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Sculpting a soldiers life

Troutdale's Rip Caswell works on a Memorial for Madras family
by: Kristina Wright, Using a one-quarter scale model, bronze artist Rip Caswell explains the symbolism of the sculpture he is creating in the memory of Army Pfc. Thomas Tucker, a Madras resident who was killed in Iraq.

TROUTDALE - The artist gently handles the fallen soldier's camouflage backpack and its contents: a water bladder, patches from his uniform, a helmet cover.

'His mother talked about being able to smell her son,' says Rip Caswell quietly. 'Just anything to get close to him one more time.'

The parents of Pfc. Thomas Tucker, killed in Iraq the age 25, gave Caswell their son's wartime possessions. The renowned sculptor, who has a gallery in Troutdale, is working on a piece that reflects Tucker's life and his passion, his love of children, his desire to make a difference.

Caswell immerses himself in the subjects of his sculptures. In this case, it has meant meeting with Meg and Wes Tucker of Madras, and absorbing the life of their son.

A mutual friend of the Tuckers and Caswell broached the subject of a memorial and the meetings began last summer. They have been filled with laughter and tears, overwhelming sadness and indomitable hope, Caswell says.

'I need to understand,' he says. 'Knowing the family helps me understand their son, what was in his heart.'

The first meeting lasted four or five hours, and Caswell ended up staying for dinner. Their most recent meeting was Saturday, March 10, in Troutdale. The Tuckers gave Caswell the backpack and were able to see the memorial's progress.

'There were a lot of tears,' Caswell says.

In his studio just outside Troutdale is an intricate, one-quarter scale model of what will eventually be a 12-foot-tall, bronze-and-concrete sculpture.

It depicts a soldier reaching up to a girl 'who's afraid but wants help,' Caswell says. 'He is saying, 'I'll catch you, I'm here.' Tom's heart was there to serve.'

This is not Caswell's first piece involving a parent's worst fear: burying their offspring. He also completed a piece for a Phoenix couple whose daughter was killed in a car accident. Another piece that deeply moved him was one commissioned by Bruce Thomas, a Grand Ronde tribal member and CEO of Spirit Mountain Casino.

The piece depicts Thomas' grandmother and her experiences, including on the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of Native Americans in the 1830s and 1840s. It is full of sadness yet hope as she passed on her customs to her daughter, Caswell says.

Putting such complex, conflicted emotions into one artistic image is an 'overwhelming task,' he acknowledges. But he has first-hand knowledge of tragedy. Caswell lost a brother when he was 10. That helped him identify with the Tucker family.

'I felt I could empathize with them,' he says.

There is another reason the memorial project is personal for him. Caswell has a 16-year-old son who has mentioned joining the Marine Corps.

'It scares me to death,' he says. 'But if he goes, I'd want the country to support him. These (soldiers) are risking everything to do a job.

'The media talks about the negative things, but they're there to pay the ultimate price.'

Regardless of one's opinion about the war, support for soldiers and their families should be unwavering, Caswell says. He believes he is doing that with the sculpture. Continuing fund-raising efforts to help pay for the $40,000 sculpture have brought the community of Madras together.

The Tuckers - whom he called 'an amazing family' - feel the piece represents all soldiers, Caswell says.

'With this piece, he'll never be gone.'