Maine sculptor Cabot, a deeply private artist known for his elegant renderings of the female figure and all forms of wildlife in granite and wood, died Thursday at a hospice in Brunswick. He was 90.

“He just decided that he had enough. I truly believe he died as he lived. He crafted his exit,” said his daughter, Julia Lane. “It went very quickly once he decided he was going to make it happen.”

He suffered from a weak heart, and complained of pulmonary distress a week ago, she said.

Lyford’s sculptures are in museums, schools, parks and public places across the country. He lived at Pemaquid Harbor and kept a studio at New Harbor. He recently moved to an assisted living center in Brunswick.

Detail of Lyford’s “My Mother the Wind,” which was installed on Four Tree Island in Portsmouth, N.H., in 1975.

Detail of Lyford’s “My Mother the Wind,” which was installed on Four Tree Island in Portsmouth, N.H., in 1975.

His New York dealer and adviser, Jim Levis, once asked Lyford why he carved in stone as hard as steel. “Because I’ll be here forever on earth,” Lyford told him.

He won a gold medal from the National Academy of Design and participated in dozens of museum shows around the country. His works are in the permanent collection of the Portland, Ogunquit, Colby and Farnsworth museums in Maine.

“He approached everything with this ferocity,” said June LaCombe, who represented Lyford for more than 25 years. “He was so sensitive to his material and to his subject, and that sensitivity always came through in his work.”

Lyford loved the act of chiseling granite and carving wood, and “muscled” his way through his material, said Thomas O’Donovan of Harbor Square Gallery in Rockland, which showed Lyford’s work 20 years. “He always said that if he could not carve anymore, there was no reason to continue being alive. ‘If I can’t do this anymore, I don’t really want to be here,’ he said.”

In Maine, his most recognized piece is “Life Force,” a sculpture of dolphins breaking the water, chiseled from seven tons of Deer Isle granite, that sits in front of the Regency Hotel in Portland. Lane wrote a letter to the editor in December, objecting to holiday decorations that obscured the piece.

A monumental black granite sculpture, “My Mother the Wind,” is a focal point of the waterfront in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

“We are so sorry to note the passing of Cabot Lyford,” said Jessica May, chief curator of the Portland Museum of Art. “One of the great pleasures of visiting private collections throughout the state of Maine is finding his elegant, often understated, figural sculptures both indoors and – often – in the favorite spot of the garden. His art is truly beloved throughout this region.”

This piece by Cabot Lyford sits near the entry of the Vivian E. Hussey Elementary School in Berwick. Lyford's sculptures are in schools and parks across Maine. Telegram file photo

This piece by Cabot Lyford sits near the entry of the Vivian E. Hussey Elementary School in Berwick. Lyford’s sculptures are in schools and parks across Maine.
Telegram file photo

Lane described her father’s relationship to Maine as “elemental. He felt very close to the ocean especially, and the coast and the rocks that were worn by nature. Early in his career, he would seek out rocks on the shore that would suggest a shape to him and release those forms.”

Lyford was the subject of a Maine Masters film series profile in 2014, “Cabot Lyford: Portrait of a Man as Artist.”

He taught at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and moved to his home on Pemaquid Harbor after retiring in 1986. His introduction to Maine began in 1947 when he studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

He was born in Sayre, Pennsylvania, in 1925, served in World War II and received his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1956.

His studio in New Harbor is a weathered, gray, two-story shingled building, filled with light. Lyford also maintained a work area outside. “The pieces would all be completely covered with sawdust and stone dust,” LaCombe said. “You would just have to pick out these jewels from this mountain of sculpture, and they were always jewels.”

His work also is on view indoors at the Portland International Jetport and outdoors at Maine Audubon in Falmouth. His piece in the peony garden at Audubon is a black granite swan or goose, titled “Remember.” He carved it after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and chose the material to represent an oil-slicked bird. Its original name was “Thanks, Exxon,” but he renamed it to encourage people to remember the cost of environmental negligence.

Lyford had strong political views, and often expressed them in rage-filled phone calls to LaCombe. They came out more subtly in his work.

“I think that Cabot was one of the great artists living in the state of Maine,” LaCombe said. “He had this reputation for being difficult to work with, and I remember gathering the courage to call him up and asking him to be in one of my very first exhibitions. He said, ‘Sure, come on over and see what you want.’ He was crusty on the outside, and he was someone who had a good heart and such an extraordinary sensitivity that he brought to every piece of sculpture he did.”

Sculptor Cabot Lyford, who died Thursday at a Brunswick hospice, had told friends that when he was no longer able to carve and paint, it would be time for him to pass away. Telegram file photo

Sculptor Cabot Lyford, who died Thursday at a Brunswick hospice, had told friends that when he was no longer able to carve and paint, it would be time for him to pass away.
Telegram file photo

Lyford also painted, and expressed his softer side in watercolors.

Lane said the family will have a private ceremony in the spring, and will spread his ashes in the ocean “where he felt most free.” A public celebration of Lyford’s life will be in May.