Willard Newman Hirsch and the Screaming Eagle Friezes
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1905, Willard Hirsch was South Carolina’s most prominent sculptor of the twentieth century. He received his formal education at the High School of Charleston and the College of Charleston, but he gained his artistic training at the National Academy of Design and the Beaux Arts Institute of Design in New York. He returned to South Carolina in 1942 for military training at Fort Jackson, near Columbia. Following the war, he returned to Charleston, where he taught for many years in local institutions, including the College of Charleston, the Gibbes Museum School of Art, the University of South Carolina, and the Charleston Art School, the latter of which he was a founder. Hirsch died in 1982.
During his career, Hirsch exhibited widely and frequently, usually working in clay, metal, or wood. He was especially renowned for his portraiture. His works appear in numerous public locations throughout Charleston and South Carolina, including Washington Park, Brookgreen Gardens, White Point Gardens, and the Gibbes Museum of Art. He was also the sculptor of dozens of commissioned pieces for schools, colleges, libraries, banks, and other institutions throughout South Carolina. In addition to these commissions, Hirsch for many years maintained studios at 17 Exchange St. and at a large warehouse at 6 Queen Street, both in Charleston, SC, where he offered clay modeling classes to the public in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His private papers, including some documentation related to his work for the South Carolina National Guard, are held in the Special Collections of the College of Charleston.
In 1952, SCARNG commissioned Hirsch to design the mold for each of the memorial friezes that appear in an inset area near the entrances to the dozens of SCARNG armories built between 1954 and the late 1970s. Depicting soldiers from the Indian Wars through World War II, the design also featured a screaming American eagle at top center with the South Carolina seal on its chest. Hirsch’s original intention was that these friezes would remain unfinished, but by the 1970s, personnel at several locations had painted the sculptures to more clearly differentiate the figures portrayed, making his eagles red and his uniformed soldiers suddenly clad in olive drab. One soldier even painted his own signature over Hirsch’s, essentially co-opting the sculpture as his own, while inmates borrowed from local prisons allegedly painted some of the others. “It’s a disgusting situation,” Hirsch told the Associated Press in 1975, comparing the act to painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. “They’ve made my eagle look like a buzzard.”
While arrangements were made in 1975 to correct the mutilation of Hirsch’s work, today several armories retain painted friezes, including Belton, Conway, Myrtle Beach, and Williamston.
The Hirsch friezes were also at the center of a difficult public relations moment for SCARNG. In 2010, when SCARNG completed a land swap with Summerville that deeded the old armory to the town, soldiers from the Summerville unit removed the Hirsch frieze from the building after the sale, hoping to install it at the new Summerville armory. It was later returned to the Town of Summerville to be reinstalled at the old armory after renovations were complete.
Hirsch was the subject of Art Is a Powerful Language: Willard Hirsch: The Man, the Artist (2012) by his daughter Jane E. Hirsch.