Six pack abs on an eagle? Wrong, but right

A piece of memorial art creates a powerful, if not anatomically correct, impression.

This past weekend my boyfriend and I visited several pioneer cemeteries in search of the interesting, beautiful, scenic and historic. I didn’t find any zinkers oddly enough, but I did find this incredible bronze plaque at the Greenwood Cemetery (Google Maps: 6J79+5F) in Cathlamet, Washington. 

Memorial plaque at Greenwood Cemetery, Cathlamet Washington. Photo by the author

On the way out of Greenwood I stopped to admire a lovely stained glass window depicting Pacific Northwest life that was set into an alcove in the mausoleum/columbarium near the entrance. Also in the alcove was this 1947 memorial plaque from Crown Zellerbach honoring four employees who gave their lives while serving in WWII. The plaque is a wonderful memorial all by itself, and an honorable remembrance for these four (or more) men. What really caught my eye was the dramatic eagle taking pride of place at the top.

This stunning example of memorial art made quite an impression on me. The graceful lines of the wings, the crisp detail of the feathers, the boldness of the bas relief bringing it into the third dimension of real life. There’s a kind of lush, even loving sensuality in this depiction.

Detail of plaque. Photo by the author.

What puzzled me at first was the exaggerated musculature of the eagle itself. It appears to have a genuine set of six-pack abs, which of course eagles don’t have in real life. The eagle’s thighs are also pretty buff and overdeveloped, with some Clydesdale-length feathers cascading over some seriously huge claws. It’s an odd mix of human and avian features but something felt very right, even familiar about it.

I’m sure I’ve seen similar artwork before but can’t remember where. I tried an image search to no avail. The piece didn’t seem to be signed (at least at a quick glance, it could have been on the edge or the back), but then again, this work isn’t about the artist.

The pecs and quads are among the strongest muscle groups in the human body and here they are bulging and well-defined. They mean “strength.” To me, this image represents a emotional blending of the human element with the avian and the cultural to state the themes of strength, power and ferocity. I can practically feel it thrumming in my own muscles. It’s a powerful and moving piece in a very unexpected place.

I’m still unpacking how I feel about this particular piece of artwork. There’s awe, puzzlement, curiosity, humility. The exaggeration and distortion in this patriotic statement makes me a bit uncomfortable, too. But that’s part of what art’s supposed to do now, isn’t it? Make us wonder, feel and think. 

Stump and Lamb explores personal growth and meaning via travels to pioneer cemeteries of the West.

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