A monumental undertaking
Many of us have probably been assigned exciting projects during our working lives. But a wood sculptor being asked to recreate the iconic Marine Corps War Memorial is about as good as it gets.
That’s exactly what happened to 36-year-old Jesse Leavitt of McMinnville, shortly after the dawn of the new year. “Gunny contacted me and asked me to do a human-scale replica of the Iwo Jima flag-raising in wood,” Leavitt said. “I didn’t turn him down.”
The “Gunny” he refers to is Marine Gunnery Sergeant Percy Eugene “Gunny” Brandon, a decorated Vietnam veteran and author, who has become well known around the Yamhill Valley as the go-to guy when it comes to honoring our men and women in uniform.
“He told me his plan was to mount the sculpture on a trailer and take it to VFW lodges around the state,” Leavitt said. “’Once a Marine, always a Marine,’ is his motto.
“It’s a good thing Brandon wanted a life-size version and not an actual-size replica of the real thing. The figures in the original are 32 feet tall, and are raising a 60-foot flagpole.”
Given that Leavitt fashions his large free-standing sculptures using the base of a tree trunk, he would have needed a giant sequoia to replicate the massive original.
Just making it life-size, he had to use a coastal spruce. As the world’s fifth-tallest tree species, it’s no midget.
Brandon provided the sculptor with a three-ring binder containing photos of sculptor Felix de Weldon’s original. They depict it from every angle, including close up.
De Weldon, whose work was done in cast bronze, used plaster to create the mold. The three survivors posed for him and he worked from photos to shape the faces of the other three, all of whom subsequently died on Iwo Jima.
Minor mistakes in plaster and clay can readily be rectified. Even small chips and cracks in stone can be repaired, making any errors virtually undetectable.
Leavitt’s medium of wood is less forgiving. The work must be meticulously planned and executed so he doesn’t ever remove too much.
Once wood is removed, it can’t be replaced. What’s gone is gone.
Working first with a chain saw, an ungainly cleaver that might cause untrained observers to cringe, Leavitt hones the gross bulk to workable proportions. He then deftly completes the details with a set of increasingly more precise power tools.
Leavitt was a successful home remodeler until the bottom dropped out during the great recession of 2008.
“I decided to reinvent myself,” he said. “I enrolled in some art classes to see if I could transform my love of wood into something artistic.”
He also met with a woodcarver in Crescent City, who tutored him. In the process, he got hooked on trees.
“Once I had a few pieces completed, I went to the McMinnville Public Market, in the Granary District, to find out if people liked them well enough to buy them,” he said.
There, he met and made friends with several other area artists and sculptors, including Bill Frosty, who goes by “Frosty.”
Also a woodcarver, he calls his business Red Woodsy. Yes, his medium of preference is redwood.
Frosty, who has also laid claim to the Bear Fax Carving Co. name, has gained a following for artistic furniture he discovers within the wood. “I allow the wood to use me to accentuate it’s natural beauty,” he said.
When the McMinnville Public Market closed, the artists needed a new place to publicly display their work. Frosty found retail space recently vacated by the Red Berry at Northeast Third and Davis streets.
He persuaded several artists to join him to help cover the overhead. The co-op gallery goes by the name Eagle’s Nest Artisan Studio 3.
Additionally, both he and Leavitt needed larger workshop space. Friends of Frosty’s, Mike and Jerry Paul, agreed to construct a suitable building on property adjacent to Highway 99W in Whiteson.
Leavitt went in with Frosty on the space. The Pauls do some work there as well, and longtime western-theme artist Bill Bo Adams took a separate studio in the same building.
The artists moved into the space in February. Their loosely affiliated operation bills itself as the Eagle’s Nest.
Such is the free-spirited nature of those, like Leavitt and Frosty, who have chosen to use their creative talents to carve out a living.
Having found Brandon’s Iwo Jima sculpture too large to fit into the shared workshop space, Leavitt has been working on it outside.
As motorists driving to and from Amity pass by, they can’t miss the sculpture now beginning to take final form.
A couple of spruce trees of four- to five-foot diameter are awaiting future attention from Leavitt. They flank the iconic shape of those six men straining with might and purpose to raise the then 48-star flag atop the summit of Mount Suribachi.
Brandon has already purchased a trailer. He is looking forward to taking delivery of his sculpture.
“There are 40 to 50 fraternal organizations I’m going to visit around Oregon,” he said. “VFW, American Legion, Disabled Veterans, Military Order of the Purple Heart. I’m really looking forward to it.”
And that’s what I found out while OUT and ABOUT — pondering the probability that the Marine Corps Iwo Jima Memorial has become the quintessential symbol of American heroism in World War II.
Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 503-687-1227.