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Meet a Marine Vietnam veteran who creates busts of fallen warriors

Jan. 27, 2014 - 05:54PM   |  
Cliff Leonard, a sculptor and Vietnam veteran, makes life-sized busts of fallen Marines and Navy corpsmen from his home state of Florida. He also sculpts fallen Marines from his old unit, like Cpl. Nicholas Uzenski. Leonard said it takes about two months to create a life-sized bust of a Marine or Navy corpsman.
Cliff Leonard, a sculptor and Vietnam veteran, makes life-sized busts of fallen Marines and Navy corpsmen from his home state of Florida. He also sculpts fallen Marines from his old unit, like Cpl. Nicholas Uzenski. Leonard said it takes about two months to create a life-sized bust of a Marine or Navy corpsman. (Holly Clarke Gardner)
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Bonus fact:

Leonard sculpts the Marines out of ceramic. After they dry, he finishes the look with acrylic paints, including some metallics, to make the busts resemble real bronze.

A former lance corporal who served in Vietnam is using his artistic skills to honor Marines and Navy corpsmen who’ve been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Cliff Leonard, who served with 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, teamed up with the Semper Fidelis Society in Jacksonville, Fla., to provide a memorial for a local cemetery a few years ago. He offered to sculpt a life-sized bust of Pfc. Nathan Clemons, a local Marine who was killed in Iraq in 2005. He contacted the Clemons family and got started.

When plans to place the bust in the cemetery fell through, Leonard said he didn’t have the heart to tell the family he wasn’t going to carry out the project. So he persevered and donated the finished sculpture to the Clemons family.

“Once I saw how much they appreciated it, I thought I would sculpt all the fallen Marines from Jacksonville, Florida,” Leonard said.

Then he kept going. He sculpted some of his buddies who were killed in Vietnam, and a Marine from his old unit who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

His new mission: To create a bust of every Marine and Navy corpsman from Florida who was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, some 81 men. He has completed 17 so far.

Q. What’s going through your mind when you start these projects?

A. Initially, I would cry or tear up a little. I still get upset now because I think of my own son, who’s not much older than some of these Marines. I think of my own friends, the guys in Vietnam who basically just disappeared. The ones who were married or had children will live on, but most of these folks just kind of disappeared. I just wanted something that would kind of hang around for a while. I know it does a lot for the families, and I enjoy them enjoying it.

Q. How do families react to all of this, first when you tell them you want to make a bust of their loved one, and then once it’s completed and you present it to them?

A. When I first contact a family, most of the time they’re shocked or taken aback. They’ll ask, “Why did you pick us?” or “Why do you want to do this for us?” Some need more information. Some decline or just never respond, and I respect that. I’ve never been in their position.

When I present a finished bust to a family, usually there are a lot of tears for remembrance or joy. Hopefully, there are some tears in there because they kind of look like the young man.

Q. When you receive these photos and set out to sculpt a Marine or sailor’s face, what are some of the details you try to fit in?

A. One detail I’ve included in the last several sculptures is based on the Marine Corps Hymn. It states that Marines are guarding the streets of Heaven, so I’ve made sure there are Marines performing an “eyes right,” as if they are marching into the gates.

I’ve debated about scars, since they weren’t born with them. One Marine, Lance Cpl. Philip Clark, had a scar on his chin from the chickenpox. But it made him look like him, so I included it. His family noticed and said, “Hey, you even put the scar in there.”

Q. What goes into making each bust?

A. When I first started, it would take months and months. Now I’ve gotten where I can usually put one out in a two-month period. I start with the head because it’s the hardest part to get right. And the process requires a lot of drying time, since the base is ceramic. Once I put the wooden base on, they’re about 30 to 40 pounds since they’re life-sized.

I want them to be remembered with something concrete — something their child, parent, spouse or sibling can touch and see.

Q. What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in doing this?

A. A lot of my sculptor friends would never sculpt from a photo because you have no idea what their profile looks like. If you’re lucky enough to get a profile shot, it makes it a lot easier. A person’s face also looks a lot different when they’re standing at attention for a photo than when they’re smiling.

And keeping this limited to Florida Marines is tough. Moms will write and say, “My son was in the Army. Can you please do them?” It’s hard to say no. I don’t like that aspect of it at all. It’s a lot of work, and I often wonder how I can get other sculptors to do this.

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