Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Local sculptor goes from army men to army memorial

Casual observers of miniature wargaming often make the mistake of dismissing the recreational activity as simply “playing with toy soldiers.” To overlook the complex strategizing and chess-like maneuvers involved as one player tries to overtake an opponent’s army is to miss the hobby’s major appeal. Bolstered by an international following that attends weekly meet-ups and yearly conventions, wargaming enthusiasts take the ribbing all in stride. They know the mental calisthenics needed to absorb the voluminous rulebooks or memorize their opponent’s military tactics. While some gamers are attracted to galactic warfare between two science fiction armies, others enjoy the educational aspect of recreating an historically accurate Battle of Hastings or Spanish-American War.

Just the game-playing preparation alone draws the fan who spends less time in battle and more time painting the miniature figures and constructing the necessary terrain. How-to books and videos are available to those gamers who aren’t satisfied with just a tabletop grid or board that folds up like a Monopoly game. Serious gamers will spend serious hours creating elaborate, realistic-looking terrain to simulate a jungle, desert, or bombed out village (complete with smoldering tanks).

Yellow Springs Sculptor Behrle Hubbuch III can relate.

“My brother and I used to collect miniatures,” said Hubbuch during a recent interview in his art studio. “They’re super detailed and we would paint them up and have an army. The little people or monsters or spaceships or vehicles in a war game are what I sculpt.”

The sport has grown considerably since it began in the late 19th century. Some modern-day wargamers recall fond memories of playing Risk and Stratego. Measuring tape (to measure the distance armies are allowed to advance), dice, and taking turns are all part of the play. Elaborate rules determine when a gun, arrow, tank, or magic spell can be “fired” and a point system keeps either side from having an unfair advantage.

The sport has also created a side industry as evidenced by the stop-action animated videos available on YouTube. With playful movie titles like “Saving Plastic Ryan” or “The Battle For My Room,” it’s difficult to object to the pastime’s political incorrectness when “war” consists of plastic green army men battling Fisher Price civilians on the carpet in somebody’s livingroom.

“I built many plastic model kits as a child mainly focusing on WWII planes,” explained Hubbuch. With a father who was a dentist and oral surgeon in the United States Air Force, Hubbuch’s family moved from base to base, eventually ending up at Wright Patterson. He started drawing at an early age. “My interest in model building led me to sculpting,” he explained. “I started with ceramics then moved to casting metals. My father taught me casting since it’s an integral part of dentistry.”

The small scale castings led Hubbuch to study sculpture and jewelry-smithing in college. In addition to sculpting wargaming miniatures (his niche being sci-fi/fantasy), he also works at Johnson’s Fine Jewelry in Xenia doing custom jewelry design and repair work.

Hubbuch’s background proved fitting when he was commissioned last year to create the Glenview Freedom Memorial for Gallery Park in Glenview, Ill. — a life-size sculpture that would pay tribute to the U.S. military’s past, present, and future.

The dramatic change in scale from miniature to life-size did not present a problem to Hubbuch who regularly sculpts finely detailed figures in a range of sizes from ¾ of an inch to 12 inches tall.

“It’s just a question of measuring and scaling things up,” he said. “That aspect wasn’t all that difficult to wrap my brain around.”

Before immersing himself in the challenge of sculpting the life-sized figures, Hubbuch got together with Glenview committee members to discuss what they envisioned for the memorial. Committee members were comprised of the family and friends of two Glenview residents who had been killed in combat in Iraq. Together they decided on the look of the finished piece, which features a child and a soldier together.

Another element of the bronze sculpture was the recreation of a makeshift “Field Memorial” that the military uses to recognize a soldier killed in action: a rifle with a bayonet stuck vertically into a pile of sandbags, a pair of boots alongside the rifle, a helmet placed atop the rifle, and the soldier’s dog tags hanging off the rifle’s grip.

The most challenging aspect for Hubbuch ended up being what the figures represent. “I had a long time to think while I was sculpting it,” he said.

While the dedication speeches at the sculpture’s unveiling last month on the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks focused on duty and honor, Hubbuch couldn’t help but see the figures in a different light. Having spent every day with the piece during the 14-month process, to him the figures represented sorrow and loss. An added emotional hook came from the fact that the model used for the soldier was his younger brother, Sgt. John Austin Hubbuch, who is currently stationed in Virginia and who served in Iraq.

“[The memorial] is two figures who are obviously devastated by the loss of a loved one — a comrade in the case of the soldier and a family member in the case of the child,” said Hubbuch. “They’re not celebrating war, they’re unhappy about the inevitable result of war: people get killed.”

Back home in Yellow Springs and back to his life crafting custom jewelry and fantasy figures, there hasn’t been much of a chance for Hubbuch to see the response to his sculpture — that is, except for dedication day.

“It gave me a chance to stand back and watch people,” he said, describing how some of the attendees at the ceremony cried as they moved closer to the sculpture to get a better look. “That’s what I was after,” he admitted. “I want people to weep.”

At the end of the playful YouTube video, “Army Men: Battle for the Piano,” a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer reads: “No Army men were hurt during the production of this video.”

If only real war was that innocent.

Originally published in the Yellow Springs News.

Susan Gartner is a freelance writer and photographer for the