The inherent qualities of bronze motivates Gig Harbor artist Mardie Rees to pay special attention to the realistic details of life-size figures she creates.
Rees’ latest work recently went on permanent display in the U.S. Marine Corps Museum in Virginia, 36 miles south of Washington, D.C. The statue was commissioned by the WWII U.S. Marine Raider Foundation to acknowledge the specialized contributions of the Navajo Code Talker, War Dog Handlers and the vital role the Browning Rifleman played in the jungle warfare in the Pacific during World War II.
“It was a unique challenge to make the muddy Marine look wet working with a cold, hard material like bronze,” said Rees. “The piece was sculpted in clay and then cast in bronze. Textures make the statues look realistic.”
The textures she used for “Soul of the Forward and Faithful”
also depicts the subtle differences in how soldiers wore their dog tags as well as the way the terrain tore away portions of the soldier’s pant legs as they marched across the jungle islands.
The Marine Raiders were established after the attack on Pearl Harbor to conduct special amphibious light infantry warfare. The elite unit has been described as the first special forces soldiers employed by the American military.
Her creation was housed temporarily at the Pentagon in the office of Gen. Robert. B. Neller. The bronze statue also pays homage to the important role the Navajo code talkers played in the Marines’ ability to communicate during combat.
Navajo soldiers, said Rees, were present in the Pacific theater beginning with the battle at Guadalcanal in 1942. The Native American volunteers who gave their lives during the war did so at a time before they were legally allowed to vote in many states across the West.
“It was fulfilling to share with the General details about my work,” says Rees. “I told him that two of the models who posed were Marine veterans, both having served two tours in Iraq, and the Code Talker model was full-blooded Navajo.”
The Navajo language, she noted, was the only code the Japanese were unable to break during the intense fighting.
Rees became “totally immersed” in the symbolism of her work for more than a year. The admitted “history nut” traveled to the Southwest to visit a collector to measure and photograph the backpack and radio so she could more accurately re-create the items in clay.
Every stature tells a story
“Each of my sculptures tell a story,” Rees said proudly. “Some of the stories are famous pieces of our history that need to be be preserved, other times they are sagas that should be cherished.”
Enthusiasm for her work is nothing new for the homegrown artist. She is especially proud of the statue she was commissioned to create that stands at the entrance of St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor since 2009. The sculpture is the named “Saint Anthony and Child.”
Another statue of St. Anthony sits in the lobby of a hospital in Denver. The looming figures unveiled in 2015 depicts the namesake assisting a young child find his way.
The native of Gig Harbor knew she wanted to be an artist by the time she was a student at Purdy Elementary School. Rees remembers drawing people and faces, often using her friends and family as models. She attempted to duplicate the works of the masters by the time she was a teenager.
The young woman said her inspiration comes from her family of craftspeople and artists as well as living in a community that understands the value of art.
Her perception of the world expanded when her family moved to Ecuador for three years during her youth. While there, she explored her growing relationship with art by producing oil and acrylic paintings and experimenting with sculpture.
After returning home she moved to Southern California to study representative and figurative sculpture at the famous Laguna College of Art and Design, graduating with honors in 2003.
Rees sculpts by hand using handcrafted wooden tools to shape the clay into life-like beings, crafts from live models and casts in bronze using the time-honored lost-wax method. She has won accolades for her commissioned work as well as her personal projects that explore fundamental human themes such as womanhood, faith, youth, struggle and hope.
“I rely on live models, often friends and family, to draw out depth of character and natural gesture,” she explained. “I look for parted lips, clenched hands and wise eyes as the outer signal of emotions that reveal the sacred inner-self.”
The statue in the Marine Museum in Virginia was a stretch for the artist who normally uses people she can relate to as her models. She describes her models as individuals “whom we can identify with, figures that can walk with us.
“I seek those moments we have in common and portray the beauty and honesty of times of struggle, solitude or contemplation.”
Her work has been recognized and awarded by the Portrait Society of America, the Art Renewal Center, Allied Artists of America and the National Sculpture Society. Rees has returned to live in Gig Harbor with her husband, Jeremy Broderick, and the couple’s three young children.
Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer based in Mukilteo who is dedicated to preserving the stories of past generations. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and can be contacted at email@example.com.