December 16, 2012

Animal welfare society

That would be Arron Sturgis and his team, charged with restoring three of Bernard Langlais' iconic wooden sculptures.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

BERWICK — Arron Sturgis preserves church steeples, barns and old New England homes.

click image to enlarge

A Bernard Langlais sculptures of a lion.

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Arron Sturgis of Preservation Timber Framing in Berwick, with preservationist Jessica MilNeil, is working with the Ogunquit Museum of American Art to conserve a Bernard Langlais sculpture of a bear.

Additional Photos Below

Anything with timber frames, he tackles.

This winter, Sturgis and his crew at Preservation Timber Framing Inc. in Berwick take on a project of lesser scope but with equal or greater cultural significance. Sturgis is working with the Ogunquit Museum of American art to conserve and preserve three large wooden sculptures by the late Maine artist Bernard Langlais.

The pieces -- a bear, a lion and a horse, each weighing up to a half-ton -- have lived outside in the museum's sculpture garden since the museum acquired them over the course of three decades beginning in the late 1960s. They have weathered all that the Maine outdoors can bring, from freezing rain and snow to ocean gales and scorching summer sun.

But they have not weathered the elements well.

The pieces, which Langlais made at his Cushing studio in the 1960s and '70s, are in various stages of decay. They suffer from rot, degradation and general neglect, although the museum has made efforts over the years to keep up with their considerable needs.

But only recently, thanks to grants from the Bernard Langlais Fund, has the museum had the financial means to hire someone with the expertise to do the job right. The museum received $10,000 from the fund, which is administered by the Maine Community Foundation, and raised another $10,000 to match it.

The fundraising continues. Museum director Ron Crusan hopes to garner up to another $10,000 to ensure completion of the project by the spring.

On Friday, the museum received a $5,000 grant from the Warren Memorial Foundation of Westbrook to help complete the effort.

Sturgis and his crew will spend their winter working to return these sculptures to a dignified state.

"The challenge is doing this work without changing the artifact so it's no longer a Langlais," said Sturgis, who has extensive museum experience, including at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Fogg Museum at Harvard University in Cambridge. "But they're all salvageable, and they all will be Langlais when we're done with them."

The bear may be in the worst shape. He is full of rot, and previous efforts to stem the rot with spray foam hastened the animal's decline, because the stopgap measure had the unintended effect of trapping water.

The lion is in better shape. Its internal supporting structure has deteriorated, causing it to pitch forward. But that support structure will be rebuilt. The outer shell is mostly fine.

The horse has sustained rot as well, particularly along his angular face. Parts of his legs have been replaced over the years. Sturgis will rebuild him to his original height and structure based on old photos.

The problem that Ogunquit faces is not unique. Langlais sculptures are all over Maine. The Maine native made hundreds of pieces after returning to his home state in the 1960s. He died 35 years ago this month at age 56.

Langlais' best-known piece is a 62-foot-tall Indian in Skowhegan. The University of Maine Presque Isle owns a 35-foot owl, and has similarly raised money privately and through the Langlais fund to save it.

The artist, who was better known by his nickname "Blackie," became known for his large works that included figurative outdoor wooden sculptures. The pieces that Ogunquit owns are big, but manageable.

The horse stands 10 feet tall and weighs somewhere around 1,000 or 1,200 pounds. The bear is 8 feet tall, and the lion roars at a little more than 7 feet. 

A FOURTH animal sculpture, a rhinoceros, is coming to Ogunquit soon, courtesy of the University of Southern Maine. The rhino has met an ill fate on the Gorham campus, vandalized and occupied by students for illicit purposes.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Arron Sturgis of Preservation Timber Framing in Berwick, with preservationist Jessica MilNeil, is working with the Ogunquit Museum of American Art to conserve a Bernard Langlais sculpture of a horse.

click image to enlarge

Langlais’ lion sculpture is in somewhat better condition than the bear and horse, both of which have serious rot issues.


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