Part 2 of Jon Harbuck’s series about his 54th Massachuesetts piece. -Editor.
As anyone who has seen the movie “Glory” already knows, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was recruited from both freedmen and former slaves, then placed under the command of Colonel Ferris Bueller. (Okay, that last bit is not so well known.) To enlist required considerable grit: African-American soldiers in federal service faced hostility and discrimination and could expect no quarter if captured. Not a few who fell into Confederate hands were re-enslaved or summarily executed. Yet at a time when all-black units were often limited to garrison duty, the 54th became a fighting regiment shortly after disembarking at Beaufort SC.
In the original Memorial only Shaw and his mount are “round” — the soldiers are sculpted as bas reliefs. Dutch and I agreed to depict Shaw in relief and the soldiers in the round, in effect reversing their roles. But for visual context (not to mention space) we needed some soldiers in relief as well. So I started with the background wall, rolling epoxy putty onto plastic card with a wallpaper seam roller to create an uneven surface resembling a slab of cast bronze. A file of marching soldiers was sculpted onto the slab, each approximately one-quarter inch thick, while others were painted into the background behind them. The Shaw figure started life as a 54mm flat out of Jack Muldoon’s “Minifigs” inventory. The flat — not of a Union officer but in a similar uniform and attitude as depicted in the Memorial — was an easy conversion to fine-tune the likeness. Attached to the wall, Colonel Shaw and his mount stand about one-half inch out from the surface.
I debated what color to paint the bronze. In shadow, the original Memorial figures appear quite dark. They are a good bit lighter in direct sunlight, and lighter still in some photographs. Dutch and I had decided to depict the soldiers marching from bronze into life (more about that in a future installment), so I needed the color transition to be easy to spot. I also needed the figures to be easy to see under various lighting conditions, especially the shadowy figures and details painted onto the slab behind the reliefs. Thus I opted for the lightest bronze I could get away with, mixing a metallic hue from burnt sienna and burnt umber oil paint, silver and pale gold printers inks, and plenty of Grumbacher No. 1 medium. Applied over a brown acrylic undercoat, this mix proved surprisingly easy to shade and highlight.