Lynn Stuart Pathway
It’s hard to go anywhere in College Station without spotting one of sculptor Payne Lara’s works.
There is the mother wolf and her cubs at Wolf Pen Creek Park. Next door at the former Arts Council of Brazos Valley headquarters before they were moved, a statue of young Petunia feeding geese graced the grounds.
Outside College Station’s Fire Station Number 6 on University Drive is Lara’s life-size statue of a firefighter. Outside the city’s police headquarters is a sculpture of a police officer assisting a young boy, another of Lara’s local works.
At A&M Consolidated High School you’ll find a Lara statue of a tiger. At the corner of Texas Avenue and 29th Street in downtown Bryan are Lara’s life-sized bronzed replicas of a family of deer. Their names, as selected by elementary students at a nearby school are Sacrifice, Allegiance, and Unity.
A Navasota-born artist, Lara has works throughout Texas and across the country. He is most well-known for his stunning statues which form the centerpiece of the Lynn Stuart Pathway at College Station’s Brazos Valley Veterans Park & Athletic Complex located between University Drive and Harvey Road east of Rudder Freeway.
College Station voters approved funding for the park in 1995. Three years later the land was purchased for $1.5 million, and on November 11, 1999, the park was dedicated.
Since then, Veterans Park has grown to encompass more than 150 acres with a dozen lighted soccer fields, five softball diamonds, a 550-seat covered pavilion, parking for more than 1,200 vehicles, and the 12-acre pathway site and heritage trail.
The Brazos Valley Veterans Memorial came into being as a non-profit corporation on July 17, 2000. Its purpose is “to recognize and honor the service and sacrifices of all American veterans past, present, and future.”
Since then, Veterans Day services at the park each year have showcased the growth of the memorial and its series of statues–all created by Lara–which highlight the Lynn Stuart Pathway.
Brig. Gen. Lynn Stuart was a Bryan native and Texas A&M graduate, Class of ’52. In addition to his three years of active duty in the U.S. Army, Stuart spent an additional 35 years in the Army Reserves’ 420th Engineering Brigade.
Stuart was a founder of Bryan Construction Company and a well-regarded volunteer in the local community. He served as the fundraising chairman for the Brazos Valley Veterans Memorial.
Ceremonies dedicating the Lynn Stuart Pathway took place on September 22, 2006. He died ten months later at the age of 77.
The pathway is a “memorial walk through the history of the 17 major wars fought by our nation,” according to the Brazos Valley Veterans Memorial website. The two-thirds-mile paved walkway meanders around Louis L. Adams Memorial Plaza, which features a statue by New York sculptor Robert Eccleston sitting atop a Texas granite “Wall of Honor.”
That statue depicts a soldier carrying a wounded comrade to safety. On the walls of the massive base are the engraved names of Brazos Valley veterans who served—or are serving—their country in the Armed Forces.
The first of Payne Lara’s statues to commemorate U.S. involvement in conflict with an adversarial foe was dedicated along the Lynn Stuart Pathway on July 2, 2010. Lara entitled the piece, Liberty or Death, and it paid tribute to the American War of Independence.
A lot goes into one of Lara’s work, even before he begins shaping clay.
“We work as a group,” Lara says of his long-time association with the Brazos Valley Veterans Memorial board of directors. “Many of the board members are veterans themselves and they often have pretty specific opinions about what they would like to see in a monument.
“I do a lot of research before I start a piece, reading as much as I can about the subject. I guess my work on the Lynn Stuart Pathway has made me a bit of a ‘war historian.’”
Lara begins his sculpting process with a 12-inch figurine he shapes from clay.
“Some pieces are really easy and others take a little more time to come up with an idea that feels right.”
The War of Independence statue depicts a Continental Army soldier “hastily reloading his musket,” according to the marker which accompanies the life-sized work. The title of the piece, Liberty or Death, comes from the well-known Patrick Henry speech in which he proclaimed during America’s quest for independence from the British in the late 1700s, “Give me liberty, or give me death.”
Of the 15 statues Lara has created for the Lynn Stuart Pathway so far, his favorites—and mine—are the works commemorating the Civil War. Dedicated in April of 2015—as the ninth and tenth pieces in the series—the installment is called Going Home.
The theme was suggested by Steve Beachy, long-time Brazos Valley Veterans Memorial board member and former president of the organization. The work depicts a postwar encounter between Union and Confederate soldiers walking on either side of an abandoned wooden barricade. The two figures head in opposite directions.
“The idea for that piece was ‘brother against brother,’” Lara says. “The Union soldier is coming out of the woods and across a bridge, while the Confederate soldier is crossing an open pasture. They’re looking at each other and I hope I was able to capture the fact both men know the war is over.
“I intentionally made the Confederate soldier ‘leaner’ than his Union counterpart because the war was a lot harder on the South than it was the North.”
Lara grew up in an artistic family. Two of his father’s brothers were artists. Lara first gained attention as an artist himself in high school when he captured top honors in the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo’s student art show. His winning submission was a painting and he used the scholarship prize money to enroll at Sam Houston State University.
After two semesters of college, Lara realized artists weren’t made in the classroom. About the same time, he discovered his affinity for sculpture.
“I painted and drew most of the time up until then,” Lara says. He calls those “2-D” or “two-dimensional” works. “I found out I liked the ‘3-D’ aspect of sculpting better because it was more hands on, more tactile.”
At the same time, Lara also held aspirations of becoming a rodeo cowboy. When he finally gave up on that pursuit, he turned his full attention to sculpting. Crafting a series of cowboy-themed pieces at his home studio in Navasota, Lara loaded them into the back of his truck and headed west for Santa Fe, New Mexico. There he found a gallery interested in his work and, ultimately, became the gallery’s in-studio artist.
Each year for the next few years, Lara spent about six months in Santa Fe.
Lara’s most recent installment along the Lynn Stuart Pathway was dedicated on Veteran’s Day 2018. It’s two statues commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
He calls the piece Over the Top.
“I’ve tried to bring World War I ‘out of the depths,’ so to speak,” Lara says.
Entrenchment, or “trench warfare,” has become symbolic with World War I. Some historians now see the “Great War’s” tactical doctrine of digging trenches from which to attack the enemy as representative of both the mass slaughter of the conflict and the “futility of war” in general.
Employing trench warfare resulted in the deaths of one in ten World War I combatants, more than double the percentage of combat fatalities of World War II.
In Lara’s execution, the trenched soldier provides cover fire for his comrade who is charging “over the top.” Although the installation is raised above ground level, Lara has effectively captured the subterranean aspect of his subject matter.
At least five more commissions are ahead for Lara in his work with the Brazos Valley Veterans Memorial board.
When asked what inspires him artistically, Lara says, “You wake up every day and you just want to try to do your best work. With every piece, you want to bring out the most that you can, and it’s kind of hard to put that process into words.
“Every piece I work on, I have to go off the ‘feel’ I have for what I think the project should entail. I always ask myself, ‘Do I have the feel right?’”
Just off the Harvey Road entrance to the Veteran’s Park & Athletic Complex sits Lara’s spectacular paneled tribute to the Vietnam War, entitled Hot LZ.
That piece was dedicated on Memorial Day 2014.
The work differs from Lara’s others at the site in that it uses a technique called bas-relief, in which most of the sculpture is depicted in shallow, nearly 2-D depth.
For the installment, Lara created four-by-four-foot panel sections. In those, two American soldiers are seen preparing to dismount from the skids of a Model UH-1 “Huey” helicopter. Hot LZ refers to landing into enemy fire.
A third soldier in the work is depicted in full-relief—“3-D,” as Lara would call it. That figure is based on the likeness of former U.S. Sergeant John Velasquez, a long-time Brazos Valley Veterans Memorial board member who fought in Vietnam.
Local historian Bill Youngkin featured Velasquez in his The Eagle newspaper series “Brazos Valley Veterans.”
In that account of his wartime experience, Velasquez told Youngkin, “I am proud to be a Vietnam veteran. But I am also proud of today’s young men and women, all volunteers, who are protecting our freedoms.”
Few places in America better salute that service to country than the Brazos Valley Veterans Memorial and the Lynn Stuart Pathway.
Payne Lara’s works there are not to be missed.