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Lakeland 'Honors' Those Who Serve with Art

The area’s newest tribute to military service members, veterans and first responders will be unveiled in Lakeland this evening. It’s a sculpture of steel and glass. Designed by a high school student and crafted by a local artisan.

The non-profit group, Platform Art, is leading the collaboration behind the sculpture, the first of three pieces that will become part of Lakeland’s Veterans Memorial Park over the next three years.

Executive director Cynthia Haffey said their partnerships with veterans associations and first responders will continue for the next two years. Each year, high school students will compete designing a work of art that encompasses a word like service or sacrifice. The winning sculptures will be placed in Lakeland's Veterans Memorial Park.

This year’s word was “Honor.”

This year’s winner was Maria Vazquez, 18, a senior at Lake Region High School. Initially, the young artist struggled with finding the best way to portray such a broad concept.

“Most of the time, whenever I get my inspiration, it’s from a poem,” Vazquez said. “So, I looked up poems that had to do with honor. Nothing stuck. It was all kind of generic and then I came across Mr. McGehee’s poem.”

In 2006 as a senior in high school, William McGehee wrote a poem titled “Honor” which Vazquez incorporated into her sculpture.

She said the poem taught her that the true meaning of honor is trying to protect your loved ones, your friends and family.

So, she translated that meaning into her sculpture which has three steel panels each with a separate silhouette. The first is the profile of a service member. In the middle is a silhouette of a couple. And the final panel has a cutout child.

“Whenever you look directly into it, you’re seeing the soldier as who he is and then you’re seeing the family afterward and deeper in you see the child,” Vazquez said. “And that child could probably be their son or it could be them whenever they were a child and everything that their childhood represents.”

In front of the three steel silhouettes is a glass panel inscribed with McGehee’s poem.

Professional artist Tom Monaco of The Fourth Wall Studio was on the committee that selected the winning sculpture that he was commissioned to create. He worked with Vazquez to help her realize her vision. He let her do everything from try her hand at welding to picking out the script style for the poem.

“I was like how do you visualize this being done and she’s like I want it to be handwritten,” Monaco said

As a judge, he said several of the 60 student models in the competition showed real creativity.

“They were beautiful to look at but they were so abstract that we couldn’t even include them,” Monaco said. “This could be honor, this could be a bologna sandwich. It could literally be everything you wanted to see in it.”

Monaco said Vazquez’s sculpture” just nailed it” as being easy to understand yet visually complex enough to generate interest.

And the focal point of her sculpture is McGehee’s poem.

It took Haffey with Platform Art weeks to track down the poet for permission to use his poem to honor military service members and first responders.

McGehee not only gave permission, his life story brings an even deeper meaning to the sculpture.

The poet writing about honor is now a U.S. Army lieutenant leading patrols on his second tour in Afghanistan. He graduated college with a theater major. So, McGehee is thrilled that his poem inspired another high school student to create art.

He sent a message from Afghanistan to be read at the sculpture’s unveiling that said in part “it serves as a reminder for all that art is still alive in American culture.”

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