Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Artist's Mission: To Honor Sacrifice Marines Make; He Creates Busts of Fallen First Coast Marines and Navy Corpsmen

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Artist's Mission: To Honor Sacrifice Marines Make; He Creates Busts of Fallen First Coast Marines and Navy Corpsmen

Article excerpt


The Marines' steely-eyed gaze is iconic - a reflection of their resolve to serve their country, putting their lives on the line.

Jacksonville sculptor Cliff Leonard understands that better than most. A Marine veteran himself, he's been making busts of fallen servicemen for the past two years.

He's completed eight so far. He knows he's hit the mark when he takes a step back and feels the eyes he's sculpted boring into him.

"I want them looking stern and dedicated," he said. "I don't want them smiling and laughing. It's more solemn that way.

"That's what I did for Josh."

Marine Cpl. Joshua Watkins was killed in Iraq in 2006. He was shot in the stomach while on foot patrol in Fallujah, nine days before the end of his second tour.

The Nease High School graduate attended the University of North Florida for three years before enlisting.

Amy Watkins Vazquez said her son, spurred by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, became a Marine to protect freedom abroad.

"He was so driven," she said. "He wanted to help so badly."

Leonard, 63, sees a little of himself in Joshua Watkins, even though they never met.

"I remember what it was like, going to a foreign country as a Marine," he said. "Those memories stay with you. I don't think there's anything quite like it."

Leonard, a Vietnam veteran who spent 13 months in combat on a small reconnaissance team, has attended Florida State College at Jacksonville and UNF off and on for decades, taking fine art classes.

In 2003, a clay statue of his won first place at a FSCJ show. The college even purchased the piece for its permanent collection.

Leonard said he was inspired to make the busts through his involvement in the Jacksonville Semper Fidelis Society, an organization of active-duty Marines and veterans.

Members had been planning a memorial program at a local cemetery for Northeast Florida Marines killed in combat, and Leonard offered to make a bust for the occasion.

The memorial fell through, but the artist never wavered.

He decided to create a bust of every fallen Marine or Navy corpsman from the First Coast and donate them to grieving family members.

The first was Nate Clemons, a 20-year-old private killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2005. He presented it to Clemons' grandparents during a tearful meeting of the Semper Fidelis Society. It was later installed at Terry Parker High School - Clemons' alma mater.


All of Leonard's work is done in his studio, nestled in his Avondale home.

He clips pictures of the fallen servicemen from the newspaper or prints them from the Internet and hangs them in his workshop. Sometimes he contacts family members for better quality images.

Then he meticulously molds the water-based clay into their likeness, a process that takes about two months of fine-tuning. …

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