Sculpting out of an earnest passion to "explore the domains of existence, and capture the deep resonances of our commonality," Frederick Hart devoted his life to honing the craft of sculpture, and experimenting with new mediums. After he achieved international recognition for his work on Washington National Cathedral, Hart's sculpture of three soldiers at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial changed the national landscape forever.
Growing up, Hart was obsessed with drawing. He was an avid reader, but a troubled student. As a teenager, he quarreled with his parents, who did not approve of his grand artistic ambitions. When he failed ninth grade, the school principal challenged him to take the college entrance exams. Hart's parents and the principal were stunned when he got a near-perfect score, and on the basis of that score, he was granted early admission to the University of South Carolina. At the age of sixteen, he began a degree in philosophy.
However, Hart would not be on campus for long. In 1961, African-American students in South Carolina led a protest march for civil rights. Hart was the only white student to join them. As punishment, he was expelled from the University of South Carolina, thrown in jail, and then chased out of town by the Ku Klux Klan.
Hart later moved to Washington, D.C., where his fifteen-year-old sister was treated for leukemia. In the turbulent period following her illness and death, Hart was adrift, disconsolate, until, as he said, "I stumble into a sculpture class at the Corcoran School of Art, and I'm blown away."
Searching for an opportunity to develop his own artistic identity while making ends meet, Hart dropped out of college to work for Giorgio Gianetti Architectural Plaster Studio. He also assisted sculptor Felix de Weldon, the creator of the iconic United States Marine Corps Memorial. Then he heard about Roger Morigi.
At the age of eleven, Roger Morigi had begun his training as a stone carver in Milan, Italy. After coming over to the United States, and chiseling marble friezes for the Supreme Court Building, Morigi took charge of the team of experienced stone carvers tasked with the decoration of Washington National Cathedral. Hart wanted to train under Morigi, as an apprentice. In 1967, he landed a job at the cathedral, in the only position available: mail clerk. Eventually, his plan worked. Morigi took notice of Hart, and offered him the apprenticeship he had long sought. Hart's subsequent mastery of carving would serve as the foundation for his development as a sculptor in various mediums.
In 1971, the Washington National Cathedral Building Committee announced a major competition. Sculptors were asked to submit designs for the west façade, the main entrance to the cathedral. This competition resulted in the largest commission of religious art in the United States in the twentieth century. For Hart, it was a major breakthrough. His winning design took over ten years to complete, and his mentor, Roger Morigi, helped put the finishing touches on the final carving.
In 1980, Hart entered another important competition: the competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In this competition, which was open to individuals, as well as teams of sculptors and architects, Hart's team placed third. However, in response to the controversy surrounding the winning architect's design, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund tasked Hart, as the most highly ranked sculptor in the competition, to provide a sculptural component.
Following the approval of his design for a sculpture of three soldiers, Hart spent years obsessing over the details. At one point, just as he had completed one of the figures, he reached for a heavy tool, and chopped off the figure's face. Then he started it over again. Hart was a perfectionist. Aiming for realism, he would settle for nothing less than an authentic expression. At every stage of his work, he consulted veterans, looking for anything he could use, anything which might speak to their experiences of the war.
Finally, with the clay model finished, the lost wax technique was used to cast the sculpture in bronze. On Veterans Day, November 11, 1984, Hart's Three Soldiers was unveiled at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was his first major work in bronze.
Many of Hart's sculptures were cast in bronze, but as his career progressed, he focused more and more on developing an entirely new medium for sculpture, using transparent and semi-transparent acrylic materials. In these, his most distinctive sculptures, "The sculpture is defined purely by light." According to Hart, cast acrylic resin sculpture offers a "very delicate sense of image… suggestive of dreams, memories, and visions."
In 1991, Hart created and donated sculpture to benefit the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA), and in 1993, Operation Smile International. Hart's life-size sculpture of former President Jimmy Carter was unveiled in Atlanta in 1994, and the following year he created and donated a portrait of Ruby Middleton Forsythe, honoring the African-American educator who taught in a one-room schoolhouse on Pawley's Island near Hart's mother's family home in Conway, South Carolina.
In 1997, he presented his unprecedented acrylic sculpture, The Cross of the Millennium, to Pope John Paul II, who told the sculptor, "You have created a profound theological statement for our day." Following his death in 1999, Hart was awarded the National Medal of Arts, in recognition of "his important body of work – including the Washington National Cathedral's Creation Sculptures and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial's Three Soldiers – which heralded a new age for contemporary public art."