WESTBROOK – Sometime after ice-out this spring, Portland artist Aaron Stephan will hop in a truck with a buddy and travel north to Moosehead Lake and the headwaters of the Kennebec River.

They will scavenge for old-growth logs left over from the logging boom, buried in the mud in the depths below the surface. Hundreds of years ago, these trees were felled and prepared for transport, but were lost before making their way downriver.

Masked from the light above, the heavy maple logs are preserved at the bottom of the lake.

Stephan aims to raise a bunch of them for his latest art project, “RE: turn,” at the newly opened Westbrook Middle School.

Funded with money from the state-administered Percent for Art program, “RE: turn” will create a soaring old-growth tree in the atrium of the new school. The tree will appear to be forcing its way through the floor and rising toward the skylights.

Using reclaimed maple, Stephan will create his tree from material salvaged at the bottom of the lake. He will mill the wood, laminate it, and carve it to form a tree that reaches 27 feet into the air, its branches spreading out 15 to 20 feet. The trunk’s diameter will be 20 inches.

Stephan, who has made a career tackling large-scale, permanent public installations, was inspired by the new school’s environmental sensibilities. The building’s geothermal heating system and its use of green technology impressed him.

“The more I learned about it, the more I realized that this wasn’t just some token green building. It seems like the city was really making a commitment to doing it right,” he said. “I just love the fact that it’s geothermal. I think that’s just fantastic.”

Stephan is also juiced by the idea that the school sits near the site of the old Oxford Cumberland Canal, which in the 1880s connected Sebago Lake with Stroudwater Village in Portland. The canal was a major waterway, and Westbrook was an important stop along the way.

With its use of old materials in a contemporary setting, “RE: turn” pays tribute to the history of Westbrook as a lumber, pulp and paper hub, as well as its present-day environmental awareness.

For hundreds of years, people in these parts have efficiently used and reused natural resources, Stephan said. This project continues that tradition.

The tree stands as a metaphor for nature’s power, and will remind the school and community of the importance of living responsibly with respect to the past, present and future, he said.

Andy Curran, a local artist, businessman and Westbrook High School graduate (class of ’81), chaired the local committee that recommended Stephan’s project. Stephan’s was among many proposals that came to Curran’s committee for consideration.

“He floored us. What he presented was monumental and exciting,” said Curran, who operates the Paper Moon retail shop in Westbrook and makes art under the Dog Star Creations label. “He exuded excitement, and we latched onto it.”

Part of Stephan’s impression was his resume. He’s completed several public art commissions across Maine, including in schools in Dover-Foxcroft, Lewiston, Anson, Biddeford, Lisbon and Belfast.

He has also proven himself deft at handling large spaces.

“Lift,” an over-scale sculpture of a table and chairs, stands tall at the University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Center in Portland. Later this year, he will see his 65-foot “Boom” sculpture constructed near the Veteran’s Bridge in Portland, as a tribute to businessman P.D. Merrill.

“We’ve seen what Aaron can do,” Curran said. “We knew he could handle that scale and that space.”

The budget for the project is about $44,000, and it is administered through the Maine Arts Commission. The commission approved the project last week.

Stephan will begin as soon as he and his tree-hauling friend can get to work up at Moosehead, which will still be many weeks now.

It’s a long and arduous process full of engineering challenges. Stephan will mill the old trees and do most of his preparation work in his Portland studio, and assemble the tree on site later this year.

 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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