D.C. monument to feature sculptor’s birds
LOVELAND — Loveland sculptor Robert J. Eccleston tracks his workday based on how many feathers he works on or the square footage he carves — at least right now.
Eccleston is part of a team of architects and artists assembling the Desert Shield and Desert Storm Memorial that on Veterans Day 2024 is scheduled to be placed on the National Mall next to the Lincoln Memorial. His contribution will be an oversized bald eagle and falcon that will grace the larger of two walls spanning 238 feet — the memorial’s tagline is “Honoring the Service and the Sacrifice.”
“When you walk into the memorial, you will see the war from start to finish in bas-relief carvings,” said Eccleston, a bronze and stainless steel sculptor who works out of The Forge in Loveland.
Eccleston’s eagle and falcon will “fly” off the edge of a wall covered in bas-relief honoring the events of Desert Shield and Desert Storm through quotes and carvings of soldiers fighting in the desert. Both walls in the monument form a dune-like structure with the smaller wall inside — the design and construction of the monument is in its 13th year this year.
“As you walk in, there’s this curved wall, and you see the carved figures, and you finish over here with the eagle and falcon,” Eccleston said. “It’s an important memorial created so people have a better understanding of what people in the military do. If I can present a positive image of the military through sculpture, I view that as something that’s very important.”
Eccleston served during Desert Storm in the U.S. Army as a captain in the infantry, stationed at the Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vermont. He taught mountaineering and survival skills there from 1987 to 1993 with a plan to make service his career. But in 1991 or 1992, he took a continuing education class in sculpture, picking up a hobby in drawing from his childhood. He had studied industrial design as a practical pathway of using his artistic skills, earning a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University in 1987.
Finding sculpting to be “an obsession,” Eccleston decided to pursue art instead. Over the next five years, he supplemented his income by working as a civilian mountain guide and instructor until his first big commission, the New York State Fallen Firefighters’ Memorial, completed in 1998 and placed in Albany.
Eccleston made his focus civic memorials and sculptures for veterans, initially working out of Cloudsplitter Studio in Lake Placid, New York, named for what the Iroquois call Whiteface Mountain. He relocated to Loveland four years ago, renaming his studio Robert J. Eccleston, Sculptor to better fit his new location. He wanted to be closer to Art Castings of Colorado, where he’s had his work cast for the past eight years, and selected The Forge as a professional studio space.
“I like it because it’s very open. It’s modular, so you can grow or shrink your space,” Eccleston said. “It has great light and open air.”
Eccleston brings his industrial design background to how he does sculpting. He creates something from the inside out, first building the infrastructure, or skeleton, of his piece and then applying clay in layers to give the detail.
“The infrastructure allows me to tweak it along the way,” Eccleston said. “I come up with an idea and make it better by shifting something … changing the angle of a wing or leg.”
For his recent piece, Eccleston worked with the Raptor Education Foundation in Brighton to learn about bird anatomy, feather placement, wing span and flight motion, wanting to make sure the swoop of the wings is realistic for the message he’s trying to portray. The eagle’s wings are in a soaring position to show confidence, stability and calmness in their sweeping circles, while the wings of the falcon show liberation and joy.
“This has more of an upswept pose, so it looks like it’s flying above to freedom,” Eccleston said.
Eccleston is carving an estimated 2,000 feathers for each raptor and layers them to look like actual wings — the wing span for the eagle will be 10.5 feet and the falcon, 7 feet.
The National Desert Storm Memorial Association chose Eccleston because of his meticulous attention to detail “down to the individual feathers,” as well as his work ethic, said Scott Stump, president and chief executive officer of the memorial association.
“The level of detail and the care to create this as accurately as possible and to the scale to real, living birds is absolutely magnificent,” Stump said. “The realism is going to knock people over. This is going to be realistic, and I think it’s going to be very moving to visitors. … Our job is to inspire and make an emotional connection to visitors and motivate them to learn more about the conflict.”
Randy Schumacher, principal of CSO in Indianapolis, Indiana, architect working on the memorial, finds the eagle and raptor to “provide beautifully allegorical commemorative art” to the memorial, he said.
The eagle represents America’s leadership in the Persian Gulf War, while the falcon, Kuwait’s national bird, is for its liberation.
“As the two raptors ascend together, they would symbolize the partnership between Kuwait and the U.S., with the American eagle leading the Kuwait falcon to freedom just as the brave men and women of the U.S. Armed Services led the military effort to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi occupation,” Schumacher said. “Robert’s work reflects his incredible artistic grasp of form, proportion and detail, which is informed by a very rigorous process of research and experimentation.”
The design of the birds and of the overall monument went before the memorial association, consisting of veterans who served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, with final approval coming from the National Park Service and the Commission of Fine Arts. The next steps for Eccleston will be a high-resolution, digitized image that will then be printed in 3D in resin.
“What I like the most is the teamwork. I work with the best architects and landscape architects in the country,” Eccleston said. “To work on such an important project in a prominent location in D.C., which millions of people will see on a yearly basis, is exciting.”
Eccleston likes working in public art since it seems more like a business. He knows his deadlines and why he’s doing what he’s doing and who he’s working for, he said.
“For me, it’s easier to know that there’s a start and finish for each project and knowing what I’ll make … as opposed to creating and hoping it sells,” Eccleston said. “You have to be flexible, always willing to adapt. If you want to stay in business, especially in public art, you have to work as a team member and meet deadlines.”
Eccleston realizes his work on the memorial “isn’t just my sculpture,” he said.
“It’s a collaborative design on many levels with the outcome of having an amazing memorial that will last hundreds of years at our nation’s capital,” he said.