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Sculpting a place in history

Troutdale artist digs deep to create a statue of WWII leader Admiral Nimitz for Pearl Harbor


by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Sculptor Rip Caswell works on the clay aspect of the larger-than-life Admiral Nimitz statue, which will be placed in Pearl Harbor this summer. Caswell uses photos to fine-tune details of the Nimitz sculpture.Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was larger than life in the history of the United States, having led the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Theater to victory during World War II.

So, artist Rip Caswell considers it a great honor to cast Admiral Nimitz in a stoic, literally larger-than-life pose.

Caswell, a noted bronze sculptor in Oregon for two decades, has been working on an eight-foot bronze statue of Admiral Nimitz that will be placed next to the moored USS Missouri on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, later this year.

Caswell, admits that he didn't know the entire history of Nimitz before being awarded the commission job by the Naval Order of the United States. But, through exhaustive research meant to acquire the "feel" of the person, Caswell knows all about him now. With that knowledge, he has worked on the likeness in the back room at his Caswell Gallery in Troutdale, where the statue already radiates greatness.

"I've come to realize that he wasn't that flamboyant of a person. He wasn't always trying to get the attention or the limelight," says the 50-year-old Caswell, a native of Montesano, Wash., who has lived in the Portland area since the 1980s. "He was always putting others out there.

"(The Navy) considers him to be the greatest admiral leader ... he had such an instinct for leadership, finding the right person, putting them in the right position. My respect for him has grown as I learned more and more about who this man was, from his upbringing to the things he overcame."

Admiral Nimitz died in 1966. Caswell tirelessly read and watched documentaries about the man, spent time at the Admiral Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas, and visited with his family members and with Samuel Sorenson, a photographer who followed the admiral during his time in the Pacific.

"I asked (Sorenson), 'Did you ever see him lose his cool, did he ever seem rattled at any point?' " Caswell says. "He said, 'Never.' He was just a rock."

A rock that will soon be bronze.

Learning about a subject helps inspire Caswell as he meticulously goes about the process of sculpting, from carved foam to clay, to wax casting to ceramic mold, to "rock shell" to bronzing at the foundry, to welding, texturing, coloring and oxidizing.

"The essence of that person comes more and more to life," says Caswell, who owns Firebird Bronze in Boring. "I've learned to immerse myself in it, whatever the subject is, learn as much as I can."

‘All he thinks about’

Caswell has produced more than 200 bronze sculptures throughout his career, many of them for private and corporate entities, but also including notable statues of late Gov. Tom McCall on the Willamette River waterfront in Salem, a portrait of former Oregon Symphony Conductor James DePreist at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, an Oregon Iraq War memorial in Madras and a 9/11 memorial called "Strength of America" at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Kathy Toynbee, general manager of Caswell Sculptures Inc., submitted a proposal for the Admiral Nimitz sculpture in spring 2011, and Caswell earned the commission after a national search and 18-month application process that included a visit from Naval Order of the United States luminaries.

The work of Caswell impressed Rear Admiral Douglas Moore, commander general of the Navy Order of the United States, who marveled at Caswell's ability to capture the "true spirit of an individual," particularly through work on facial features and eyes.

If eyes are the window to the soul, Caswell makes some pretty attractive windows.

"When you look in the eyes, you feel a personality," Caswell says.

He recounts the story of when former Oregon Secretary of State Norma Paulus first saw Caswell's likeness of McCall — she wept, "and she's a very stoic person," he says.

"If I can capture that (sensation), I've achieved something," says Caswell, who wants to depict Nimitz as strong and determined. He anxiously awaits a reaction from the Nimitz family.

Caswell has been working on the Nimitz statue with his son, 20-year-old Chad Caswell, an aspiring sculptor. Chad Caswell says his father doesn't feel any pressure.

"It's more excitement than stress," he says. "He's honored to do this. He puts all his effort into it. It's all he talks about, all he thinks about."

Vision of history

Rip Caswell immerses himself in the subject. He spent hours at the Mount Angel Abbey while working on a statue of Mary and Joseph and the crucifix for the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception in Wichita, Kan.

Caswell also drew inspiration for the Admiral Nimitz commission through his own family background. He was close with his grandfather, Seaman First Class William Shirley Schooley, who served on the USS Suisun, a seaplane tender that was the seventh ship to enter Tokyo Bay near the end of World War II.

"It's really brought that history more to life," he says. "I've been fascinated — my grandfather was such a great man. He took me fishing as a young boy. I have great, fond memories of him, but he never really talked about his service very much. It wasn't until after he died, I got his diaries and different things from the military, and I started trying to understand what he did. When I got this job, I told them there was a connection."

Caswell has done sculptures for more money, but producing a statue of the World War II commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet has been rewarding. Admiral Nimitz lives on in lore, and he'll live on in an eight-foot effigy at Pearl Harbor.

"I'm extremely humbled and honored," Caswell says, "and with it comes great responsibility in capturing the nature of this great leader and to fulfill the vision of this historic monument."