Artist Bernard “Blackie” Langlais with several outdoor sculptures in 197 (Photo by David Hiser)
Artist Bernard “Blackie” Langlais with several outdoor sculptures in 197 (Photo by David Hiser)
Bernard “Blackie” Langlais got a phone call during the Watergate years from his art dealer telling him kids were throwing rocks at his large outdoor sculpture of Nixon, which was on display at a museum.

Known by locals as the guy with the large wooden Trojan Horse in front of a weathered shingled house on the Cushing peninsula, Blackie Langlais is generally known in Maine as a sculptor of large wooden animals: elephants, giraffes, lions, cats, alligators, and dogs. The 64-foot-tall Skowhegan Indian may be his best known work in Maine, but the sculptor is a favorite native son.

Outside of the state, he was a known name on the national art scene: first as a painter, but primarily as a sculptor who broke artistic ground with his wooden relief panels — some purely abstract and others with representations of people and animals combined with abstract elements.

Langlais never stopped learning. He couldn’t stop creating. And he didn’t see art as precious and apart from the world.

“Throwing rocks at Nixon?” Langlais said to his art dealer, John Payson, who recounted the story in “Bernard Langlais: The Middle Years,” a companion book to a Langlais exhibit in New York in 1986.

“Great,” he said. “He deserves it.”

Today, Langlais has been gone for over 30 years and the scowling Nixon, fully restored in 1970s Kodachrome-like colors, scowls from a small pond behind the house and workshop at the new Langlais Sculpture Preserve in Cushing, arms raised high and flashing the Double Vee for victory.

The Langlais Sculpture Preserve, which will celebrate its grand opening on Saturday, September 16, is something of a victory, itself — and a departure for its new owner, the Georges River Land Trust, an organization based in Rockland that focuses on land conservation in the watershed of the St. George River, which runs roughly 45 miles from Liberty to the Cushing peninsula.

If this were a different place or a different time, the Langlais farm could have become a national park or a national historic monument, such was the contribution of the artist to American sculpture. Instead, it was the small local land trust that said yes to taking charge of the Langlais legacy and of the 70 acres of woods and another 20 of rocky pasture with frontage on the St. George River.

In doing so, the Georges River Land Trust has become the keeper of some of Langlais’ largest artwork and of the surroundings from which he drew inspiration for the final third of his art career from 1966 to his death in 1977; the place on River Road that Blackie called his “environmental complex.”

For Maine artists, landscape is never far from their work. That turned out to be true for Langlais, though he was well established in his career as a painter before he fully discovered how tied he was to his Maine roots and how much he loved working with wood.

The eldest of ten children born to an Old Town carpenter, Langlais spent six years in the Navy, studied commercial art on the G.I. Bill, then studied fine art back in Maine on scholarship at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture before going to study from masters in New York and Europe.

Back in New York, luck had Langlais and his new bride, Helen Friend Langlais, living above a wood shop in the city. Proximity led to innovation and it wasn’t long before Langlais was working with wood scraps, incorporating his training and branching out to do something no one else was doing: taking scraps of wood and designing relief sculptures based on the different grains and textures of the wood. By 1957, he mostly left painting behind and became established in the New York art world as a sculptor — something he said suited him for its physicality as much as its creativity. Langlais refined his new technique of choosing pieces of wood based on their grains to design and construct reliefs that hung like paintings. He called it painting with wood. Others took it up, briefly, then left it behind. Langlais fully embraced it.

Blackie and Helen Langlais had established a place in Cushing for the summers. By 1966, economic circumstances forced them to choose: keep the loft in New York or keep the farm. Knowing it would limit Blackie Langlais’ rise in the art world, they chose the Cushing farm.

In Maine, Langlais became an ardent figurative sculptor. Inspiration came from the landscape, the horses, geese, and other domestic animals he brought to the Cushing farm. Maine trees provided the raw materials from which he picked and chose, according to grain and color, playing different textures against each other in large free-standing sculptures and in low-relief hanging wall sculptures.

The sculptures he created were both folklorish and approachable and also deeply influenced by the modern art of the first half of the twentieth century.

 


Helen Friend Langlais, who became a local school teacher, shepherded the sculpture and art collection and kept the Cushing farm intact after her husband’s death in 1977 at the age of 56.

In 2010, she gave the artist’s entire body of work and the Langlais farm to Colby College.

It was an incredible gift, but also a big responsibility. Much of the collection — which included about 3,500 paintings, wood reliefs, large outdoor sculptures, indoor sculptures, sketches and small models of larger work — was in desperate need of repair.

At the Cushing farm, “Noah’s Ark” and all its larger-than-life wooden animals had collapsed beneath a fallen building. A sculpture of Gerald Ford had fallen flat and been forgotten in the weeds and Nixon was sinking into the muck. Reportedly, beavers had hauled away pieces of mermaids to build a dam.

Colby College Museum of Art teamed up with the Kohler Foundation, a charitable arts foundation based in Wisconsin, to help restore many of the sculptures.

As the art was restored, many pieces made their way to public buildings and libraries across Maine, which is now established as the Langlais Art Trail. Kohler restored and gave a comprehensive collection to the Colby College Museum of Art. Other pieces landed at the Portland Museum of Art. A Langlais camel is in the courtyard at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland.

Colby, unable to take on the financial responsibility for developing and maintaining the old Langlais farm that stretches from the banks of the St. George River through a long block of forest, as well as the buildings and outdoor sculpture collection, sold the property to the Kohler Foundation.

Kohler would do three things: restore some of the art, including some large outdoor sculptures; restore some of the buildings, including Blackie Langlais’ workshop and studio; and find a permanent owner for the Langlais farm to carry on the artist’s legacy.

That legacy was worth preserving. It is not just Langlais and his art that have a place in American cultural history. The Cushing farm itself housed the artist’s prodigious creative energy — he tended to work on four or five projects in different locations on the property on any given day — and attracted friends like Harry Stump and Andy Wyeth to talk about art. It was also where he created most of his larger-than-life wooden sculptures.

Annette Naegel, director of conservation for the Georges River Land Trust, helped direct the five-year transition to ownership. As Kohler restored the art and buildings, the land trust found grant funding to develop a 900-foot wheelchair-friendly path past the sculptures, raised operating expenses to maintain the historic site, and rallied about 50 volunteers, including Ashwood Waldorf School students, to reclaim the fields and orchards, cutting back invasive plants, moving rocks, pruning trees, and burning brush.

There were surprises along the way. One day, Naegel was walking at the back of the property where the land trust may build forest trails in the future, when she saw what looked like part of a log with unusual bark. It wasn’t a log. It was part of a bear sculpture, complete with claws, that had fallen over and was decaying in the woods.

That sculpture wasn’t restored, but one of the claws was later used in the restoration of the “Five Bears” sculpture that overlooks the new parking lot at the Langlais Sculpture Preserve.

Folklore-ish on the one hand and sophisticated in its influences, design, and execution on the other, the physical art Langlais created in the last third of a relatively short career spans the gap between high and low art much the way Ernest Hemingway’s writing did for readers. It’s approachable art — children can pet the wooden dog and wag its wooden tail and clamber around “Five Bears.”

Yet, those with a more discerning artistic eye can see the layers of influence from modernism to post-modernism, from Edvard Munch and Piet Mondrian to the muscular, flattened perspective of semi-abstractionism that plays out not on a canvas — as with one of Langlais’ teachers, Max Beckmann — but in three dimensions, in sculpture.

Inside, the house is restored and will be used for meetings and classes, and utilized by visiting artists.

Langlais’ studio, with its wooden mallets and piles of woodworking tools, had rotted clean through its floorboards. Kohler rebuilt it from the ground up. Today, Langlais’ tools have carefully been replaced just as he left them the last time he was in the studio, right down to the wood shavings next to his well-worn wooden mallets on the work bench.

Outside, Kohler professionally restored 12 sculptures, gutting them to remove the rot, then filling them with Styrofoam and glue before laying on the outside casing of wood. They share a five-acre pasture and pond with the rest of the menagerie, including a playful elephant sculpture larger than a dump truck that has all the food an elephant eats painted on the inside and a Mondrian-inspired cut-out sculpture of a cow.