CUSHING, Maine — One morning last December, Jane Woodruff drove the 90 minutes to this town on the mid-coast, parked her Honda Civic on the road near a towering wooden sculpture, and claimed a slice of the Bernard Langlais estate.
Woodruff, a retiree and amateur photographer, packed three wooden reliefs in the trunk and headed to Pittsfield, Maine, where, within days, the works — none larger than 1 by 4 ½ feet — had been installed near the town library’s circulation desk.
Three down, 3,297 to go. That’s the number of works that are being distributed across Maine in what should be called the summer of Langlais. A series of shows and installations, dedicated to a Mainer most famous for the 62-foot wooden Indian sculpture that sits in the town of Skowhegan, is launching this month.
The project is startling in scope, as unorthodox as the artist’s career, and the result of a complex collaboration between a college art museum, land preservationists, and a Wisconsin-based nonprofit art foundation. For the public, the benefit is much simpler: a chance to explore one of New England’s most underappreciated artists.
By year’s end, most of Langlais’s creations will have been distributed across the state, free of charge, to institutions small and large. The Langlais Art Trail, comprising more than 50 sites across Maine, will be navigable online through a website. On July 19, the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville opens a Langlais show featuring 187 works, the majority from its collection. And the late artist’s 90-acre property in Cushing is being reborn as a public sculpture park with miles of walking trails.
“To me, this is such a lesson in perseverance,” said Sharon Corwin, director of the Colby museum, which inherited the works four years ago and developed the plan. “It was so unclear how this was going to end, and the fact is it ends up appreciating Langlais’s legacy, and being true to that legacy.”
The story of the project starts in rural Maine almost a century ago, proceeds to the hippest galleries of New York City in the 1960s, and ends in a drafty barn, where a young, almost hopelessly optimistic curator tried to make an overwhelming bequest manageable.
On a drizzly recent afternoon, that curator, Hannah Blunt, 30, wore rubber boots as she and Corwin offered a tour of the Cushing property. This is where Langlais lived and worked from 1966 until his early death in 1977. His wife, Helen, remained here until her death in 2010. She left Colby’s museum the house, two barns, 90 acres, $750,000, and Langlais’s art.
“She was art rich and cash poor,” Blunt said, walking past a 7-foot-tall sculpture of a girl in a pink dress meant to be Christina Olson, the model for “Christina’s World,” the painting by Langlais’s more famous mid-coast neighbor, Andrew Wyeth.
Blunt, a New Hampshire native, had curated a small show of Langlais’s art for the museum in 2007. Three years later, Corwin called Blunt with a new assignment: Would she move into the Cushing home and try to take an inventory? Even the largest art museums are discriminating in what they accept for donations. For the Colby, which has only 12 people on staff and 8,000 works in its collection, the idea of overseeing a sprawling property so far away was not an option. Then there was the art. Corwin had been told that there were 2,000 pieces. As Blunt started picking through the barns, that number rose.
“I’d call and say, ‘I think I found another 500 works on paper,’” said Blunt.
“And I kept thinking, what are we going to do with this art?” said Corwin.
Struggling to save artwork
That question drove Helen Langlais during her life. Financial struggles led to her pushing Maine to create an artists’ estate tax law, which was put in place in 1980. The law meant she could donate art rather than have to pay estate taxes.
Helen, a Skowhegan native, had met Bernard through a friend in New York City in 1952. They were married three years later.
Langlais, known to friends as Blackie, was born in 1921 in Old Town, two hours north of Cushing. He learned his woodworking skills from his father, went to art school, joined the Navy, and eventually settled in New York City. He was an oil painter for years, but abandoned that work in 1958 to create assemblages of wood that could be stained, chopped, painted, carved, or all of the above.
In the early ’60s, Langlais got gallery shows, along with raves in Art News and Art in America. “He was red hot,” said Alex Katz, the famous figurative artist who rented space in the same loft as Langlais and grew to be good friends with him.
But as the ’60s wore on, Langlais fell out of fashion. He had a summer place in Cushing, and in 1966 he moved there for good.
“He said he was going to go to Maine and carve seagulls,” said Katz, who spent summers in Maine before moving there full-time.
Langlais did carve seagulls — and horses, and bears, and football players, and Richard Nixon. These oversized figures, often painted in bright colors, were left outside to weather in Maine’s rugged winters. The 13-foot-high “Horse” — which is still there on the front lawn — served as a kind of road sign for passersby. The Skowhegan Indian, transported on a flatbed truck from the Cushing home, was installed in 1969.
This was outsider art decades before the term became fashionable among auction houses and dealers.
Langlais worked inside, too, filling two barns with art, including wooden reliefs small enough to fit into a backpack.
There was work, then there were parties. A photo from 1966 shows the artist, a heavy drinker, with a Budweiser can in hand as he sits on a bench gazing at a model for “Horse.” Another photo, from 1976, shows him working a timber with a crowbar and chainsaw, his unruly gray hair falling over his shoulders.
“Blackie’s motto was everything to excess,” said Katz. “He worked hard, he played very hard. He was just flat out.”
When he died at just 56 in 1977, of congestive heart failure, Langlais left about 3,500 works. But nobody knew the exact number until much later, when Blunt counted them.
Blunt never met Helen Langlais, but during her two winters in Cushing, her sense of connection with the artist’s widow deepened. Blunt searched her notes, sales records, loan agreements, letters. She found a slip of notebook paper from May 1978, five months after her husband’s death.
“For me, losing Bernard is as the moon losing the sun. Still I try to go on reflecting his light.”
Robin Mandel, Blunt’s fiancé, lived with her at the house. “They never met, but through those notes, Hannah did get to know Helen,” Mandel said. “I think Helen was as much a part of this project as Blackie was, in her tireless stewardship.”
That same sense of responsibility drove Blunt. As she catalogued the art, she began to contact outside organizations that might help Colby.
She heard about the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation from a friend at the nearby Farnsworth Art Museum. The 74-year-old organization, with more than $200 million in assets, has a history of preserving art installations across the country, and relocating works when they can no longer remain in place.
“We felt that the art itself had merit,” said Terri Yoho, executive director of the foundation. “What was difficult for us was to find an appropriate steward to keep it in the future.”
Colby solved part of that problem. The college sold the Cushing house to Kohler for $250,000, adding to that the $750,000 from the Langlais bequest. This money would be used to care for the collection. Colby also gave Kohler 2,924 artworks to distribute.
Last summer, local newspapers wrote about the arrangement. The New York Times, in its antiques column, referenced Kohler’s open call.
“We thought we would have to go out and actively pursue institutions, but with a little bit of publicity, we were pursued,” said Yoho. “A lot of very humble calls from small institutions asking, ‘Is there any chance we can be considered?’
That took care of the art, but Colby still had to deal with the 90 acres of land. Blunt approached several organizations — she won’t name them — before finding a partner in the Georges River Land Trust.
The trust oversees about 3,500 acres of land on the river. It does not oversee sculpture parks. Gail Presley, executive director of the land trust, credits Blunt for helping broker a partnership in which the Land Trust will oversee the open space and Colby will maintain the nine sculptures on site.
During a recent visit, Corwin and Blunt were shown some of the restoration work underway. A Richard Nixon, arms outstretched, was under a tarp, drying out in the woods. Other pieces were in a barn, where Ronald Harvey, a conservationist, showed off works that were drying out. A hose extending out of the barn into a plastic jug measured the runoff from the drying wood — about a gallon of water each day. Why measure? Curiosity, Harvey said.
Corwin crouched as Harvey, using a flashlight, showed off the inside of a carved timber that had been restored. The rot had been carved out and replaced by epoxy.
Talk turned to another work, a 10-foot-tall wooden bear Corwin had passed outside, which had been repainted.
“The bear looks amazing,” said Corwin.
“I’m already sad it’s leaving,” said Harvey.
“That’s how Langlais felt,” said Blunt. “He would never sell anything.”
“But he kept making them,” said Harvey.
The bear would be hitting the road soon. Later this summer, it will head down US 1. Bound for Portland, where it is destined to greet travelers in the new cruise ship terminal.