
The clay heads top figures made to represent American heroes. They were modeled after six World War II re-enactors who came into Kaskey's studio with trunks of uniforms, guns and even civilian clothing from the period.
He posed them on his revolving table, taking 360 degrees' worth of pictures. There were soldiers disembarking on an "Amphibious Landing," as one humidity-infused panel for the National World War II Memorial is called, and soldiers running up the beach with their guns on "D-Day," and soldiers and euphoric civilians jitterbugging on "V-J Day."
They posed according to sketches he had planned of each panel. Yet often, he recalls, the best compositions came when the models would "quit posing" and "do something interesting." He'd find himself calling, " 'Oh wait! Do it again.' "
Because six models weren't enough for 276 figures -- "he got sick of doing the same heads," noted Joanna Blake, one of Kaskey's sculpting assistants -- Kaskey started turning to the heads around him. Scattered throughout the 24 panels are Blake's head and her husband's head and the head of Kaskey's landlord, Bob Giannetti, and the head of the studio's UPS delivery guy. Even Kaskey himself appears, wearing a trench coat, in the first panel of the Atlantic series on the memorial's north wall.
At one point, he needed a dog for the "Air War B-17 Crew" panel, so Blake walked around the corner to her home and came back with her Lab mix, Greta, who is immortalized in bas-relief No. 6.
Two of the panels Kaskey completed were nixed by his patrons. Both hang over his worktable, above the clay faces, examples of work he loved and the price he paid working on a project controlled by others. His favorite was the one of women polishing the nose cones of airplanes. Where Kaskey most appreciated the panel's "processional quality," the committee overseeing his work determined, he says, that "it didn't portray women heroically enough: 'They look like cleaning ladies.' "
So far, eight of the panels have been installed. The other 16 are at the foundry in Chester, Pa., where Kaskey says he hopes they will be cast in time for the memorial's official dedication May 29.
Born in 1943, in the midst of World War II, Kaskey says he was conceived in Camp Lee in Petersburg, Va., and not long after, his father went off to fight the war in Europe. "I didn't know him. I was 2 or 3 years old when he came home, and he just kind of scared me," he recalls.
His father died two years ago and never saw Kaskey's work on the memorial. Asked if it's hard to build a monument to soldiers like his father, but one that his father will never see, Kaskey pauses for a rare quiet moment, then answers, "Yeah."
Kaskey grew up in Pittsburgh and in high school decided to be a painter, "but I didn't really have the talent for it, and my parents wouldn't really send me to college for that. That was the end of the '50s, and Sputnik, and everyone was supposed to become an engineer."
So Kaskey compromised and majored in architecture at Carnegie Mellon, where he graduated in six years. One of those years was spent living in Rome on a fellowship, where he "bummed around, drew, ate well," an experience that "really got me going, looking at the past as a source, without trying to copy it."
After getting a master's degree in architecture from Yale, he moved with his wife to Glover Park and started teaching at the University of Maryland. By 1975, after passing "all those generals in the roundabouts" of Washington and classical friezes on the sides of buildings, he decided that sculpting people and animals -- beings, instead of geometries -- was "the only interesting problem on tap." It was, he says, "one of those things you have to find out if you can do."
As the morning in the studio wears on, Giannetti walks in to say hello and marvel at an article in the newspaper that morning, which mentioned the emotional reaction of World War II veterans who saw the memorial on the day it opened to the public.
"That's really amazing," Giannetti tells Kaskey. "That these guys would cry. That shows somebody did something right."
"The test will be 25 years from now," Kaskey answers, "when everybody's dead who participated." He means, he explains later, did the veterans cry because they had finally gained recognition? Or were people "moved because of how you did it? And it's too soon to tell."