The art project that sculptor Larry Kirkland briefly unveiled before the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts yesterday is nothing like the floating needle of glass or spiraling tower of lights that he has done before.
The mock-ups he showed are pieces of a sculpture to symbolize the blown-up legs, severed arms and bullet-riddled bodies of war.
Kirkland, of the District, is working on the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, a public artwork approved by Congress in 2000. It is planned to occupy a triangle of land at Second and C streets SW, across from the U.S. Botanic Garden, with a combination of water, fire, glass and sculpture to honor the veterans who returned home from wars with broken bodies.
The sculptor, who interviewed scores of disabled veterans when he was getting ready to create the piece, said he was humbled to hear the stories of those in wheelchairs or who had lost an arm or, often, both legs. He said that he was overwhelmed by the stories and that capturing the emotions they evoked "was kind of daunting."
"How do you sculpt this? How do you begin to talk about this loss?" Kirkland said yesterday during his presentation.
Rather than create full, three-dimensional statues, he answered the questions with a series of four wall panels imprinted with the detailed, negative relief of a human body in various forms of injury. There is a muscular form that looks like a Greek discus thrower missing an arm, a lean body without a leg, a woman's torso with no limbs.
"They are the memory of what used to be there," he explained to the commissioners. "The idea is not to tell a specific story. It is to suggest that sense of loss."
Some pieces had a full human form, while others were headless or were abstract representations of a single body part. Kirkland said he liked the more abstract pieces, but the veterans who saw the work earlier preferred those that were more obvious and representative, particularly the male form missing a leg. He told the commission that veterans said to him, "That's me. That's my story and the story of most of my peer group."
In between the nine-foot-tall sculptures will be walls of glass etched with some of the 700 quotations that the designers gathered from veterans of various wars. Those quotes are reflections on the moments soldiers realized they'd been hit, their transitions into life with a disability and coping with it, Kirkland said.
Landscape architect Michael Vergason, who is in charge of the overall design, said the walls will face a triangular pool of water that will reflect the Capitol dome. In the pool will be a flame set in granite, symbolizing the home hearth as well as the fire of war.
Kirkland said he wanted the memorial not only to honor the veterans, but to serve "as a reminder to our legislators that if you go to war, there is going to be loss."
Commission member Elyn Zimmerman told Kirkland she was impressed, that he portrayed "a very sensitive and difficult idea in a very poetic and representative way."
The Disabled Veterans' LIFE Memorial Foundation was founded in 1998. Members presented the first concept to the arts commission last year and will present another version in October. The foundation expects to have the memorial completed by 2010, but that might change pending further commission approval and funding, said Tom Busch, one of the foundation's directors.
In other action, the commission approved a new concept for security measures surrounding the Lincoln Memorial. Although they voiced continuing disapproval of the prospect of barricading monuments, the commissioners voted unanimously to proceed with the concept design that closes off the east approach to the memorial with rows of bollards that extend almost to the reflecting pool. They asked for more design ideas from the architect and the National Park Service on bollard type, rather than the several simple options the Park Service offered yesterday.