George Segal, sculptor of Holocaust work, dies at 75

But this week, the flowers are not just a remembrance of 6 million lost. They are scattered in memory of the piece's creator.

Segal, internationally known for his realistic and often controversial plaster sculptures, died of cancer in his South Brunswick, N.J., home June 9. He was 75.

Locally, Segal is best known for "Holocaust" as well as his 1994 sculpture "Gay Liberation," a portrayal of two same-sex couples, which adorns the Stanford University campus.

The New York native's works are owned by museums across the continents. His United States commissions include "In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State: Abraham and Isaac," on the Princeton University campus, and "Depression Breadline" in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A plaster model of Segal's "Holocaust" is housed in the Jewish Museum in New York.

"Through his art he brought some highly relevant messages to the people," said William J. Lowenberg, a longtime friend of Segal's and a San Francisco Jewish community activist. "He was highly respected in our community."

Lowenberg, who is a survivor, remembers Segal as "a very fine artist and a loyal friend." He met Segal in the 1980s, while serving on a mayor's committee to raise funds for a Holocaust memorial sculpture and find an artist to produce it. Lowenberg convinced Segal to take on the project.

"He hadn't intended to do a piece based on the Holocaust," said Lowenberg, who is a survivor. "But I met with him and found him extremely sensitive and very receptive. And what we got out of it is what we have today — a magnificent piece of art."

Roselyne Swig, a community activist and co-chair of the memorial's design committee, said Segal didn't originally think he could undertake the project properly.

"He was very worried about how he could transmit what he felt the sculpture deserved," she said, noting that Lowenberg spoke to Segal for several hours about his wartime experiences. "We encouraged him to think about it…At the end of the day he still wasn't sure. Then he went home and though about it and, well, the rest is history."

Swig said the piece "really gets to the heart of the matter — it's provocative and emotional…It's not a sculpture you want to see just once."

The ghostly scene, which was actually cast in bronze covered with a white patina, depicts a group of Holocaust victims lying dead on the ground while a lone surviving man peers out through barbed wire. Because of the sculpture's placement near the Golden Gate Bridge, the man appears to be looking out over the Pacific Ocean.

Harry Parker, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said the piece is filled with "emotional content."

Parker added that the landscape surrounding the sculpture was recently opened up, making the work more visible from the road.

"Now you can see it from your car when you drive by the park," he said. "You can see it and really feel it. It's very moving."

Segal was born in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1926. The son of a kosher butcher, Segal memorialized his father, Jacob's, shop in one of his sculptures.

In 1940, Segal moved with his family to a farm near South Brunswick, N.J., where he lived until his death. Working for much of his career in a 300-foot-long former chicken coop on his family's farm, Segal achieved his realistic statues by wrapping live models in plaster-soaked gauze to make a mold.

Segal studied art at Cooper Union Art School , Pratt Institute, New York University, Rutgers and the State University of New Jersey. He earned a bachelor's degree in art education and a master's degree in fine art in 1963.

The recipient of many awards and honors, Segal received the 1998 Premium Imperiale from Japan and the 1999 National Medal of the Arts.

"Everything he has done had a message and a sensitivity about life," said Lowenberg. "He'll be missed."

Segal is survived by his wife, Helen Steinberg; a daughter, a son and a brother.