Sculptor proud of opportunity to honor local veterans
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Standing on a floor covered in the dusty backstory of stone given new life, Bob Ragan digs, chisel in hand, until he frees that life.
It is both a command of the stone – kneeling over it, chisel pounding at its edges – and a partnership, as his arms precisely guide the not so delicate tool across the well-defined fingers as they slowly reach out more with each pass.
Ragan will soon be bringing life to the centerpiece memorial in Liberty Hill’s Veterans Park — a kneeling soldier to honor all who have served. His plan is in its infancy, only beginning the drawings to be presented to the city council for consideration in May, but he has spent a lot of time contemplating what he hopes to create.
“From the time I start doing the drawings, to going to the city council with them, it is going to evolve,” Ragan said. “I would like to do something that is emotional. Something that would be moving. You see so many kneeling soldiers, and I would like for it to be something a little different.”
Ragan has opinions on war, many of them shaped by his own experience in Vietnam, and while he finds himself in opposition to war in most cases today, he separates that from his support and admiration for service members.
“I don’t want a kneeling statue that depicts defeat,” Ragan said of the sculpture. “But I would like to have something that is battle weary, and just emotional.”
Reaching the veterans who will visit his work, leaving them with a sense of something real, is critical to Ragan.
“I know you can’t bullshit these veterans,” he said. “They want something that’s real, something that evokes some kind of reaction and that’s what I’m trying to deliver. I want people to look at it and think it’s a beautiful statue, too. Artistically, I want it to be special.”
It also has to be real, while making sure it creates a presence.
“I work a lot on detail, the equipment he is carrying and everything, and make sure everything is right on,” Ragan said. “It will be five-foot, then placed on a pedestal. I thought with it kneeling it would look puny, so it will be larger than life. When you stand in front of it, you will be looking at him right in the face.”
Without speaking much of his own experiences, his feelings on war are hard to misunderstand.
“I left the kid I was, I left that there,” he said. “You leave all that innocence and come back a different person.”
That change and that sacrifice reinforces in Ragan the desire to honor those who experienced the same.
“I was against the war, but I was not against the people who sacrificed,” he said. “I want to honor the people that served. The only thing I am going to take to this is the experience of knowing what those people went through. It’s a crazy thing.”
The statue won’t depict someone from one particular conflict, but he said he does have a special admiration for one generation of veterans.
“I’d prefer if I was going to focus on something I’d think World War II, because that was righteous,” he said. “People that went for the duration, those people went over there for four or five years, going from one hot box to the next. The people at home didn’t know where they were a lot of the time.”
Regardless of the war experience of any veteran or family that visits the park, Ragan wants to ensure the emotion of the piece translates for everyone.
“The sacrifices they made really were incredible,” said Ragan’s wife, Mary Condon. “War is tragedy, any way you look at it.”
Surrounded by intricately carved pieces of all shapes and sizes, Ragan smiles when he is asked about where it all began for him.
“I started out as a stonemason,” he said. “When I got out of the army, my brother-in-law was working for some bricklayers in Oklahoma. I went to work with them as a helper, with the intention of learning how to lay brick. When we came down to Texas, everyone down here was laying stone, so I became a stone setter.”
As he began to explore his talents, Ragan and Condon started a business specializing in fireplaces and fountains, so he could do more creative work.
“I just started carving pieces for my fireplaces – archways, keystones, simple stuff like that,” he said. “One day I was in the yard carving and two guys drove up in a truck and said they were opening up a mill and needed someone to do the cutting and carving, and I went with them.
“I’m a pretty quick study. I work with my hands and I use tools, it doesn’t take me long to learn how to do something,” he added.
Working 12 hours a day, six days a week for a year and a half made Ragan realize that doing the same on his own might be a better option.
Most of the stonework done by Ragan is not typical sculpting, so an opportunity like this one for Liberty Hill was especially enticing.
“I always look forward to statuary, because usually when I do sculpture it is just out of my head,” he said. “When someone hires me to do statuary, it makes me do it and I enjoy doing it. It is a real challenge.”
The couple recalls his first statuary piece, an intricately designed head and scene that simply – or not so simply – evolved from nothing.
“I have it,” Condon said of that first piece with a big grin. “It’s a face and it’s cut through and in the back of it is a little village. He carved it with a screwdriver and a hammer in our back yard. He’s always been artistic.”
Ragan was pleased and maybe a bit surprised with that first work, but three decades later not much has changed in his approach.
“It was the same way I carve now,” he said. “It was just whatever came in to my head, then as I was carving I saw something else and went with it.”
His initial drawings develop the same way.
“A lot of times, a lot of my drawings start off when I’m just listening to some music, I’ll just do some kind of scribble, look at it, turn it, turn it over a different way, erase some of it, before you know it, there’s something there.”
The emotion Ragan is determined to express in the Veterans Park piece will come from the hands and face, he said. That also means the emotional key is the most challenging part of completing the work.
“Human anatomy is very tough to learn,” Ragan said. “Even if you get the right measurements, there is a lot of muscle stuff going on and to get it just right is hard.”
When the drawings are complete and that 11,000-pound stone block arrives, Ragan will begin the long process – estimated to be about five months – of bringing the statue to life.
“I start with a front and a side silhouette,” he said of the initial cutting. “Nothing on the outside of that belongs there, but you don’t want to cut all of that off because you can’t figure out your side silhouette. What you do is, anything that’s not part of the statue, get rid of it.
“I saw cuts into my lines, or as close as I can get them, but before I knock that off, I cut both ways then I just peel it all down. That’s actually a lot of fun to do, it’s the part where you don’t have to worry about anything. After that you have to worry.”
The process between those first cuts and the unveiling of the finished piece is not so clean and beautiful, but that’s only because what’s in the artist’s mind has not yet been revealed in the stone.
“When you first break it down, you just begin to see this image, and that looks cool,” Ragan said. “But then when you start breaking it down more, everything is left heavy, and it looks like hell. It looks terrible. So when people come into visit you don’t even want them to see it. Then you go through another phase, you go through again, you keep going and keep defining it.”