When sculptor Seth R. Alexander teamed up with concrete artisan Richard Winget and his son, Jacob Winget, to create the Watchung 9/11 Memorial in New Jersey last summer, the task truly involved the whole borough of Watchung.
“When they say ‘it takes a village’ to do something like this, it really did,” says Richard Winget, owner of Authentic Environments USA Inc. in Huntington Beach, California. He estimates the project could have been done in two to three weeks, but that time stretched out to a month and half. “It was a small community and we had to talk to everyone who came by asking questions” and offering advice on the details, which slowed work considerably.
One of the 9/11 Committee member’s brothers and one other town resident perished in the tragedy. Another person in town lost 130 friends when one of the towers collapsed and wiped out an entire office.
The Watchung Mountains are the last ridge before New York City, and Alexander, like some others in town, watched the towers collapse from a home along the mountains’ edge.
How it began
The project began a few years ago when the borough acquired an oddly shaped 7-by-7-inch piece of steel from one of the World Trade Center towers. After reviewing multiple presentations, the Watchung Borough Council commissioned Alexander for the job of incorporating it into a memorial on its Village Green, a gathering place for town events, to pay tribute to the 9/11 tragedy that shook the world.
After contemplating what he could do with such a small piece of the fallen trade center, it hit him. If you turned it just so, it looked like a heart. And if you positioned it waist high, people could place their hands on the heart and connect with it. “Thus began the design which would become known as ‘A Journey of the Heart,’” says Alexander.
The Watchung Borough Council decided it wanted something more involved than just mounting the steel piece on a slanted stone pedestal. Alexander got to work and created clay models that he integrated into 3-D software programs to show a crescent-shaped, stacked-stone wall made from concrete. The front featured a mural telling the story of Sept. 11, 2001, and attached seating areas for people and vases of flowers.
In front of the wall, where the pedestal was to be erected, a concrete slab would incorporate a medallion made from a piece of granite from the base of the Statue of Liberty.
The mural’s design on the simulated fieldstone incorporates the World Trade Center towers, the state of Pennsylvania with a heart-shaped marker where United Flight 93 went down and an opening in the shape of The Pentagon, all positioned within an American flag backdrop.
The Borough Council unanimously approved Alexander’s design.
Alexander, a sculptor that captures the human form in various mediums including concrete, had studied vertical concrete stone facing with Nathan Giffin. To achieve this sizable undertaking, he knew he needed someone with extensive experience.
Online, he discovered Winget’s company, Authentic Environments USA Inc., and not only liked Winget’s artistry but was impressed he had developed a special vertical carving mix, Carve-Right.
Alexander recommended the 9/11 Memorial Committee to contact Winget to help build the memorial. Winget says he and his son were honored to add their talents to this most worthy project and share with Alexander some of their unique tricks of the vertical trade.
Carving the stone
Paul Amorim of P&R Concrete of Warren, New Jersey, led the team that made the cast-in-place crescent wall and did the flatwork. The wall stands 7-feet tall at its center and projects a unified shape, says Alexander. “We had our blank canvas and were ready to start.”
The Wingets first carved and shaped the caps for the wall and benches, “a major undertaking,” Alexander says, “in terms of construction.”
Next the trio carved the memorial’s back wall, which resembles stacked stone. “We fine-tuned the stones’ sculptural context to each other,” Alexander says. “Richard showed me his method of texturing so the monument would have consistency.”
Although the city skyline with the American flag backdrop was Alexander’s design, it was the elder Winget’s job to figure out the fastest and best way to carve it. The plan was to project the image onto the front wall and carve at night so they could see the lines.
“It was challenging to reproduce a square image on a curved wall,” Winget says. To overcome this, Alexander used Photoshop to create the elements of his design on seven different layers, so he could adjust each layer in real time on-site. To complicate matters even more, they had to contend with delays due to rain and part of the time worked under a canopy.
The mural part of the project involved shooting 3 inches of Carve-Right mix onto the wall and then scribing out and carving the façade in a single session. “Richard, Jacob and I started at 5:30 p.m. Sunday night and went home Monday morning at 11,” Alexander remembers.
“I had worked with conversion bag mixes in the past that were fine, but the Carve-Right product is in a class of its own,” he adds. Consistent from bag to bag, “You can articulate the form you’re trying to achieve without fighting with the material. I know now why they call it ‘gray gold.’”
As for challenges, Winget says the biggest hurdle they had to clear was the coloring. They used seven different colors of acrylic paint and stains that were applied wet on wet to create the natural color scheme of stacked stone. To maintain warm and controlled colors, they painted in one tone and used additional washes if they wanted a color to be darker.
“Painting in the values was challenging,” Winget says. “We colored and recolored the back stones until we got it just right.”
“If you look at my clay models and the final coloring, Richard matched it flawlessly,” Alexander says.
A heartfelt accomplishment
“Unlike other memorials in nearby boroughs, ours is a ‘journey of the heart’ which explains the tragic event,” Winget says of the Watchung 9/11 Memorial. “Everything is represented — the flights, The Pentagon, the towers and the state of Pennsylvania. It speaks volumes about the people who went through this ordeal.”
The borough went through an extensive creative process, with many people and many meetings before a design was confirmed. Alexander’s late wife, Jaime, was a very active supporter and her efforts helped bring the memorial to life. Sadly, she passed away two months before the memorial was completed.
“Seth’s design excelled in explaining the event,” Winget says. “That’s what intrigued me about this project and the fact he poured so much of his life into it.”
Winget says this is the biggest undertaking he’s ever been a part of as far as memorials go. He worked on the Navy Corpsmen Memorial at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside a few years ago. “But these details paled in comparison to that one,” he says.
“If someone who didn’t know anything about the attack would look at the memorial, they could ascertain themselves that the towers, The Pentagon and the state of Pennsylvania had something to do with the tragedy,” Winget says. “It tells a story about what happened to America. Even from a distance, it draws people in.”
Project at a Glance
Project: 9/11 Memorial in Watchung, New Jersey
Client: Borough of Watchung
Decorative concrete contractor: Authentic Environments USA Inc., Huntington Beach, California, www.authenticenvironments.com
Cast-in-Place Wall and Flatwork: Paul Amorim, P&R Concrete, Warren, New Jersey
Scope of project: To create a 9/11 carved concrete memorial that incorporated a piece of steel from the World Trade Center and granite from the Statue of Liberty.
Most challenging aspect: Projecting the image on a curved wall and maintaining an undistorted image. Maintaining a narrow color palette, gradations of the same warm colors.
Products used: Carve-Right vertical mix (www.carve-right.com), flat exterior varnish and acrylic paint from Modern Masters.