The Bronze Map: Touching History

The Dedication

On a blue, crisp, clear, Colorado morning on October 1st 2010, Colorado sculptor James Nance solemnly stood with his wife Jeanne and a thousand others in the solitude of a pristine pine forest on a hillside overlooking the Air Force Academy campus. Rays of the morning sun pierced the dense canopy overhead and the familiar aroma of sage and pine added to the intense feelings of nostalgia for the returning gradates. With a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye, Nance proudly watched a flight of T-38 jets blast past the tree tops directly above in a missing man formation honoring those 150 Air Force Academy graduates who died flying combat in Vietnam more than 40 years before.

The flyby of jets symbolically marked the conclusion of an emotional dedication and memorial ceremony for a new Vietnam pavilion, a 1.5 million dollar, blue glass, polished steel, and black marble building, five years in planning, and generously donated to the Association of Graduates by the graduating class of 1970. The distinguished guests consisted of the Academy Superintendent Lt. General Michael Gould and his wife Colonel Paula Gould, high ranking military officers, graduates and their spouses, and families of long ago missing comrades.

For most attendees, including Nance, who is himself a 1971 graduate of the Academy, former Air force pilot, and Vietnam veteran, the event offered the opportunity to reflect on lost friends and their patriotic sacrifice to our country as well as share personal experiences and memories from that past war, some as fresh as yesterday, some faded and obscure. For many of the still grieving family members of those killed in action, the ceremony offered a chance at some closure.

The event also marked another milestone for Nance as an artist; it was the culmination of ten months of hard and dedicated effort on a commission sculpting a unique bronze memorial, of a type never before attempted, which would become the centerpiece of the pavilion. It also marked a milestone in Nance’s emerging career as a monumental bronze sculptor and represented the largest project he has created to date in a classically trained artistic career. An artistic career which has paralleled a flying career for 40 years in a dual journey, which has led him from the airspace above the steaming hostile jungles of Vietnam to the corridors of the Smithsonian National Gallery to this emotional moment.

Artistic beginnings

James Nance grew up in Tulsa Oklahoma, the son of a WW-2 B-17 pilot, Bill Nance, who spent most of the war in Luft Stalag 3, the “Great Escape” camp. As long as he can remember, Nance has had two passions in life inherited from his father: flying and art. As a young boy, he would constantly draw everything he saw and was always sculpting small figures and animals from anything available such as mud or even butter at the dinner table, much to his mother’s exasperation.

As a child his favorite toys were play dough and model airplanes. Living in Tulsa, Nance was exposed at a young age to the Western art of Remington and Russell at the Gilcrease art museum, which was close to their house, and would spend hours wandering the hallways admiring the sculpture and paintings. Nance remembers, “My parents were extremely supportive of all my interests and would proudly post every drawing I ever did on the refrigerator door. Unknown to me, for years, they also kept every piece of clay I ever sculpted carefully wrapped and stored in a large box,” a collection, which he now cherishes.

Flying Career

However Nance’s passion for flying led him first to a career in the air; and with his father’s encouragement, he earned an appointment to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs for the class of 1971. His first experience with Vietnam came as a cadet between his Junior and Senior years. During his summer intern program called Third Lieutenant, he was assigned to an F-4 unit in Phu Cat Air Base, Vietnam and was able to tour a great deal of the countryside for briefings and received numerous orientation rides in the F-4 and other aircraft.

After graduation, he attended pilot training and was assigned to fly a C-141 at McChord AFB Washington. By now the combat war in Vietnam was winding down for America, but the C-141 transport crews were flying overtime assisting the US military pullout. As a young co-pilot Nance was assigned to one of the crews, which flew to Hanoi to return American POWs. For the next two years, the C-141s continued to fly into Vietnam supporting the remaining US military mission until the fall of Saigon in 1975. By then Nance was an aircraft commander and participated in the chaotic evacuation of Saigon and the baby lift.

After leaving the service in early 1977, he flew for 10 months as a bush pilot in Alaska during the Alaska pipeline construction until finally landing an airline job with Hughes Airwest in Las Vegas. Several mergers later he ended up with Northwest Airlines where he was flying as an international Captain before taking an early retirement in 2007

Rediscovering Art

It was in 1985 when based in Minneapolis with the airline that Nance’s long dormant interest in art finally resurfaced. He was flying as a reserve first officer on the MD-80 and had a lot of free time. His wife Jeanne had recently returned to school to finish her degree. Nance tells the story, “Jeanne was studying for an important exam, and I suspect I was getting a bit underfoot. She finally put down her book and looked at me and asked,” “Jim honey, don’t you have something to do?” “When I replied no, she said,” “You have always wanted an art degree why don’t you go for it.” “The next day she bought me several books on drawing and sculpture and the necessary supplies.”

From that single incident a new career was born. Taking her advice, Nance began attending classes at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the Atelier Lack classical painting and drawing school, and his passion for art was soon reignited. Actually, according to Nance,” it was more of an explosion” and he soon found himself devoting all of his free time to art. His art education was also complemented with an exhaustive study of human anatomy. Jeanne claims that his motto is “anything worth doing is worth overdoing,” which he has vigorously applied to his study of art.

Nance has always felt that the human face is the window to the soul, so it isn’t surprising that he was naturally drawn to the field of portrait sculpture. While flying he would bring along a small briefcase, which held clay and a few modeling tools, and would speed sculpt small 10 inch busts of the other pilot during layovers. Eventually most of the MD-80 Captains and First officers had busts of themselves when they retired. Over the years, Nance says that he has attended several funerals where the family had placed the bust he sculpted on the pilot’s casket. Word spread and he began getting requests from other pilots for busts of family members …for pay. Eventually he started sculpting lifesize portrait busts for commissions outside of the airline family and his reputation as a portrait sculptor grew in Minneapolis.

Nance’s interests and talents however aren’t limited to portraiture: he has continued to develop his skill in figure sculpture. In 1989, he was a finalist in the design competition for the National Korean War Memorial and in the same year won first place in the week long prestigious Johnston International Figure Sculpture competition, sponsored annually by the International Sculpture Center of Washington D.C. During 1990-1991, Nance was a guest artist in residence at the Smithsonian National Gallery in Washington DC, where he spent countless hours drawing and sculpting after European and American masterpieces in the collection.

In 1994, Nance and his wife Jeanne, moved to Loveland Colorado, to establish a studio and take advantage of the thriving artistic climate and the proximity to several of America’s finest bronze art foundries. During this time he received a commission from the National Park Service to sculpt a set of twin portraits of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Home visitors center in Springfield Ill. As a result of the Lincoln commission, he has created a number of Lincoln works from portraits to figures. In 2008 Nance was first runner up in the design of the presidential inaugural medal.

Nance has always wanted to sculpt monumental bronze figures, however while still flying, it was difficult to find the time to devote to this demanding profession. So with this goal in mind he took an early retirement from the airline in 2007 and began to build his monumental business and establish himself. While still accepting portrait commissions, he built a web site and began promoting his services with phone calls and personal visits.

The Heritage trail

In October of 2009, Nance received a call from Al Burrell of the Association of Graduates at the Air Force Academy. Al was the project construction manager and class giving officer and was one of the contacts made in the previous year. Al informed Nance that the class of 1970 wanted to commission a bronze sculpture for their 40th reunion gift and wanted to know if he was interested in coming down for a meeting.

Intrigued, Nance met with the class committee and learned about their plans. In 2005 the Association of Graduates with the leadership of the class of 1960 created a “Heritage Trail” behind the association building, Doolittle Hall. Situated in a beautiful pine forest, the trail covered a hillside overlooking the golf course and campus. The intent of the paved trail was to provide building sites where classes could promote Air Force Academy heritage by donating monuments and memorials as class gifts to honor core values, individuals, and specific conflicts. Several other classes, 59, 69 and 74 had helped complete the infrastructure of the trail. The first class to build a site was 89; and now the class of 70 was in the process of building a 1.5 million dollar Vietnam, and they told Nance that they needed a bronze sculpture as a centerpiece of the building.

The Bronze Map, an idea is born

The class committee’s requirements were fairly basic and open; they wanted a map of Southeast Asia, it was to be in bronze, and serve as a memorial to the 150 Academy graduates killed in action in Vietnam as well as a tribute to all Grads and members of the armed forces who served there. Beyond that they would rely on Nance to design and create the actual sculpture. Nance was instantly struck by the historical significance of this project. “As a bronze sculptor, a former pilot experienced with maps, and Vietnam vet, I felt like sculpting this map was my destiny, and I overwhelmingly embraced the project.”

However, the most important motivation was on a personal level. Nance explains, “As a non-combat C-141 transport pilot flying in Vietnam, I have always respected and admired the pilots who everyday put their lives on the line. The guys who tangled with Migs, who flew into the Red River Valley of death down Thud Ridge to Hanoi, the ranch hand pilots, forward air controllers, gunships, C-130, chopper rescue, B-52s and tankers, and many more. All went to work every day and came back with holes in their planes and sometimes did not come back at all. As the years have passed my admiration for these guys has grown; and I saw this map as a once in a lifetime opportunity to show that respect in a tangible way.”

Nance recalls that while he was researching the subject and writing a proposal, he realized that no one had ever created the type of map he envisioned. “ I tried to be honest and told the committee that I would be making it up as I went along but was confident that it could be done and I was the one to do it.” The first step for the proposal was to write a mission statement or set of goals to make sure that he and the committee were on the same track.

The map will be monumental in size and scope, and will provide the viewer with a visual, emotional, and tactile connection to South East Asia and Viet Nam; and by association, the conflict, which took place, the graduates who participated, and those who lost their life.

The map should be large enough to elicit strong emotion while allowing the viewer to see and touch locations and terrain. Since the map will be in topographic relief, it must be large enough to allow for the sculpting of topography.

The sculpture must be beautiful, inspirational, tasteful and distinguished while maintaining topographic accuracy. The surface will be artistically sculpted in textures and forms to suggest natural characteristics such as water, forest, rice lands, and mountains.”

The most important consideration of the entire project was that it absolutely, positively, no excuses, had to be installed by 25 September 2010, in time for homecoming and the class 40th reunion and pavilion dedication. After a couple of more meetings ironing out the details, the contract was finally signed in December 2009. Ten months is a tight timeline for designing, sculpting, and casting a bronze of this scale, so with the dedication clock ticking, Nance rolled up his sleeves and went to work.

Designing a monument

A successful sculpture is the result of more than just artistic skill and creativity. The completed project is also the result of hundreds of thoughtful decisions, which contribute to the overall composition. The first decision Nance had to make was scale.

The perfect size

The map had to be as large as possible to give substance to the topography and importance to the subject yet not so large as to make it physically inaccessible to the viewer. To realize the right scale, Nance had aeronautical charts professionally scanned and had them enlarged to a number of potential sizes in black and white printouts. He then glued these printouts to large poster boards. In this way he was able to arrange the paper maps along a wall and experiment with touching the maps. He settled on a perfect size of 94 inches tall by 81 inches wide.

Defining the boundaries

The area covered was fairly straightforward. Southeast Asia consisted of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. Three of the map edges were fairly self defining. The greatest artistic question was where to establish the Eastern side of the map. Nance explains,” “Vietnam was the central focus of the map, yet it was on the right side of the area; to increase its importance, it needed to be physically pushed more to the center of the sculpture. This was accomplished by including more of the South China Sea on the right side, Since Hainan Island of China is a major geographical landmark, it made sense to draw the edge of the map to the East of Hainan.”

A secondary advantage to including more ocean on the right side was that it provided a palette for the required lettering which in turn allowed Nance to keep the topography pure and uncluttered. To prevent name clutter, Nance planned to use numbered icons at the geographical locations with matching icons and name plates in the ocean.

Vertical scale, how high a mountain

The greatest challenge and artistic question was the vertical scale. Nance explains, “The 8 foot high map covered a distance of 1,000 miles. If one would stand back from the sculpture at 8 feet, it would be like looking at the Earth from 1,000 miles in space. With a true representation of vertical scale the largest mountain at 10,308 feet would be only 1/6 inch tall, hardly even noticeable. The highest flying airliners would be crossing the map at ¾ of an inch above the surface and the space shuttle at 18 inches. For this reason a vertical exaggeration was obviously necessary. The question however was how much?”

With the need for a monumental presence, Nance knew this was a critical decision, which would decide the success of the map, so he decided to experiment. With the aid of a topographical Tactical Pilotage Chart, he sculpted the same mountain range in ever increasing vertical exaggeration. When he started he thought that the end result might be 3x or possibly 5x, but nothing he tried seemed right. After trying 10x he decided to jump to 20x, which he expected would be too much, but he planned to bracket his way back down. To his astonishment 20x was perfect. At this vertical scale, the highest mountain would be 3.25 inches above sea level. According to Nance, “The basic design parameters were now established. All I needed to do was figure out how to sculpt an accurate topographical map and make it beautiful at the same time. No problem, right?”

Creating topography

Nance’s first idea was to simply reference topographical aeronautical charts, specifically the 500,000 scale Tactical Pilotage Charts, and the 1,000,000 scale Operational navigational charts from the Vietnam era and just hand sculpt the terrain. So he began. However, what seemed to be a simple idea proved to be tedious and unsatisfying. While the mountains had adequate contour lines, the flatter areas between were very sparse with contours so it was difficult to establish base line elevations. Nance figured that it could be done, but it would take him a couple of years, clearly this was not the best course to follow. After a couple of weeks of depressing experimentation, Nance was starting to get worried. He needed to work smarter and faster.

During one of the planning meetings with the 70 class committee a question had been posed that perhaps there were elevation measurements available in a digital form, which might cut down on the grunt work. At that time Nance had followed up the idea and received several discouraging responses from various map making companies. But now motivated by growing desperation, Nance decided to give this possibility a second look.

It took a couple of weeks on the computer and phone, but Nance finally stuck paydirt. “After following a trail that led me from the USGS, to NASA, and JPL, I had in hand a DVD which contained 490 million Digital Elevation Measurements, DEMs, which covered the geographical area of the proposed map. The DEMs were created by Jet Propulsion Laboratories and derived from data taken by the space shuttle, which used a stereographic radar measuring device to create data points every 90 meters on the Earth’s surface accurate to within 10 inches.” But there was still a problem. “DEMs are used for many scientific applications, however I could not find any previous use for making this type of map plus the DEMs were in a raw unusable format.”

So he took matters into his own hands. With the aid of several computer experts, Nance was eventually able to develop a software program, which allowed him to manipulate the vertical scale and feed these DEMs into a CAD program. After purchasing two large 4 ft by 8 ft blocks of dense aircraft foam measuring 4 inch thick, Nance and his team were able to use the CAD program to drive a milling machine to grind out the basic landforms of Southeast Asia. The milling took almost 100 hours.

“At first glance, the milled foam seemed disappointing and did not look at all like terrain. With the extreme vertical exaggeration, the terrain forms looked more like a bed of nails driven upward, very spiky and unnatural looking. Any relatively narrow ridgeline looked like a razor thin knife edge.” But upon closer examination, Nance realized, “I had all that I needed. The spiky foam gave me the location and elevation of all major landforms and most importantly the baseline elevations for the entire region. It was not a finished map, but it was a good starting point. Technology had taken me as far as it would go; it was now time to be an artist.” It was then up to Nance to apply oil based clay by hand to the entire surface and hand sculpt every mountain, valley, island, and shoreline in a 900,000 square mile area. A daunting task but now definitely achievable.

Setting up the studio

Since a bronze foundry is only capable of casting sections approximately 24 inches wide, most large sculpture is cut into smaller pieces before mold making and casting and later welded back together. To facilitate the eventual sculpture breakdown, Nance decided to precut the foam into twelve 24 in by 27 inch panels before starting, which were glued to twelve plywood panels and mounted in a grid on an 8 foot square table. The table was fabricated from heavy steel especially for this project and had an electric hoist, which would rotate the working surface between vertical and horizontal. With this precut grid of foam panels installed and mounted, it would be possible to work on the entire map with clay. When the project was finished he would be able to cut through the clay surface and remove each panel of clay, foam, and wood intact.

Sculpting begins

In January 2010, with the snow falling outside, surrounded by his 8 dogs, Jim Nance climbed up on scaffolding and began laying down the first clay. “At first it was a clumsy effort, but soon as my mind and fingers adapted to the task, the process became natural and intuitive.” With constant reference to the charts, guided by the underlying foam, and his pilot sense of what a mountain should look like, the terrain began to take form and beauty and the map began to take on a life of its own leading Nance in the right direction.

As the winter progressed, Nance worked long hours and frequently late into the night in his home studio. Jeanne would often bring him dinner as he worked and would keep him company while reading in an old easy chair in the studio. One of their dogs old “Buster” was a 15 year old Golden retriever in his final months of life. Buster had a bed beside the map and seemed to sense that he was needed to help with this project; “he was a wonderful assistant and peaceful company.” One day Nance discovered that Buster had eaten part of Cambodia.

“At first I was horrified, but then I realized that Buster was actually just doing his job as an assistant and art critic; the mountain range he ate was the first that I sculpted and my least favorite; and the resculpt was far better. After that we called him, The Golden Retriever who ate Cambodia.” As May ended and the map was complete in clay, Buster must have realized his mission was complete, and he passed on peacefully in his sleep and Nance believes left part of his spirit in the clay map.

It took a solid 4 months of overtime sculpting to finish the clay, but when it was completed Nance had created a true work of art; something never before achieved by any artist. History you can touch with a three dimensional monumental presence. Since the patina of the finished bronze would be critical, complex texture was sculpted into the clay to capture the character of the land and hold the eventual patina. The borders were delineated with a 3/6 inch wide ribbon of clay undulating over the mountain tops and down the valleys, which would eventually be polished in a bright golden bronze mirror finish.

The lettering was also a surprising challenge. After deciding which places should be included and the type and size of font, Nance used a computer driven laser to cut the names and icons from wood. He then grafted the name plates into the clay surface. The greatest artistic challenge for this step was deciding where to place the names in the South China Sea. Most names were moved many times until finding the perfect artistic arrangement. American airbases were located with a number icon he designed based on the shape of a F-4 aircraft. North Vietnamese bases were located with icons based on a Mig-21 fighter. When the bronze would be finished all names and icons would be polished like the borders into a golden mirror finish.

Artistic Touches

Even though the map is a product of art and science, Nance still felt like it needed more of an artistic touch to add humanity to the experience. For inspiration he turned to a 500 year old museum map collection. The one common thread each ancient map possessed was an elaborate compass rose and a sea monster, so Nance set about creating both.

The compass rose is based on a F-105 fighter the Republic Thunder Chief, affectionately known to its pilots as the “Thud.” The fearless F-105 pilots flew many missions into the North and suffered devastating causalities; so out of respect, Nance decided it would be the perfect choice. Its long streamlined nose used as a North Pointer, heading North into danger. The patina was a mottled light blue green designed to look like the corrosion from sea water on an old copper sextant.

The Dragon was inspired by “Ha Long” in Vietnamese it means “dragon descending from heaven.” Ha long has been present in Vietnamese literature and art for thousands of years. He is revered by the people as the bringer of rain and of Yang. Ha Long is also present on the US armed services Vietnam service medal as well as the national crest of the former South Vietnamese flag. Nance reinterpreted old Vietnamese paintings to sculpt an 18 inch long Ha Long in the lower right corner of the map. His left hand is grasping a Ying Yang globe and his right hand is reaching for a typhoon to represent the winds of war.

In a bit of whimsy, Nance also decided to embed a secret message into the map, which he called the Baldauchi Code, named after a mythical cadet who had been turned back every class since the Academy had begun. Anything that ever went wrong is always blamed on poor old Nino Baldauchi. The message is of profound importance to every Cadet and Graduate and the AOG has already extended a challenge and reward to the first cadet who can break the code.

Ho Chi Minh Trail

During the sculpting phase Nance had decided to include the Ho Chi Minh Trail as a thin painted white line during the patina, but delayed the research until the map was in the foundry. It was then that Nance realized that the famous trail which played a pivotal role in the war, was not a trail at all but an elaborate network of rabbit warrens, paths, roads, and hiding places. The resulting research occupied much of his time during the final two months and led him on an unexpected detour of discovery.

Unable to locate any definitive map of the trial, which would include topographical information, Nance again turned to the internet and the phone. With advice from a multitude of individuals and organizations, including the Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum in Hanoi, he finally made contact with a British woman, Virginia Morris, who along with her husband had hiked the trail in Laos and Vietnam 5 years before and had written a fascinating book on the harrowing experience. The couple had braved disease, food poisoning, unexploded ordinance, toxic chemicals, leaches, snakes, marauding tigers, and hostile Laotians who ran barefoot through the jungle with blowguns, crossbows, and spears. After reading the book, Nance began a correspondence with Ms Morris and discovered that she had a wealth of information, which she graciously provided. Some of her reference material came directly from a 95 yr old General Giap, former commander of the North Vietnamese Army, whom she met after her trek. Armed with this assistance, Nance was finally able to construct his own reference maps and used them to create the most accurate topographical depiction of the trail in existence


It was now time to break the map down for the next step, mold making. Thanks to the pre planning and preparation, the twelve panels came off the table with ease and were delivered to the mold maker. The molds represent an important step in ensuring a quality casting. Each panel is carefully covered with liquid rubber over a period of days and a plaster backup shell or mother mold is hand cast over the rubber. When complete the rubber mold has captured every minute detail of the clay and the plaster mother mold will hold the soft rubber in the correct position. The completed twelve molds are delivered to the foundry.


For this project Nance used Bronze Services Foundry of Loveland where he has been casting his bronzes for years. The owner Tom O’ Gorman was enthusiastic for the project since he was a pilot, his father Bob O’Gorman was on B-29s in WW 2, and his brother had been shot down over North Vietnam and thankfully survived. Aware of the deadline, O’Gorman put the map on a fast track and put his staff to work.


The first step in bronze casting is to create a wax casting from the rubber mold. Careful attention to detail was necessary to ensure perfect casting of the lettering. The wax is carefully poured in and out of the mold repeatedly until a wax is built up which is about 3/16 inch thick. After the wax is removed from the mold, a series of wax sprues or tubes are hand attached to the casting, which will facilitate the movement of the molten bronze at a later stage.

Investment mold

The wax casting is then attached to a hanger and is dipped many times into a large vat of ceramic slurry. This step takes several weeks and will yield a ceramic mold. When the mold is dry it is fired in a kiln, which hardens the mold and melts out all the wax. The fired mold will therefore have cavities where previously there was wax. This is where the term “Lost Wax’ is derived.

Metal Pour

The ceramic investment mold is placed in a bed of sand and bronze ingots are melted in a crucible in a blast furnace. The crucible containing the molten bronze is then lifted by two men using special tools and is carefully poured into the inverted investment mold. The sprues, which were created in wax, provide passageways for the flow of bronze. When the bronze has cooled, hammers and chisels are used to remove the investment mold and a blackened rough bronze casting appears from the rubble.

Metal Chase

Chasing simply means finishing and there is a lot of chasing to do on a rough bronze. Bronze is fairly malleable and with the experienced use of power and hand tools, the foundry metal workers can restore a surface to the artist’s original texture. The bronze sprues must first be cut off and any casting imperfections corrected. For a large sculpture the pieces must be welded back together and all seam lines chased out until unnoticeable.

All bronze casting will result in shrinkage of the bronze; for this reason the hardest thing to cast is a flat surface, which will instantly reveal any distortion. The bronze map offered the foundry and Nance a unique challenge with the combination of undulating landforms, flat oceans, and straight edges. After the twelve panels were welded together several weeks were required to straighten the map up. Nance recalls one memorable moment, “We had suspended the map from a chain and gantry. There were four guys with sledge hammers, all banging away on the map from both sides pushing and pulling the surface into its correct form, while I tried to stand out of the way of danger and direct the effort. Even with ear muffs, the noise was deafening.”

Eventually a stainless steel framework was constructed behind the map to improve rigidity and strength and prevent the map from warping. The map was also given flat sides two inches deep at sea level and up to 5 inches in the mountains. After three months in the foundry and a hard three weeks of pushing and pulling, pounding, welding, and grinding. The 800 pound bronze map was finally finished in metal, sandblasted for cleaning, and ready for patina. To celebrate, the guys at the foundry poured beer over the head of Ha Long and toasted a job well done.


Nance understood all along that the true success of the map depended on the patina. For months he had a vision of the patina in his mind and this final week in mid September, would be the acid test. Again Nance relied on ancient maps for inspiration and he believed that the color should look weathered by age to give the map more character. For a palette, he decided to reference satellite photos with artistic interpretation. Critical to accuracy was the need to properly delineate the vast agricultural area of Southeast Asia from the primeval forests and jungles.

After an intensive week of effort, the patina was complete and work stopped at the foundry as each member of the foundry team would come in to stare in amazement at the finished product. None of them had ever seen a sculpture like it and they were all proud of their contribution. For the next few days as word spread a steady stream of artists and visitors also poured into the foundry to check out the map.

The colors are as complicated and engaging as the sculpture. The French brown and deep green mountains thrust bronze peaks upward above the green jungles and blend subtly into the lighter tan colored agricultural areas. Rivers and lakes were painstakingly hand painted blue by Nance, and one can follow the 4,000 mile long Mekong river for a 1,500 miles as it meanders from the upper map in China into the Delta south of Saigon.

The greatest impact of the patina lay in the ocean. Nance sculpted a texture to the water and applied a complicated multi layered patina; the result is like looking into the real ocean. The dark purple of deep water gradually lightens through shades of blue until the shoreline, complete with sculpted waves, appears in a light blue green. Below the translucent surface of the water one can see the lighter colored texture resembling coral reefs.

After the patina was complete it was sealed with an outdoor lacquer and colored wax was used to fine tune hues and tones; and finally after 10 months the map was complete. After hauling the sculpture outside on a gantry several photographs were taken of the entire foundry crew and Nance standing in front and all of the workers signed the back. Now, all that remained was to figure out how to get a 800 pound map up on the wall at the Vietnam pavilion.


During the foundry phase Nance and foundry foreman had collaborated with the building contractors to design a support structure for the 800 pound sculpture. A large steel bracket was fabricated which was welded to the rear of the map containing a downward facing lip. A matching bracket with an upward facing lip was fabricated and taken to the building site to be bolted onto the steel wall substructure 9 feet above the floor. With this support mechanism in place, all that was need was to lift the map up onto the bracket and let its weight hold it in place.

Lifting it into place would be the final challenge. The foundry would use a fork lift to place the map onto a flatbed trailer. Unfortunately at the Academy, there would be no room for a piece of power equipment. The map would need to be unloaded and carried 300 feet down a winding hillside sidewalk into the double glass doors of the new memorial building and onto the wall. Although the class of 70 had 15 able bodied graduates standing by to assist, the map was so heavy and so hard to hold that it would still be difficult and the last thing Nance wanted was an accident which would injure someone.

Two days before the planned installation, after several sleepless nights worrying, Nance finally realized what needed to be done. “I made a hectic trip to the lumber yard and purchased several hundred dollars of heavy lumber. Then working for two days and far into the final night, I constructed a wooden cart out of 4x4s and 2x6s reminiscent of an ancient Roman Siege machine with large locking 10 inch wheels. The cart was so sturdy that it weighed 400 pounds. Thankfully a helpful neighbor with a forklift came to my rescue and lifted the completed cart onto the trailer behind the map.”

The plan was to have the grads muscle the map off the trailer down onto the cart, face down, where it would then lay back at a stable 60 degree angle. They would then wheel the cart down the sidewalk into the new building and against the wall moving through the doors with one inch to spare on both top and sides. The cart was designed to raise the map to the correct height on the wall, where the jacks would then lower the map slowly onto its mount. To Nance’s relief and amazement the entire process worked perfectly. The map raising was reminiscent of raising the flag at Iwo Jima and afterward everyone just stood back and proudly admired their new sculpture. It was rumored that beer was involved. Although Nance felt a surge of relief, he also felt somewhat pensive that a work, which had been part of his life for 10 months, was now going away to its permanent home. Nance headed home to Loveland 2 hours North to get some needed sleep.

To touch or not to touch

One of the concerns expressed by the class committee during the entire project, was the question if visitors should be allowed to touch the map; they worried that over the years the finish would be damaged. To Nance this was an important artistic issue. “I told the committee that the map was theirs and it was their call, however I made a strong recommendation that not only should the map be touched, but they should consider placing a sign by it which read “Please Touch.”

My feeling was that any change that could occur would be desirable and would eventually result in a wonderful, complex, and unpredictable transformation of the patina in a way that no team of patina experts could ever hope to duplicate. There would always be color in the crevices of the texture, after all even 3,000 year old Greek sculptures still retain some color; the years of touching the map will gracefully age the patina into beautiful and weathered hues in a rich elegant process, not unlike our own aging as humans.”

Nance also had a vision for the future, ”Most importantly is that every one who touches the map will leave some tiny microscopic part of themselves in the finish and bronze. Whether it be a molecule of oil, or salt from a tear, or a single cell of skin, it will combine with the map to create an organic fingerprint of those individuals and make the map not just interactive but a physical part of us all. As decades pass and the day comes when all of us who were in Vietnam are gone, the rich organic patina with certain meaningful areas well worn and lovingly polished by searching fingertips will serve as a silent reminder of our passage through life. Future visitors will see not just the map, but a trace of our existence, our respect for honor, and our combined spiritual energy, and they will know us better.“

Touching History

Nance’s viewpoint prevailed from persuasion and default. From the moment the map was installed, a week before the dedication, Grads from 70 and other classes were already creating a steady unstoppable stream of visitors. Immediately it became apparent that the map had a strong emotional effect on its viewers. AOG staff members reported to Nance that the experience always was the same. The visitor would quietly enter the room and stand about 10 feet away and stare, then slowly approach the bronze and gently reach out a hand to touch a place of meaning. After a few moments tears would appear and the person would become lost in reflection and memory. Finally the stories would start, followed often by laughter. The physical act of touching seemed to make a deep emotional connection to the soul unlocking a floodgate of memory. Always touching, touching, and touching, as if there was an irresistible human magnet embedded in the bronze recharged with every new touch.

There was one special moment during the ceremony, which will always be etched in Nance’s memory. “The family of a grad killed in action in 1972 approached me while I was standing close to the map. They had only the name of a location where their loved one’s remains had been recovered. I showed them the spot on the map and then quietly withdrew and watched respectfully as the family held each other, cried, and held their hands on the spot, lingering in front of the map long after everyone else had left.”

For Nance, who is now gearing up for a new commission, the past 10 months have been a life altering experience. He sums it up in this way, “Once in a lifetime, if we are lucky, we have the opportunity to be involved in something greater than all of us. I was fortunate to find this opportunity in a bronze map, which took on a life of its own and captured the enthusiasm of everyone who participated in its creation.”

While Nance is justifiably proud of his sculpture, he is honored and grateful for the opportunity to be a part of history; “I believe that this project was the perfect Karmic confluence of people, place, time, and history. Although I had hoped the map would provide a connection to the past, I am completely overwhelmed with the power of the emotional response.”

Nance also believes the map is an affirmation for his life motto, “anything worth doing is worth over doing.” The Grads and Vietnam vets who have already experienced the power of touching the bronze map would certainly agree.

Artist side bar:

James Nance is a 1971 graduate of the USAF Academy, retired pilot, and monumental bronze sculptor. He and his wife Jeanne live in Loveland Colorado, with their two paint horses, and 7 dogs. James can be contacted at 970-669-5507 or email Photos of the bronze map are available on his Website,