Sculptor Karen Jobe Templeton's thoughts kept coming back to the wives and mothers as, day after day after day, she listened to radio accounts in August of the Crandall Canyon mine disaster. She would look around the light-filled studio she and her devoted husband, Kent, had spent two years building behind their home in this community between Price and Helper, and ponder: "How would I deal with losing Kent, if I had nothing to touch, to feel?"
She resolved to do something about it.
This week, Templeton is delivering clay bas-relief sculptures of the disaster's nine victims to a foundry in Lehi. There, they will be cast in bronze and mounted on a curved wall that will memorialize the tragedy. The monument, titled "Heroes Among Us," will be erected along the highway leading from Huntington to the mine, within eyeshot of the junior high school where the families gathered for nearly two weeks, hoping in vain for good news to emerge from the rescue operation.
But the news only got worse, as three rescuers were killed Aug. 16 trying to reach the six men trapped when the mine's walls blew in 10 days earlier.
The highly individualized faces of each of the nine will be displayed prominently across the breadth of the monument (16 feet wide, 6 feet tall), rescuers facing the original six. Their bronzed features will extend out from a concrete background, open to being caressed by a loved one, a friend or someone simply touched by the sadness of the whole thing.
Each family also will receive a bust of their own, for home.
Getting to this juncture has been a rich, meaningful but sometimes anxious journey for Templeton, a nurse by training.
"It's been a very intense experience. It's loving. It's sorrowful. This whole mix of emotions," she said. "It takes all of my strength and thought power."
There were money concerns, until Jon Huntsman Sr. stepped forward in early April with a $100,000 donation that assured the work could be finished. And deadlines come fast, too fast sometimes when the hope is to have the monument in place around the anniversaries of the twin-tipped disaster.
But most enriching to Templeton - taxing too - has been the chance to get to know victims' family members, a few fairly intimately. "Every one of the families has these stories that come from the soul," she said. Some things she has heard "have never been shared anywhere, just sweet, personal things."
Templeton's nursing experience equipped her well to interact with folks dealing with loss, resetting their lives. They have come to watch her work, individually and in family units, for short spells or for hours, sometimes silently. But often they talk. "It's like a door opens up and they tell you everything they knew about [the victim]. That's what a memorial is supposed to be."
Her receptive ear quickly earned Templeton the respect of Wendy Black, whose husband Dale perished in the rescue effort.
"It's not just that Karen's such a good artist. It's the way she comes across with her mannerisms," said Black. "She's the sweetest woman I've ever met. She wants our opinions and she lets you touch [the figures]. That's important."
Black pushed hard for Templeton to get the memorial contract when the families chose a sculptor in mid-December, through a process overseen by Huntington Mayor Hilary Gordon and Mike Mower, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s aide.
The selection seems like a natural fit to Gordon, who visited Templeton's studio earlier this month and came away impressed, even though most figures were still works in progress.
"The expressions in their eyes and the looks on their faces were amazing," Gordon said. "She didn't just capture the outside image. She captured what I would call their inner soul, that sense of what made them a person."
Trying to achieve that was the source of Templeton's greatest angst. She did not want to disappoint the families, who already had suffered so much. But at times the photographs she worked from, some shot on cell phones, made it hard to precisely capture the prominence of cheekbones, the width of noses, the propensity for flashing a mischievous grin.
And she knew precision meant everything to family members. "I try to be as real as I can," Templeton said, "but if the family says 'no, he wasn't like that,' I go with them."
Getting it just right was not always easy. "Sometimes likenesses come quickly. Others, I have to fight to find it."
Case in point: Carlos Payan. In her studio is a montage of nearly a dozen blown-up pictures of the 22-year-old, some with a goatee, some clean shaven, some with a full head of hair, some closely cropped. After five weeks of working on Payan, English-only Templeton zeroed in on him only after his Spanish-speaking mother came up from Mexico and "we communicated through a third party on a cell phone on speaker."
Casandra Phillips found that every time Templeton added a little more clay, her big brother Brandon blossomed, sporting a familiar half smile. Her mother could not watch the process, Phillips said. It hurt her, too, but "I still wanted to go to make sure it looked good."
A full-scale grin fills the face of fallen rescuer Brandon Kimber. Templeton wondered if a big smile was appropriate for a memorial, but became convinced it was after Kimber's ex-wife Kristin told her that "he smiled all the time. It was not just his face but his whole body. You could tell from his stance. To be honest, [his face] needed to be like that. There are a lot of complexities with life and death, and the monument will be like that."
Such insight is familiar to Lisa Chamberlain, who used to share a studio with Templeton in Helper and is helping her now, mostly with her subjects' hardhats and miner gear.
"A Karen person is a real person with foibles and all the things that came with being human," she said. "She feels really deeply about people and it shows up in her work."
Because she does, it bothers Templeton a bit that "I'm developing relationships with nine dead men who I only got to know because they're dead." But those thoughts are fleeting, overcome by the realization she is giving the families something they can hold onto for generations.
It's then, she knows, that "this is the most important thing I've ever done."
As evidence, consider Kristin Kimber's reaction the first time she saw Brandon's finished face.
"It was like him staring at me. For a second, he came back to life," she said. "It was a very sweet moment looking at him like that."
Kimber was so touched she returned soon to Templeton's studio with their three children, 6-year-old Bryton and the twins, Peyton and Paxton, age 4.
"My oldest has been struggling," she said. "She had to touch his face. All she said was, 'That's my daddy.' She whispered it. It was heart-wrenching, but it was beautiful at the same time. I'm just so grateful Karen gave us that."