SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — As he studied hundreds of photos for images to enshrine at Sarasota National Cemetery, art project leader Larry Kirkland kept coming back to a frame he could not shake.
It was a Defense Department portrait of a young woman in uniform, saluting as a tear ran down her cheek. She was an Air Force staff sergeant. Her name was Alicia Watkins. For six months, Kirkland tried in vain to seek her approval. But the trail was cold.
"We find that Alicia Watkins has retired," Kirkland recalled of his investigation. "Then we find she has been interviewed on the 'Oprah Winfrey Show.'"
He learned Watkins had been in the Pentagon during the 9/11 attack. And that she had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. And that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Then we find out that she was homeless," Kirkland continued in a measured cadence. "We get the last contact for her ... and after that, she just kind of vanished. Until the Boston Marathon bombing."
A dramatic pause. Then: "She gets interviewed. Local television. Phenomenal."
Clutching an American flag, Watkins emerged from nowhere on April 18 to attend a memorial service address by President Barack Obama. Kirkland's team worked the Boston CBS affiliate's lead to contact Watkins. Kirkland delivered the bottom line with a flicker of a smile: "She gave us permission to use her image."
As a result, Watkins' tearful salute will join scores of other veteran-themed photos incorporated into marble markers at Patriot Plaza, The Patterson Foundation's $10 million gift to Sarasota National Cemetery.
For Kirkland, the often tedious detail work is overshadowed by his own intensely personal relationships with matters of war and peace.
"At this time of my life, I can handle this," Kirkland, 63, said. "But if this had come up 20 years ago, I don't know if I would've been ready for it. I think as we age, we understand the world is a complicated place. It's not black and white."
Kirkland has left creative fingerprints across the globe.
From the Mass Transit Railway terminal in Hong Kong and Iwate Prefecture University in Morioka City, Japan, to the National Academies of Science in Washington and the Civil Rights Garden in Atlantic City, his projects are bold and provocative.
Hospitals, libraries, soccer fields, international airports — Kirkland's eye has transformed diverse and ordinary venues into uncommon opportunities for wonder, whimsy and reflection.
But Patriot Plaza, a public showcase for private-sector innovation set for dedication in 2014 by the Department of Veterans Affairs, has forced Kirkland to revisit his own childhood in a way that no other commissioned work has done.
Chosen among 60 artists screened by The Patterson Foundation to confer an unforgettable aesthetic upon the Patriot Plaza, Kirkland built his career with a single thought in mind:
"The first and last question I want to ask in my creative process is, who are we when we are here?" Kirkland said recently at Patterson's office in downtown Sarasota. "Every person that's ever been born, at some time in their life, says, 'Why am I here?' But 'Who are we when we are here?' asks about the kind of community we are."
When Kirkland came aboard, Patterson already had approved the basic design — amphitheater, rostrum, landscaping — submitted by Hoyt Architects of Sarasota. The issue confronting Kirkland and Patterson art consultant Ann Wykell was how to personalize the experience.
That wasn't the only challenge.
"When I first showed some of the images we'd picked, the VA archivist said, 'No, you can't use that one, it has a gun in it,'" Kirkland recalled. "Ann and I kind of looked at each other going, how are we going to do this?"
In 1920, federal legislation banned images of armaments and violence from national cemeteries, reasoning that veterans burial grounds should be a place of "peace and repose." Ultimately, however, those restrictions sharpened their artistic instincts.
"There are other places around the world where battle pictures are shown, but we were not trying to depict that experience of battle," Wykell said. "We were trying to get at the internal experience in each of these soldiers."
With a major assist from Kenny Irby of the photojournalism program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, a review of American war photography spanning three centuries informed Kirkland's ideas on some universal truths.
"When I look at row upon row of people in uniform, instead of seeing a battalion of warriors, I think of them as individuals who have made a choice to be a collective," Kirkland said. "There are musicians, there are dancers, there are poets, there are football players. There's fathers and there's mothers. There's brothers, sisters, grandfathers and grandmas and children.
"These are human stories. They make sacrifices. And it's hard to be in the military. It is hard to be be a military spouse. It is hard to be a military kid."
Kirkland would know.