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At The Heart Of Washington D.C.'s Newest National Monument Is Oregon Glass


A Look Inside The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial

On Sunday, the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial will be dedicated with President Barack Obama delivering remarks. Veterans and their advocates have been waiting 14 years for this day. Congress authorized the memorial in 2000.

A key feature of the monument is a glass installation that was made in Oregon. Keir Legree is the general manager at Savoy Studios, the Portland glass fabrication shop that built the walls. He was excited to get the bid for the project but knew it would be a challenge.

“We realized that it was something that has never been done before on this scale. Each piece of glass that they were requesting weighed 1800 pounds a-piece,” says Legree.

Every step is more complicated when dealing with objects this big and heavy.

For instance, to laminate five, 360-pound slabs of glass together Savoy used liquid hurricane-proof laminate. But before that they needed to build steel tables that could support the weight and pivot the glass to pour the glue between the layers.

“Understand these glass walls are five pieces of three quarter-inch glass laminated together with text embedded into the different layers,” says Larry Kirkland, the artist behind the memorial. “I don’t think anybody understood quite how complicated that was.”

Getting ready for lamination. Video courtesy of Savoy Studios. Animation: John Rosman

Kirkland was part of a bigger team that worked to create the national monument. The design was led by Michael Vergason Landscape Architects.  Kirkland says his role as the artist was to inform the project in terms of content and meaning.

He was also responsible for having key components of the of the national monument built in the Northwest. Kirkland studied and taught at Oregon State University. He lived in Portland for 17 years, a time in his life he considers to be transformative for him. 

During that time he worked on projects with Savoy and the Walla Walla Foundry. The Washington foundry made four large bronze slabs — cut with silhouettes of soldiers. These bronze pieces work in tandem with the 48 glass panels built at Savoy.

The bronze sculptures at Walla Walla Foundry. Video: Melanie Burke. Animation: John Rosman

Together they tell a compelling story. This how Kirkland describes it: “The glass walls are very long and translucent and they have text and image in them. The bronze panels which have cut out images are behind them. When sunlight comes through, it projects a specific sunbeam onto the images in the glass. So we have one image projected onto another. The story behind the images is much greater than if it’s just one image by itself.”

When it was all said and done, it took Savoy Studios nearly three years to complete this project. Each panel took about two-and-a-half weeks to make.

Kirkland sees the glass as a powerful tool in the memorial. It allows viewers to feel closer to experience of disabled veterans.

“In the glass are words from people who have been disabled or a caregiver or the parent or spouse. To read them and to see yourself in them and see yourself reflected in it, I think helps put you in their place,” says Kirkland. “It makes the visitor much more empathetic by seeing themselves in the memorial.”

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