At 93, Fredric Arnold Is Completing the Sculpture of a Lifetime
Photo courtesy of Fredric Arnold
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Of the more than 16 million Americans who served in World War II, an estimated 855,000 are alive today — and 93-year-old Fredric Arnold is one of them. In fact, the Longmont-based artist, a retired major, is the sole surviving member of his original group of P-38 fighter pilots from the class of 42-J.
And on the seventieth anniversary of the war's end – almost 100 years after the first Veterans Day – Arnold finished a life-size, twelve-figure clay sculpture. “Lest We Forget: The Mission” was inspired by Arnold’s memories of twelve comrades lost during the war, and it honors all 88,000 of this country's fallen aviators.
Arnold was born and raised in Chicago, and he served in the Army Air Corps for exactly four years. “There was no Air Force yet,” he explains. “Following the war, I did many things in addition to art,” Arnold says, listing off everything from business to acting and writing.
But through the years and across the country — Arnold lived in New York and Los Angeles before relocating to Colorado to be closer to his children and grandchildren – “art was always at the center of my life,” he says. Arnold's his first drawing was “of a horse-drawn milk wagon at the age of five,” he remembers. His parents “were excited by my drawing ability, and supported my interest.”
Arnold focused primarily on drawing, and says he studied under “a wonderful artist by the name of Edmond Giesbert" at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he spent two years working intensely on human anatomy.
In the years after the war, “I was employed as a portrait artist, fine artist, commercial retouch artist, investigative journalist and as a courtroom artist," Arnold says. "The last two required that I develop the ability to memorize faces and scenes, then draw them later.”
Arnold’s art has been displayed in commercial exhibits, aviation exhibitions and museums; his “Mike 1865” sculpture is at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles. “But mostly my art is in the hands of private collectors,” he says.
Recently, Arnold switched gears and began dabbling in sculpture for the project of a lifetime. “Lest We Forget” took Arnold five years to complete. In a way, though, he says the project has in the works for sixty years. “Of my original group of fourteen fighter pilots, only Jim Hagenback and I survived," he remembers. "We vowed to each other that the last man standing would do something to honor those who didn’t make it.” This sculpture is his fulfillment of that promise.
The sheer scope of it is impressive: When fully assembled into a single monumental sculpture, the dozen figures will be engaged in a mission briefing scene that measures 20 by 22 feet.
The idea for the mission briefing came from a painting Arnold did more than two decades ago. “About five years ago, I walked past that briefing scene and realized I had to portray the quiet heroism of those guys in a three-dimensional sculpture,” Arnold recalls. It took him a year to design his sculpture, and another eighteen months to take the concept from miniature to full-scale.
“Each of the originals was sculpted in about 250 pounds of clay,” says Arnold. “This was far too demanding for me to do alone, so I had the help of a wonderful young man, Sutton Betti.” With the sculptures complete, work is now under way to cast them in bronze.
The sculptures are life-size replicas of the men they honor. “What most people don’t know,” Arnold notes, “is that instead of big John Wayne types, WWII fighter pilots were short to fit in the small cockpits — so none of the figures is taller than 5’9”.”
The finished sculpture will be loaned to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans; the completion date depends on several factors, "including the help I get from the public," Arnold says. “I will be 94 years old in January, and I dearly want to be there for the dedication, so I’m going as fast as I can.”
He estimates that the sculpture will be installed next fall; in the meantime, you can read the stories of the men who inspired it online. Arnold's hope is that the completed work will “cause people to stop and appreciate the incalculable human cost of war — a message that is relevant to all wars and all times, including today.”
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