June 17, 2024 #1 Local News, Forum, Information and Event Source for Venice Beach, California.

How a Venice Filmmaker Became the Man Behind America’s Top Aerospace Statues

Before the Monument Business, Steven Barber Was an Entertainer, an Actor, a Novelist, and a Documentarian.

By Zach Armstrong

Forty years after Sally Ride lifted off to become the first American woman in space, a life-size statue of her was unveiled at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library last month in Simi Valley, California. The ceremony was witnessed by a crowd of 4,000. In the crowd was Ride’s sister along with her 99-year-old mother. 

Also in the crowd was Steven C. Barber, the man who envisioned the monument and made sure its creation became reality. Before Sally, he did the same for the Apollo 11 monument at the Kennedy Space Center and the Apollo 13 monument at Space Center Houston.

During construction of the Ride monument, Barber visited her grave at Woodlawn Cemetery, speaking to her and cleaning off the grave. “What hit home for me was the picture of Sally Ride’s mom looking up at her daughter. It just moved me to tears. I thought, ‘Oh my God, look what I was able to do for this woman whose daughter died of horrific cancer 12 years ago.’” 

But Barber’s journey to this moment is not a life full of sculpting and aerospace dedication. He was an entertainer, an actor, a novelist, a documentarian. It was a series of serendipitous circumstances and events that have turned him into the man behind some of the most preeminent and impressive statues honoring America’s aviation heroes.

Barber came to Los Angeles in the early 1980s for a career in radio, but instead had a brief stint working on several films and television shows. From there, he would spend the rest of that decade and into the early 1990s traveling 10 million nautical miles on 19 cruise ships as a disc jockey. This inspired him to write a novel, “Below the Waterline,” which was published in 2007.

After life on the sea, Barber returned to California and bankrolled everything he had with $50,000 in camera equipment for a new chapter as a documentary filmmaker. In 2009, he released his first documentary “Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story”, about a World War II veteran returning to the site of a battle he fought in. Shortly after, Barber’s apartment neighbor Jeff, a man in a wheelchair “with an upper body like Schwarzenegger”, told him about a 300-mile race between Anchorage and Fairbanks. What happened next? Barber documented 31 paraplegics taking part in this race over the course of six days to make his second documentary “Unbeaten”. The film was narrated by Dan Aykroyd and made the 2010 Oscar shortlist.

This drive for documentary filmmaking that highlights those that are brave and admirable led Barber and his wife to launch Vanilla Fire Productions in 2007, a full-service documentary and commercial video production house. 

While working on a documentary about Buzz Aldrin’s life, what seemed like an unfortunate event turned out to be the catalyst for Barber’s new chapter as the man behind monuments. By the time Barber raised $50,000 for the film, Aldrin was in the middle of a lawsuit which grinded those plans to a halt. Livid and frustrated, Barber went for a bike ride during which he envisioned statues of the astronauts he admired as a kid.

In 2018, Barber got a call from the Kennedy Space Center after he pitched NASA the idea of 12 moonwalker monuments. KSC couldn’t do a dozen monuments, but it was up for an Apollo 11 statue to accommodate its Moon Tree Garden. There was one condition: Barber had to fundraise the money. Before he convinced Rocket Mortgage to provide $750,000, he contacted the acclaimed Lundeen Sculpture group which agreed to sculpt Apollo 11 as long as Barber found the funds.  

By the time Barber only had a quarter of the needed money, he visited Lundeen’s studio where he found all three statues were already up in clay. They were sure the money would come and that they wanted to be part of the project. 

In 2019, the bronze statue of Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins was unveiled at Kennedy Space Center’s Moon Tree Garden.

A similar trajectory happened for Barber to manifest his hope for the Apollo 13 monument. He raised another $750,000, then called up the Lundeens to get the job done. Now, a seven-foot bronze statue depicting Apollo 13 astronauts, Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise, stepping down from the recovery helicopter onto the USS Iwo Jima stands at Space Center Houston. “Through our new Apollo 13 sculpture, we are educating the public how innovation, perseverance and true teamwork can achieve incredible success,” William T. Harris, president and CEO of Space Center Houston, states on its website.

With these prominent aerospace statue projects under his belt, Barber had a thought: Where’s the women? The 40th anniversary of the mission that made Sally Ride the first American woman in space was approaching, so he contacted her family and soon helped create the Lundeen’s Sally Ride monument now at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City on Long Island, unveiled in 2022. Barber subsequently contacted the Ronald Reagan Library for a similar project of Ride. 

Barber’s diverse body of work isn’t over. He anticipates his tenth documentary to release next year, while he also has plans in motion for sculptures of the first Hispanic woman in space Ellen Ochoa and the first Black man in space Guion Bluford. As someone who admits he was once not so humble, Barber says the monument business has humbled him greatly. 

“Nobody wakes up in the morning and says ‘I gotta have a monument.’ This is a real tough sell. You have to really take the idea to somebody, then you have to explain to them why it’s a good idea, then it takes time to mature.” said Barber. “The monument business is not for the faint of heart.”

in News, upbeat
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