by Katharine Cartwright
In 2013 the Jackson Memorial Library (JML) officially joined the Langlais Art Trail, established through a collaborative effort between the Colby College Museum of Art and the Kohler Foundation, Inc. The goal of the Trail was to link the various non-profit institutions across Maine that agreed to “hold, promote, preserve and exhibit” art objects created by Cushing artist Bernard (Blacky) Langlais (1921-1977). Susan Bates, who was president of the JML Board at the time, thought that “it sounded like a great opportunity for the library” to be part of the Trail. She felt that Langlais’ art would become a notable addition to our culturally rich community and also link the library to other non-profit institutions in Maine. Bates formed an ad hoc committee from the JML Board of Trustees who selected four Langlais works for the library—and also one piece for the St. George School.
The story of how the JML became a part of the Langlais Art Trail is almost as long as the Trail itself. Bernard Langlais was born in 1921 in Old Town, Maine where he grew up. He left Maine after high school to study art at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and the Brooklyn Museum Art School. Over time, the young artist developed into a celebrated innovative modernist painter. But, it wasn’t long before he abandoned painting and turned his interest to making art from wood. In 1956, when he purchased and renovated a summer cottage in Cushing, discarded fragments of wood caught his imagination and he began fashioning them into wood mosaics. He earned critical success In New York where his works were displayed at notable venues including the Whitney Museum. By the mid-1960s, the artist and his wife, Helen Friend, fled the stressful culture of the Big Apple and made the Cushing cottage their permanent residence. Langlais spent the rest of his life on their 90-acre homestead constructing enormous wooden sculptures as well as smaller works depicting the animal kingdom.
Because Langlais’ remarkable and unique sculptures gained national recognition and prestigious awards during his lifetime, they became important and valuable. When he died in 1977 at the age of 56, his widow wanted to preserve his body of work for future generations to experience. Therefore, she bequeathed both the art and the homestead to the Colby College Art Museum, who acquired it in 2010 when she died. This was a monumental gift: 2,900 pieces of art and a 90-acre homestead. The college was unable to conserve all the work and manage the property so it forged an agreement with the Kohler Foundation, Inc., to both arrange for distribution of Langlais’ art to non-profit institutions throughout Maine (linking them through the Langlais Art Trail) and find a way to ensure stewardship of the property and its many Langlais sculptures. According to Jane Bianco, a resident of Tenants Harbor and former Fellow at Kohler, “the Foundation does wonderful things in helping to conserve art environments across the country.” Terri Yoho, formerly the Executive Director of the Foundation, Bianco says, was instrumental in not only lining up conservators to work on the sculptures at the Langlais property but also in involving the Georges River Land Trust (GRLT) in providing stewardship for the 90-acre tract itself. This she did by contacting Annette Naegel, Director of Conservation at the GRLT to see if the group would be interested in acquiring the property. Although the homestead was somewhat outside GRLT’s mission, Naegel felt it was significant because of its location within the St. George River watershed region. So the GRLT agreed to acquire the property and through its stewardship establish the Langlais Sculpture Preserve, which is the second largest preserve under the GRLT’s control. The GRLT opened the Preserve to the public in 2015. Many of the artist’s largest sculptures are now on view there as a gift from the Kohler Foundation.
It was in 2013 that Naegel contacted Bates at the JML about acquiring some Langlais pieces for the library, thus adding the JML to the Langlais Art Trail. Naegel also had a larger vision for the art: “I love the idea of the linkage between Langlais and the natural environment. The message of creativity and speaking from nature is important. Just as the St. George River flows through this area, so does Langlais’ artistic voice. His work speaks to people on many levels, including children. It becomes a venue for learning all kinds of things related to the natural environment.”
Indeed, the children of St. George have heard Langlais’ artistic voice and responded to it through their own inspired creations. Over the past several years, 4th graders from the St. George School have participated in a program called “Leaps of Imagination” held at the JML. Like Langlais, they have created art from scraps of wood and other found objects. Many of these are on display at the JML along with the Langlais pieces. Sixth grader, Violet Ward was one of those students. “We were told to create an animal as realistic as we could with pieces of wood we had,” she recalls. Willow Miller, her classmate, adds, “His work is really cool! I wish he was still alive to talk to us [about his work].” Still, Langlais is always speaking to them through his art at the library. Library co-director Beckie Delaney, who works with the children, notes, “I love to tie the Langlais art in with the kids’ projects. From them they learn to work with discarded materials, which is an important lesson in creativity.”
Lynna Henderson, the acting chair of the library’s Board of Trustees, is hoping to raise community consciousness about the works. “We are so very proud of the four Langlais works,” she says. Sharon Moskowitz, co-director of the JML, agrees and feels that the art “is an important asset to the library. People are impressed that we have them.” Prominently displayed across from the library’s front desk, the four Langlais artworks await your visit to experience a safari into the imagination.
You may read more about the Langlais Art Trail at: http://langlaisarttrail.org
(For the past three years Katharine Cartwright, who is an accomplished watercolor artist, has served as The Dragon’s art columnist. We are grateful for her unflagging dedication to promoting awareness of St. George’s artistic life.)
PHOTOS: Betsy Welch