“We want our national cemeteries to be shrines, shrines that really demonstrate the care of our American people for our veterans.” VA Secretary Bob McDonald believes the Sarasota National Cemetery is such a showcase, or shrine, with its Patriot Plaza Amphitheater and numerous art installations worth $12 million, all privately funded by the Patterson Foundation based in Sarasota.

“They have done an outstanding job choosing the artwork in that facility,” McDonald said. “There are photographs- for me as veteran, an airborne ranger, that capture many of the situations I’ve been in.”

The Patterson Foundation funded Patriot Plaza and the public art to create a place for “deep experience” at the Sarasota National Cemetery, said Debra Jacobs, president and CEO of the Patterson Foundation.

“By having Patriot Plaza, those who come to visit family, those who come now to visit the art, they will each have their own private time and space for reflection and experiencing and affirming why we live in the greatest country on the globe,” Jacobs said.

The Patterson Foundation partnership with NCA is the first of its kind among the 131 cemeteries run by the VA. Jacobs hopes Sarasota’s Patriot Plaza will serve as a model for others to follow.

Overall, Kirkland says, “I hope the plaza inspires people to think about their families and their country, through the stories being told, the images they see—and that it encourages people visiting to think about their own experiences. In my experience as an artist, I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Kirkland is one of four artists selected by the foundation to amplify and humanize the experience of visiting the cemetery by capturing, in art, the timeless and universal character of war and sacrifice. Thanks to their nearly completed efforts, the plaza, which will debut with a community dedication on June 28, has become a kind of “outdoor museum,” said foundation president Debra Jacobs, creating a new standard for the nation’s 131 national cemeteries and an unprecedented model for public-private collaboration.

Ann Hirsch is soft-spoken, gentle, and exudes a sense of calm. Her art displays a similar restraint –but do not be fooled. Beneath the cool, calm surface of her sculptures is a strong, emotional energy that makes each piece – from a few inches tall to 7 feet, a compelling experience.

Ann works in the long tradition of western figurative sculpture but expresses her themes in a contemporary mode – seamlessly making work that seems both traditional and modern at the same time. She is interested in the public’s interaction with her work, often setting sculptures low where they can be touched and examined closely.

Her work on the east entrance to Patriot Plaza is a transitional space between the cemetery at large and the side of the ceremonial amphitheater dedicated to themes of family and community that honor military service.

“Etched into each block are Russell’s words carefully chosen by Hirsch after months of research.
She constantly narrowed down her selections with the help of the Russell family, especially Bill’s daughter, Karen Kenyatta Russell. One quote even came from Hirsch’s meeting with him: “Never go out there and see what happens, go out there and make something happen.”
But before she started the final sculpture, Hirsch created a model of what the statue itself would look like, and she showed photographs to Russell. Hirsch said he was more interested in the grant to help children, but, she added, “My sense is that he approves of the pose.” He even showed her how he’d hold the ball, and she watched Russell and his daughter, Karen, toss the ball back and forth, focusing on his hands and how they moved to get a sense for the gesture.”