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SD Vietnam Stories: Sculptor Darwin Wolf
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Sculptor Darwin Wolf

Sculptor Darwin Wolf spoke with In the Moment's Lori Walsh about his bronze sculpture of Medal of Honor recipient Michael J. Fitzmaurice. From the role of monuments, to the challenges of working with a living subject, Wolf explores the nuances of art in bronze and art in our lives. Below is an edited transcript of that interview. You can listen to it in its entirety here.

About how this sculpture came into existence:

It's a long winding road, that's for sure. Got a phone call from Brad Richardson. He's the superintendent at the Fitzmaurice Home in Hot Springs and he remembered me from college and high school. He's a year younger than me and he said, "Hey, do you still do that bronze stuff?" I said, "Yeah, I kind of dabble in it a little bit." He said, "Well, would you like to compete for this memorial monument we'd like to have done?" I said, "Well, sure. What's the subject matter, who?"

He explained everything to me and I was a little intimidated because I've never sculpted anyone who's still alive. Mike put it well, "I'm still alive and here's all this stuff." For the most part people can either improve or really trash their legacy while they're still alive so I tend to shy away from living subjects, but it seemed like when I heard this story, no matter what Mike did with the rest of his life I think he had hit the top of the mountain so to speak that anybody could reach. He was kind of beyond tarnishing. He's an American hero.

So I said yes after thinking about it a little bit and then he asked, "Well, would you like to pick your competition?" I said "Well, shoot. Now what do I do?" Do I go after some sloughs I can really clean up the floor with or do I go after the really good guys? I recommended the best, Dale Lamphere. Everybody knows his work, so I selected him as a competitor and I selected Jim who was a great sculptor of the Rapid City pieces. He's known as the Face Man out there. Just excellent, so I thought you know, these two guys are such good guys. If I lose to them I won't be crushed. That was my name.

On how he felt being selected:

Yeah, yeah. So it was kind of a scary honor. Just an odd honor to be selected to choose my own competitors, but it went well. In the end I was the only person who submitted the model with Mike's characteristics because we got a chance to talk with Mike before we finished our scale models, all of us did. I went after the real particular things that Mike would do, like he would scrounge canteen covers. If anybody was out on medevac of had been restationed and they left any equipment behind, Mike went after the canteens and covers and ammunition clips. The two things he didn't want to run out of were water and ammunition. He had his gear and his belt lined with seven canteen covers. He had extra water or extra ammunition crammed in there.

On the importance of details like the canteen cover:

You can put in almost twice as many ammunition clips versus a clip container, so he really loaded up on that so I put that in the sculpture. I included how he carried his rifle. I included how he wore his equipment from snapshots. That was just an incredible experience. I was allowed to go out and visit Mike and Patty for a couple, three hours. We just took off and we shot the bull. Mike gave me digital images of snapshots from his days in Vietnam. Those ... They still give me chills.

I worked from images and snapshots and his descriptions and I put together a model as close to the Mike Fitzmaurice as an 18-year-old Mike. It won. It was just euphoric because the more I had gotten to know Mike the more I had fallen in love with the project. I knew I just had to do this. I did wind up winning and we went to work on it almost right away. We finished it in almost record time because it was just a done deal. We needed it by dedication time for the Veteran's home. It was off and running right away.

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On the last minute details to get it done by dedication day:

Yeah. There were just little areas of the bronze that hadn't been polished. See, we put the patina on, then seal it with a really good strong lacquer coating. Then we coat it with wax, like waxing your car. Some of the wax hadn't been buffed off properly. There was a little bit of grime down on the feet where the concrete epoxy mixture, to anchor the sculpture into the base kind of got up on the bronze, so I'm just doing fussy stuff until it was time to unveil.

On the the South Dakota legacy of Vietnam and veterans like Mike:

Probably at first blush just bumping into Mike he's just a regular guy. You'd never think that he had earned the Medal of Honor or been awarded the Medal of Honor because impresses all the time you don't earn it. It's not given. It's awarded. It's received, it's not won, so there's a whole concept of humility around the medal that was something that I still struggle to be able to understand completely.

With Mike the perception is good ole South Dakota guy, regular salt of the earth type person. This is the type of person that was called to action in so many conflicts and the heroic things come out of these people because deep down inside it's there. It's there in many people. Mike explains this over and over. There are many people who did heroic things even more striking than Mike. So the medal is worn in honor of those people as well, as well as the people who didn't come home. The medal just means so much.