Creating an eloquent, lasting memorial to honor veterans and their families is no easy task, as witness the lengthy discussions that often take place about designs and placement in our nation’s capital. But Sarasota’s 1.83-acre Patriot Plaza, officially dedicated last June at the Sarasota National Cemetery, has been a project carefully thought out by partners the Patterson Foundation and the National Cemetery Association, including the details of the artworks that are an intrinsic part of the design and experience.
That art, fully funded by the foundation at a cost of about $2 million, depended upon a number of voices and experts, but the lead artist for the project, Larry Kirkland, says, “The Patterson Foundation set the tone for the entire project. As public artists, we look to the client to say who they are and what they’re expecting.”
In the case of Patriot Plaza, it was decided early on to incorporate photography into the design, as James Patterson (his wife Dorothy’s estate funded the foundation) served as a photographer in World War II. That connection spurred Kirkland to create two sections for the north pedestrian walkways of the plaza space: One, Service, Support, Sacrifice, features images and text springing from military life, impressed on white Georgia marble tablets; the other, Witness to Mission, likewise uses photojournalism on white marble plinths to relate the history of our country’s military since the Civil War.
Kirkland, who comes from a family with a long tradition of military service, worked with researchers who waded through thousands of oral histories online to determine what texts could best represent the vastly differing experiences of servicemen and women and their families. The images and words on the marble speak to each other, he says. “You’re reading the stories and hearing these voices, and using the same material for the pieces helps bring it all together.”
Kirkland’s fellow artists include Ellen Driscoll, whose work he already knew before taking on this assignment. “Our work is very different,” he says, but he adds that her Night to Day mosaic, which spans the amphitheater’s stage across 50 feet to display the many time zones in which active military and their families dwell, “adds a lot of strength” to the plaza, with both it and her two 20-foot-high mosaic spires providing a counterpart to the tablet testimonies.
The Patterson Foundation also wanted to incorporate sculptures representing sentinels, says Kirkland. So the question became, “How do you represent how diverse the military is with a sculpture of just one soldier?” Instead of a human figure, the plaza team opted for eagles as sentinels, deployed in differing styles by artists Pablo Eduardo and Ann Hirsch at the west and east entrances to the plaza, respectively.
The final piece in the plaza’s art collection, installed on the floor in front of the stage, is a 19th-century globe inset “star map” Kirkland found in a book of map projections. Again, it’s a way to express how far-flung the work of the U.S. military has been and continues to be.
Overall, Kirkland says, “I hope the plaza inspires people to think about their families and their country, through the stories being told, the images they see—and that it encourages people visiting to think about their own experiences. In my experience as an artist, I’ve never seen anything like this.”