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Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News
Salt Lake-based sculptor Stan Watts works on his statue "To Lift a Nation" based on Thomas Franklin's famed photo taken at ground zero on Sept. 11, 2001.

It was about a week after Sept. 11, 2001, and Stan Watts, the Salt Lake-based sculptor, was getting dressed and ready for the day. His wife, Renee, entered the room and showed him a photo on the front page of the newspaper.

"You should do a sculpture of this," she said.

It was the now-famous picture of three firefighters raising the American flag in the wreckage of the terrorist 9/11 attacks in New York. A striking photo, it was reminiscent of the Marines raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima.

"Every sculptor in the nation will be trying to do this," he said, referring to the expected competition for the legal rights to do the project. "I couldn't do it."

But all these years later, Watts is doing just that. He has secured the only rights so far to make a monument based upon the photo. Sometime in the next year his 40-foot-high, 17,000-pound bronze monument will be unveiled on the campus of the national Fallen Firefighters Academy in Emmitsburg, Md. The finishing touches are being given to the component statues in Watts' studio/bronze foundry in West Valley City, where they are disassembled, in their clay form, to facilitate the work. Soon they will be bronzed and then shipped east. (Using a forklift, Watts had the statues assembled for today's newspaper photo.)

Watts spent about four months sculpting the pieces. He estimates there is another three weeks of work left to refine some of the features, principally hands and faces. In reality, the monument has been years in the making, but the most difficult part of the project wasn't sculpting the clay; it was navigating the process of securing permission to do it in a highly competitive, politically charged environment.

Watts forgot about the idea after his wife suggested it until one of his clients asked him to make a small statue that replicated the photo. To do so, Watts had to gain permission from the originating newspaper, The Record of Bergen County, from photographer Tom Franklin and from the three firemen.

Watts discovered that no one had won the rights to the statue, although one artist had tried to do a politically correct version of the statue that replaced two of the three Caucasian firefighters with black and Hispanic men. The project was halted because he had not gained legal permission.

Watts' repeated calls to Bill Kelly, an attorney who represented the firefighters and the newspaper at the time, were not returned.

"Everyone was calling him," says Watts.

Taking a leap of faith, Watts and a companion boarded a plane on July 3, 2002, and flew to New York, showing up at the attorney's office unannounced.

"On the elevator I said a little prayer," says Watts, who, you learn, does this frequently.

"My companion thought I was having a heart attack. He said, 'Are you all right?"'

The secretary was not happy to see anyone show up without an appointment, but Watts talked his way into Kelly's office and laid out photos of his work on the attorney's desk. As luck would have it, one of them was a photo of a statue of two hockey players that had been displayed at the Olympics' 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, where Kelly, a hockey fan, had seen it.

"I believe this (the images of the firefighters) has to be done right," said Watts of his 9/11 proposal. "It's not going to be done politically correct. That's a lie. You can't change history, especially with a photograph. And it needs to be three times life size."

At one point, Kelly asked Watts, "Are you worried about the NAACP?"

"No," replied Watts. "They can't stop me if I have the truth backing me up."

Six months later, Watts was awarded a licensing agreement to do the work; he is the only one allowed to produce a monument of the photo that is bigger than 20 inches. Watts has already sunk $100,000 of his own money into the project, including $20,000 up front to secure the rights.

Money will be raised for the monument through the sale of brick pavers — for a donation the names of contributors will be placed on bricks that will be placed in a walkway around the statues.

Twenty-five percent of the proceeds go to the firefighters, who are donating the money to 9/11 victims; Watts' cut is 5 percent. (To purchase a brick, call 801-712-0066.)

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"Faith is real," says Watts, who is 44.

"Why would a person in Utah be considered? I'm really a nobody."

But not really. He has done some notable work, most of it reflecting his faith and/or his roots in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has three statues at This Is the Place Heritage Park. His life-size sculpture of Brigham Young on a bench reading to children stands on the pioneer leader's grave site. (The work is improperly credited to fellow sculptor Ed Fraughton.) Among his other LDS work: Hyrum and Joseph Smith on horseback in Nauvoo, Ill.; Joseph Smith in the Joseph Smith Building; Mormon handcart pioneers in Iowa; and carvings in a dozen LDS temples.

"All I ever wanted to do in my life as a sculptor was to have a monument; now I have more than 30," says Watts.

His statue of Utah restaurateur Pete Harman and Col. Sanders resides in Kentucky. His hockey players strike a balletic pose outside West Valley City's E Center. His statue of the Founding Fathers kneeling in prayer is in a Bountiful cemetery.

Earlier this summer, his statue of George Washington looking to heaven while sitting on a horse was unveiled at Valley Forge (Watts sculpted Washington, and his apprentice, Kim Corpani, sculpted the horse). He is finishing monuments to Kentucky abolitionist John Fee (for a site in Kentucky), Booker T. Washington (Alabama) and Ronald and Nancy Reagan (he is trying to place it with the Reagan Library). His studio, splashed with blotches of blue rubber on the floor, is peopled with finished and unfinished statues.

Half of his work is done on speculation — he has no buyer. "Why I am able to do this is because I do these things on faith first," he says. "I build it, then they come."

Watts talks like this frequently. His career and success are dependent on his being in tune with God, he will tell you, which is why he reads scriptures and prays every morning before he goes to work. He's a far different man than the chain-smoking, aimless artist he was years ago when he began this career. His career itself was an accident, or providence or predestination, as Watts would say.

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His career as a sculptor began when a local attorney, Richard Landerman, asked Watts' brother Brad, who, as a jeweler, poured metal (like a sculptor), if he would sculpt a statue of Moses. "No," Brad said, "but my brother Stan can." Actually, Stan wasn't a sculptor at all; he had done only one sculpture in his life — a statue for a high school class — and his brother had remembered it.

He had always been artistic. As a young boy, he sat on a radiator in his Salt Lake home and drew pictures of friends. "I'd rather draw than play with toys," he says.

Under the tutelage of South High School art teacher Gordon Moore, he learned classical art and design, and his work brought recognition and honors. He was a Sterling Scholar in the arts. After graduating from Salt Lake's now-defunct South High he attended Utah State University on an art scholarship. He studied ceramics and was an A student, with one notable and ironic exception — he flunked a sculpture class. He left after his freshman year for summer break and never returned.

"I let go of the rudder of college to see where life would take me," he says. "I would have been a different sculptor if I had stayed there. I would have been contemporary. Their idea of a sculpture was to stack wood against a wall a certain way and paint it bright colors."

He returned home thinking he would return to school in the fall and worked in the family business, painting service stations. After his father fell from a scaffold and died, Watts continued to paint for two years. Then came the commission for the Moses statue. While making drawings of the statue, he sought help from Avard Fairbanks, a nationally renowned Utah sculptor who, during his 100 years, created 100 public monuments marking events and people, including four in the U.S. Capitol. He also served as dean of fine arts at the University of Utah.

Watts tracked down Fairbanks at an old military barracks by the Salt Lake airport where the frugal Fairbanks worked. Watts knocked on the door, and Fairbanks, then in his 90s, cracked the door open and peered out at the young, shaggy-haired stranger.

"What do you want?" Fairbanks asked.

"I want to learn to be a sculptor," Watts replied.

"Do what I did and go to college," said Fairbanks and, just as he started to close the door, Watts blocked it with his foot.

"I would, but you're not teaching anymore," said Watts.

"They wouldn't teach you correctly anyway," said Fairbanks, inviting him inside.

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Watts pinned his drawings on the wall for Fairbanks to critique, at the same time noticing a bust of Moses on the wall that looked remarkably like his drawing of Moses. Watts pointed this out to Fairbanks. Recalls Watts, "I thought I would get some big reaction — they were identical, and I had done my drawing out of my head — but all he said was, 'Truth is truth."'

For the next four hours, Fairbanks instructed the eager Watts. The teacher continued to work with the unexpected student for "30 or 40 hours" in formal lessons, Watts says.

Watts began working at a foundry to cast the statue and then actually lived there for a time, sleeping in a back room. Fairbanks came to the foundry to cast his own work and he continued to tutor Watts. His conversations would begin, "I forgot to tell you ...," then he might tell Watts, as he once did, "When you bend your elbow, it's on a pivot, and it grows an inch from the shoulder to the elbow if you bend your arm."

Says Watts, "I think he saw something in me. Or maybe it was just that he was a perpetual teacher."

One night after work at the foundry, Watts was working on a statue of Ernest Hemingway posing with a lion he had killed. Fairbanks approached the work and asked Watts, "Is this an African or Indian lion? Do you mind if I straighten his anatomy?" Within five minutes he had corrected the lion's anatomy. "You need to know this," he said, and then, writing on butcher paper, Fairbanks proceeded to give Watts a two-hour lesson in anatomy.

"I just gave you all the knowledge you would have got in college," Fairbanks said.

Recalls Watts, "Then he looked me in the eye and said, 'The last thing you need to know is the power and responsibility of what you're doing.' As the young man I was at the time, I didn't understand fully what he was saying. He was saying, be responsible with your ability to transcend time and the purpose for your ability, which is to give hope and faith and to lift man to be the best he can be."

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Fairbanks probably realized that Watts, 21 at the time, was a troubled young man. Raised in the LDS faith, Watts had wandered from his beliefs. He will only hint at where this led him, but at the time he was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, not to mention marijuana. He had bleeding ulcers and suffered from insomnia. Eventually, he says, he hit rock bottom. For 18 months he lived at the foundry, sleeping on a cot in a back room and waking up each morning with dust on his face. He subsisted on junk food.

"I didn't grow into my own as an artist until I came back to church," he says. He married the boss's daughter in 1988, and in 1993, at the age of 31, he returned to his faith. This was precipitated by dark days that he won't discuss.

"Things happened that were the worst things that happened to me, but they were the best because they changed my life," he says.

He quit his job at the foundry to devote himself to sculpting. His wife went to work and he tended their children and sculpted. "By the time I was 34, I was in my own house and had my own company," he says. "I was paying more tithing (to his church) than I used to make in a year. I was like George Washington. I needed help. I had reached rock bottom. I returned to faith and asked, 'What would you have me do?' The most important thing I can do is let people know that they can look up for help. If I'm going to do one thing with my life, then I want to acknowledge God and testify of him."

Such feelings are controversial in the current politically correct, hypersensitive climate. There is no record, for instance, of George Washington praying on horseback, but, like a writer of historical fiction, Watts took what was known historically and made a leap of faith.

"My job is to prop up the foundation," says Watts. "I put Jefferson on his knees. We have record of the Founding Fathers having prayed."

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Predictably, the 9/11 monument was problematic in such a climate. At the urging of newspapers, it was hoped the statue would be placed at ground zero, but the political fallout was overwhelming. Some 14,000 people wrote in with their own ideas on what a monument there should be, and every group wanted to be represented — victims, firefighters, police officers. Watts simplified the theme, and the monument was moved to the firefighters academy.

"All this is about is what the flag meant to all Americans that day as soon as they saw it there," says the sculptor. "Honestly, isn't it the only good thing you can remember about 9/11?"

The three firefighters in the original photograph — Danny McWilliams, George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein — have been media shy. They have refused to be singled out or enriched by the image of them raising the flag. "The picture is enough," McWilliams once told The Post. "I couldn't name one of the guys in Iwo Jima, and we don't think our names are necessary. It was just three guys with an idea."

McWilliams spotted a flag on a yacht near the World Financial Center. He wrapped the flag around its pole and carried it toward ground zero, where the three firefighters planted it on top of a pile of debris. It immediately drew similarities to the Iwo Jima photograph, from the debris at the men's feet to the angle of the flagpole.

The firefighters have refused invitations over the years to discuss the photograph and 9/11, but they did accept Watts' invitation to meet with him. Watts wanted to have a new photo of them to help him raise donations for the project.

"It was a privilege to meet them," says Watts. "They're humble, good firefighting men."

The name of the monument is "To Lift a Nation," and that's what Watts hopes he has accomplished. "Artwork is not in the eye of the beholder," he says. "It has a responsibility. It can make you a better person or a lesser person for having seen it. Viewing (Robert) Mapplethorpe's work makes you a lesser person. I hope my work is the opposite. All I've ever wanted to do is give hope. The raising of the flag at ground zero gave hope to our country."

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