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Larger Than 'Life'

Crowds are drawn to a sculpture that depicts a famous photograph from the end of World War II.

By RODNEY THRASH
Published March 27, 2006


[Times photos: Bill Serne]
Robert Vander of St. Augustine is dwarfed by the figures in Unconditional Surrender
.

Sam Campanaro of Rochester, N.Y., tries to re-create the image of Unconditional Surrender as he kisses his wife, Lonnie Mendola.
THE KISS: J. Seward Johnson's Unconditional Surrender is one of 25 pieces on display now through May 31 as part of the Sarasota Season of Sculpture. See www.seasonofsculpture.com for information.
SARASOTA --Hordes of people, many of them from other states and other parts of the world, are making pilgrimages to the downtown bayfront. And it's not so they can dip their toes in the water.

They come to see Unconditional Surrender, a 25-foot-tall, 10,000-pound statue of a man and a woman entwined in a back-bending lip lock. The sculpture is J. Seward Johnson's interpretation of the famous Life magazine photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day, Aug. 14, 1945.

The piece, one of 25 on display as part of the Sarasota Season of Sculpture, is causing a stir. There's a movement to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep it here permanently. Others say May 31, the last day of the outdoor exhibit, can't come fast enough.

Meanwhile, lines keep forming in front of the statue, day and night. Couples smooch. Cameras flash. Schoolchildren get a quick history lesson on World War II.

And guys?

Well, they figure it's a free shot at looking up a woman's skirt.

Phyllis Lucas wants to see her grandson pucker up just once.

"C'mon," she prods. "Please. It will only take a second."

It's a little before noon on a breezy Tuesday morning. The 68-year-old Venice woman is in line with her grandson and his girlfriend, visiting from Columbus, Ohio, on spring break.

Lucas Brown, the 20-year-old grandson, doesn't understand why so many people, his nana among them, are waiting for their turn in front of the statue. Lucas has never heard of Alfred Eisenstaedt, the photographer who snapped the iconic image that inspired this giant replica. He can't recall ever seeing the picture, known around the globe as "The Kiss."

His girlfriend, Christina Stiltner, 19, doesn't even know of the artwork's connection to World War II. She thinks it's a statue about love and "how much relationships are important in America."

Lucas and Christina are students at Ohio State. She's a nursing major. He's premed.

"I'm a science guy, not a history guy," Lucas says.

His grandmother, only a few years old in 1945, shares what little she knows about "The Kiss" and the couple memorialized in the frame.

"This was after World War II in New York," says Phyllis. "He didn't even know her. It was freedom."

"Oh," Christina says. "Really?"

Phyllis, done with her tutorial, has one request. She wants her grandson to score that kiss for her camera.

Lucas laughs. "Everybody's watching," he says.

His grandmother turns to the people in line. "Everyone," she tells them, "turn around and look that way."

Most oblige. Lucas throws his woman back and lays one on her.

For nana.

***

Lonnie Mendola, 68, is irritated.

Her husband, Sam Campanaro, won't just pose and smile like everybody else. He wants to dip and kiss his wife, exactly like the sailor and nurse in the statue.

"I'm a photographer," says Sam, 77, who worked for Kodak for four decades. "This is my favorite Life magazine photo."

He and his wife are newlyweds living in Rochester, N.Y. They've been married since June. Now, determined to get the moment right, he cradles her head with his left arm. Just like in the original photo, he makes sure his left arm is perpendicular to the ground. Lonnie arches her back and bends her right leg to a 45-degree angle. Her left arm falls limp.

Sam leans in to manhandle his sweetheart. Lonnie mumbles, "Hurry up!"

***

Louise McBride needs to get rid of some film.

"Go up there," she tells the guy beside her. "Grab her leg."

Geoff Chambers and his wife, Thelma, live in England. They're vacationing in Sarasota, visiting Louise. The three of them have been friends for years. Both Geoff and Thelma are 70; Louise prefers not to give her exact age.

"Fifty plus," she says.

At Louise's urging, Geoff walks up to the statue and wraps his arms around the giant woman's leg. Then he tilts his head back and stares up her skirt.

"The dirty old man," Louise says.

"There's nothing there to see," says Geoff. "I'm too old to be perverted."

He's here for another reason.

"We've got a special feeling about this statue," he confesses. "Our son started a band in England and they used 'The Kiss' on the cover of the album.

"When we get home and show that picture to my son, he won't believe it."

***n

Tim and Jami Childs gaze up at the couple in the sculpture.

"We kind of know what they're feeling right there," says Tim, 29.

He and his wife live in Michigan City, Ind. Until 2003, he was an aviation electronics technician in the Navy. He spent two six-month tours overseas aboard the USS Carl Vinson and the USS Nimitz.

"When I would get off cruise," he says, "the first thing I wanted to do was to kiss my wife."

And that's the first thing she wanted from him.

"It was hard being alone for six months," says Jami, 27. "Dropping him off, it was rough. You don't want to let go. Not knowing where he was, what he was doing.

"When he got back you feel a release and then you get those feelings all over again, like you just met somebody, like the butterflies. You're excited to see him.

"I feel bad for all the families that have lost. I feel lucky that I have my husband here with me."

***n

John Kevis stands transfixed.

Suddenly it is August 1945, and he is in Manhattan, wandering Madison Avenue on V-J Day. He is 14 years old, and he and his mother have taken the train from the Bronx to absorb the spectacle of a nation celebrating the end of a war.

Above them, people are throwing rolls of toilet paper from skyscraper windows. The rolls fall toward the street, unfolding in long streams. White sailor hats fly in the air. The crowd presses close.

John's mother grabs his arm.

"Hold on to me," she tells him.

These days John is a retired pharmacist living in Bradenton. He's 74 now. But as he looks up at the statue, he can still hear his mother's voice, still feel the electricity of that day 60 years ago.

He has visited the statue several times because it brings back so much of his youth.

"My mother's gone," he says. "My father's gone. And I remember the events. When I saw this, it came back vividly. I was there."

Times staff writer Rodney Thrash can be reached at 727 893-8352 or rthrash@sptimes.com.

[Last modified March 27, 2006, 06:16:26]


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