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Touching photo from Minnesota veterans cemetery inspires Wisconsin sculptor

RACINE, Wisc. — A picture snapped by an amateur photographer in Minnesota of a bald eagle perched on the gravestone of a World War II veteran quickly went viral and ended up in Ralph Ziegler's email inbox.

Ziegler had started carving birds a few years before, mostly small songbirds, and he was transfixed by the poignant photo and its symbolism. He decided to re-create the picture out of wood.

"When I saw it I thought 'Wow — that's pretty cool,' " said Ziegler, 54. "I knew I wanted to carve it. But I didn't want to do it just for one soldier. I wanted it for every soldier who has fought for freedom."

The self-taught artist spent more than a year and a half on the project and $1,000 in materials. He displays it once a month at the Racine Public Museum and plans to bring it to bird day on May 11 at the River Bend Nature Center in Racine.

The photo was snapped in 2011 by Frank Glick as he drove through the veterans cemetery at Fort Snelling in Minnesota on his way to work. He showed the picture — he actually took dozens of them — to a friend who contacted a columnist for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. The photo was published in June 2011.

The eagle had alighted on the grave of Sgt. Maurice Ruch, who enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps after the attack on Pearl Harbor and served four years, earning a Bronze Star. Ruch died in 2008 at age 86.

Ziegler had never seen a live bald eagle before he started the project, so he relied on blueprints showing the majestic bird's musculature and skeleton and close-up views of the feathers. He began by sketching his design and then cutting plastic templates he traced on wood. He started with a 36-inch by 12-inch by 8-inch block of wood, using a band saw to cut off edges and corners before turning to high-speed rotary tools with various size bits.

He uses only tupelo wood, which comes from the pepperidge tree and is commonly used by woodcarvers because it's soft and easy to carve.

In his basement he has enclosed work stations for carving — with vacuums to suck up sawdust — and for painting. He also has a table where his wood burner is set up. Next to his painting table he has a dozen feathers of various birds stuck in wood to examine for inspiration. A small bookcase holds pieces of driftwood he's picked up on hikes.

He always selects the driftwood first and carves a bird to fit the curvature of the wood. For the bald eagle carving, he made a grave marker out of wood and epoxy and carved the words "You Have Paid For Our Freedom, To Honor You Is Ours."

Except for a five-year stint in Hawaii, Ziegler is a lifelong Racine resident. While he was home on a visit from Hawaii in 2008, a family friend got him interested in carving birds. He bought a book and carved a red-crested cardinal. He still has his first effort and cringes when he sees his first attempt. But that crudely carved cardinal launched a hobby that has led to his creations being sold in a Hawaii museum and commissions, including one that he's working on now of a blue jay and her three chicks.

Among the commissions were a male cardinal for a Christmas gift and an indigo bunting for a woman who loved watching them at her bird feeder.

His carvings of four native Hawaiian birds — apapane, amakihi, elepaio and i'iwi — are sold in the gift shop of the Koke'e Museum on the island of Kauai. When they're sold out, the museum contacts him and he sends more.

Ziegler showed his bird carvings to museum officials and impressed them with his delicate hand carving of native Hawaiian birds, which tend to be tinier than birds on America's mainland.

"It's not easy to make a bird look natural in a carving, and he's achieved that," said Marsha Erickson, executive director of Koke'e Museum, which gets 120,000 visitors annually at the visitor center at Waimea Canyon and Koke'e State Park.

"We love to be surprised in what has intrigued him. When you find an artist as good as Ralph, you really don't need to give him too much advice, we just look forward to the next surprise."

He also carves bird species from Wisconsin and often aims his camera at a pair of cardinals that hang out at his backyard feeder, unaware they're modeling for Ziegler's creations.

"I think birds are so elegant," said Ziegler, who owns Proven Professionals, a window, gutter and door-installation company. "The hard part is the detail like feather counts, how many flight feathers, the color of the eyes, the decurved beak measurements like how far from the tip of the beak to the eye."

On shelves around his workshop are his finished creations ranging from saffron finches and Japanese white eyes to pueo owls and Maui palilas. Each bird takes about 20 hours from design to finish.

The bald eagle on the veteran's gravestone took a lot longer. Now that he's finished it, Ziegler — who has since seen bald eagles while golfing in Michigan's Upper Peninsula — plans to carve a life-size eagle in flight with its majestic wings extended.

And if he makes a mistake with his saws and drills?

"Then it becomes a chickadee," he said.
 

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