LAKEWOOD RANCH — A 6-foot, 6-inch tall, 400-pound mass of clay wielding an M-16 and a sniper rifle hulks over Gregory Marra.
Inside a dimly lit garage, a makeshift office filled with buckets and ladders, Marra plucks his tool at the stitching of the giant clay-sculpture’s pockets, like a mosquito pecking at a human arm.
Marra, an East County resident and creator of American Patriots in Art, spent the last two weeks making a life-size sculpture of Chris Kyle, a 38-year-old U.S. Navy SEAL known as the country’s most lethal sniper. Kyle was killed Feb. 2, at a shooting range in Texas.
On March 4, Karl and Carol Wallin, of Lakewood Ranch — friends of Gene Sweeney, Marra’s business partner — packed the sculpture into their tractor-trailer and began the drive to Schafer Art Bronze, in Arlington, Texas, near Kyle’s hometown of Midlothian, where the statue will be bronzed.
The trailer left from Marra’s studio and was escorted by Patriot Guard Riders and Florida Highway Patrol officers onto Interstate 75.
Marra and Sweeney will meet the trailer March 7 in Arlington.
Through Kyle’s sister-in-law, the family spokesperson, Marra invited the Kyle family, including his wife, Taya, and their two children to view the sculpture at Schafer Art Bronze.
Marra will hold three private viewings, by invitation only, March 8 to March 10.
Marra has been sending photos to Kyle’s sister-in-law throughout the creation process. The photos document changes made during the two weeks, including a late decision to remove sunglasses from the sculpture’s eyes — “too generic,” Marra said — and to add to the sculpture’s head a hat fitted with the logo of Craft International, a security training company Kyle founded.
The logo shows a skull with a target aimed at its right eye, encircled around the words, “Despite what your mamma told you … violence does solve problems.”
Marra, a classically trained sculptor and practicing artist since 1998, started his career as a painter, first putting ink to pad while playing college football in New Jersey, where he grew up.
A history buff who studied the Renaissance art of Tuscany and European history at the University of Hartford, Marra knew Kyle’s tale well.
He had read Kyle’s autobiography and followed him on “Sons of Guns,” a reality TV show on the Discovery Channel.
Marra is 38 years old, the same age as Kyle when he died.
Marra has young children, like Kyle did. But the two never met.
At a Sarasota Veterans Commission meeting a year ago, Marra talked about his two-year-old American Patriots in Art with the Navy SEALS Foundation. Representatives from the foundation wanted Marra to build a generic statue commemorating the Navy SEALS.
In December, Marra welded a skeleton of the generic sculpture, a smaller mock-up version of the end piece, tracing a friend’s body against a wall.
“I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’” Marra said. “This is so generic. The statue needed to be somebody.”
Sweeney called Marra the day Kyle died; Marra was driving to Ringling College, where he teaches art.
“Gene said, ‘I have the perfect model,’” Marra said. “‘Chris Kyle just died.’ I thought, ‘Wow. Chris made miracles every day, so I can turn this generic statue into a memorial of Kyle.’”
Marra set out to turn the clay into a mirror image of Kyle, with limits.
Too much reality would make the sculpture look robotic. Not enough detail would make it historically inaccurate.
Marra worked from a small photograph he printed out of Kyle, details of which he memorized.
As clay dust floated in the thick air of his studio, during the last of the 160 hours Marra would spend on the project, the sculptor moisturized the sniper, spraying the sculpture with water — all the way to its size 12 shoes — so it wouldn’t crack on its journey to Texas.
“I hope this can cause at least a minute amount of healing and closure for the family,” Marra said. “When I work, I feel like Chris (Kyle) is patting me on the shoulder and saying, ‘You’ve done good.’”