Avondale sculptor donates military busts to families

A completed bust

A completed bust

Leonard works from the official military photo for each bust.

Leonard works from the official military photo for each bust.

Leonard doesn’t want KIAs to be forgotten

By his own admission, Cliff Leonard is not an artist. However, one only has to view his works in woodcarving and clay sculpting to call the 66-year-old’s bluff.

“I don’t see myself as being an artist,” Leonard mildly protested. “Sometimes I feel like I’m on the outside looking in [on the arts
community].”

Not a Jacksonville native, the 40-year Avondale resident started his career here as a school psychologist and then became a real estate investor, buying properties to fix up and flip. About 15 years ago, Leonard read a newspaper article about a local carousel horse carver and decided to try his hand at woodcarving. He started with a series of non-functional decorative rolling pins from different types of wood, then moved on to a rocking horse. Several carved animals later, and after coming to the conclusion that working with wood required more precision than for which he had patience, the erstwhile psychologist took some classes at FSCJ in drawing and in sculpting in clay.
What led to his interest in creating clay busts? Leonard, a Vietnam veteran, belongs to the Semper Fidelis Society of Jacksonville. Six years ago another member suggested that Leonard create a bust of a young Marine killed in action to be installed at the cemetery. Although the cemetery installation didn’t pan out, Leonard gave the bronze-painted clay bust to the Marine corpsman’s grandparents who donated it to Terry Parker High School.

“I saw how much the family and fellow Marines appreciated that,” recalled Leonard. “So I decided to create busts of Jacksonville Marine and Navy corpsmen that had been killed in action and offer them to the families.”
Of the dozen or so corpsmen he had in mind, Leonard has been able to make and gift eight busts. Some of the families he contacted never returned his calls. “The most difficult part is making that initial contact,” he said. “Then, it’s the delivery of the finished piece. It’s very emotional.”

Emotional, but cathartic. The humble sculptor says working on each bust is a cleansing process for him. “I look at those killed in action and don’t want them to be gone and forgotten,” explained Leonard, who served in the 3rd Battalion Recon from 1966 to 1968. Some of the busts are for Vietnam KIAs, including four Medal of Honor recipients, and others are for servicemen in more recent wars and conflicts. His current piece is for a young Marine killed two years ago in Afghanistan.

When Leonard contacts families of deceased troops out of the blue, he’s usually met with skepticism. Even after he is able to convince them of the sincerity of the offer, some families still decline the gift. “Some just don’t want the physical reminder of their loss,” the former Marine noted. “I usually have an easier time dealing with the mothers than the fathers, but one woman never picked up her son’s bust so now it’s in the ROTC Building at the University of North Florida.”

It initially took Leonard over two months to do one bust, working from the official military photo, but now he can complete one in a month. If he can get one close-up profile photo of the subject taken around the same time as the boot camp photo, it makes it easier to nail the likeness. “Photos only show a nano-second in time of someone’s life,” observed Leonard. “Sometimes multiple photos are too dissimilar to use effectively.”

Leonard doesn’t share photos of his progress because he’s fearful of too much input. “I don’t do commissions for that same reason,” he said. “Plus I don’t work well under pressure when there’s a deadline.”

He works at his own pace in a studio behind the garage of his Avondale home on Windsor Place. First he builds a base – a body from a mold – then adds the head, tweaking eyes, ears, nose and mouth until he’s satisfied with the resulting likeness. “Adding the cover [the Marine hat] makes an unbelievable difference,” Leonard pointed out.

The difference, though, is believable for the families of those honored by Leonard’s gift.
Trenton, FL resident Karen Latham lost her son Richard “Ricky” Lord just a couple of days before his 25th birthday. Lord was a weapons specialist with the Marines, and serving his second tour in Iraq.

“Cliff went above and beyond; you can’t even begin to imagine what it means. He didn’t expect anything in return. He just did it out of the kindness of his heart,” related Latham. “But it didn’t end there; he’s a friend for life.” Latham and Leonard stay in touch on Facebook.
For Crystal Merillat, mother of Corporal John Stalvey, a Marine Corps scout sniper, the unexpected gift provides guests in her Brunswick, GA home an easy way to allow her to talk about her son.

“It was quite an honor for someone to tell us they wanted to do this bust of our son. It took him a while to find us because John enlisted in Texas, where his uncle lives,” Merillat shared. “It was really ironic because John took up sculpting in high school; he enjoyed it and was going to continue doing it.”

John, formerly of Orange Park, was just 22 years old when he died on a mission in Iraq in October 2005. “It was incredible how Cliff was able to capture the likeness of John from his photo; he was able to capture the things I knew about John. I’m so grateful for what Cliff did for our family,” said Merillat.

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