The Langlais Nature Preserve and its creators
Elephants, bears, giraffes, alligators, and other creatures, including a famous biped or two, populate the Langlais Sculpture Preserve on River Road in Cushing, a village situated on one of Maine’s multitudinous arms extending into the Atlantic. The sculptures are big, rough-hewn, totemic, animated.
In summer a profusion of wildflowers—goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace, thistle, clover, and jewelweed—and sumac, reeds, and tall grasses threaten to encroach on the mown paths. There is birdsong, crickets creak, and chipmunks raise the alarm. The atmosphere is lush, verdant, peaceful.
In winter, snow settles all around a former president, still convinced of victory, sinking into a swamp.
Before I stopped at the preserve, I assumed the artist was a local with an exuberant creative bent. Bernard “Blackie” Langlais (1921–1977) was a Mainer born and bred but also someone who studied at prestigious art schools, traveled to Europe on a Fulbright, was represented by the Leo Castelli Gallery (who launched Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns), and had work in a groundbreaking exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961.
I admit I’m swayed by credentials, but face to face with a sculpture, I believe, you meet it on its own terms. Langlais’s CV is not the point, except as part of the history of an artist who went his own way—an “around Robin Hood’s barn” sort of way—to end up on a farm on a back road, about 90 miles from where he started.
N.B.: Maine probably has more artists down its back roads than it has moose, road signs about the latter notwithstanding. Here’s a short list of artists past and present with a Maine connection: Winslow Homer, Rockwell Kent, Lois Dodd, Louise Nevelson, Fairfield Porter, John Marin, Berenice Abbott, Robert Indiana, Marsden Hartley, William Wegman… Also Alex Katz, who was a friend of Langlais, and Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, who lived down the road.
Also not anomalous: Langlais’s weathered pachyderm standing shoulder to shoulder with old apple trees, birches, and white pines. Starting off as a painter, in 1956, Langlais had a revelation as he was fixing up his summer cottage in Cushing with scraps of lumber: Wood was his true medium.
Wood crops up in Langlais’s story again and again. His Chelsea loft overlooked a lumber yard. His French-Canadian father was a carpenter. He was born in 1921 in Old Town, Maine (pop., 1920: 6956), home to factories that made those traditional New England products, shoes and wool, but also turned the forests surrounding Old Town into lumber, paper, matches, and canoes.
Thoreau’s The Maine Woods describes Old Town as it was when he passed through in 1846: “The mills are built directly over and across the river. Here is a close jam, a hard rub, at all seasons; and then the once green tree, long since white, I need not say as the driven snow, but as a driven log, becomes lumber merely.”
In Langlais’s hands, once-green trees became sculptures and reliefs. The oldest of 10 children, as a boy Bernard had already made a studio of a loft in his grandfather’s barn. In adolescence, he felt the hard rub of his hometown: “[I] was just biding my time, waiting to finish high school so that I could go somewhere else.” Thanks to his Aunt Isabelle, a nurse in Washington, D.C., he was able to start his education at the Corcoran School of Art. He went on to the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, the Brooklyn Museum School (where German Expressionist Max Beckmann was his teacher), and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris.
By the mid-1960s, despite successes, Langlais was restless again. “I think I’ve had it with NY,” he wrote friend and mentor, Bill Cummings, cofounder of the Skowhegan School. In her monograph about Langlais, curator Hannah W. Blunt said that he felt “coerced into night after night of parties and distracted by the scrutiny that comes with celebrity.”
In 1966, he and his wife, Helen Friend Langlais, bought the farm next to their summer cottage, 80 acres of land, with a wood-shingled house and various outbuildings, overlooking fields that slope down to the St. George River. It was rural, but on the main drag to Rockland and Rockport, where Langlais was involved in the early years of Maine Coast Artists, now the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. (I wrote about CMCA here.) And a number of artists either were living or spending summers in the area. But mainly, for the next 11 years, Bernard worked like a demon, producing a menagerie of more than 100 wood sculptures around the nineteenth-century homestead. Twelve still stand on granite ledges, by the winding paths, in the pond.
In Googling to know about Bernard, I ended up falling for Helen.
There are photographs of her in the Bernard Langlais Papers, one of the collections of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. In one, she’s wearing a big smile and a big winter coat, overnight case in one hand, chic leather bag and packages in the other, cleared for departure. In another snapshot, she sits at a kitchen table, in their downtown loft perhaps, looking less readable, more like a farm woman than the chic Manhattanite of the previous shot.
On a rustic porch, she sits with Blackie, petunias and house plants on shelves behind her. Chestnut-haired, smooth-skinned, strong-limbed, with a winsome expression, she’s what might once have called a handsome woman.
Like her husband, Helen was a Maine native. Born on October 6, 1929 in Skowhegan, the daughter of a state senator, she earned a bachelor’s degree from University of Maine and a masters from Ohio University.
In 1953, a grad school friend, artist Nancy Wisseman-Widrig, introduced Helen to Bernard when Helen was visiting her in New York. In their high heels, the two tripped up a fire escape from the first floor to Bernard’s third-floor studio at 212 West 28th Street, to find the artist seated at his easel, cocooned in blankets. Said Nancy, “I wanted them to meet because they both had these funny accents.”
As old-fashioned as handsome, the word helpmate seems an apt, possibly understated term for Helen. In 1955, when Bernard was studying art on a Fulbright in Norway—he was a big fan of Munch—Helen worked for the Norwegian government. (They were married in January of that year at the American Embassy.)
Helen was studying voice when they moved to Maine permanently. She gave up the lessons and became a teacher at the Cushing Elementary School, while Bernard devoted himself to art. They had no children.
After Bernard died, age 56, of congestive heart failure in 1977, Helen kept things going for another 30-odd years. She maintained detailed records of her husband’s artworks (no easy task, as they numbered more than 3,500) and made tremendous efforts and expenditures to conserve the outdoor sculptures, relentlessly exposed to salt air, storms, and insects.
At one point, it seemed she would lose the house because she couldn’t pay the estate taxes on the collection. She overcame that, however, and then some. According to the Bangor News, “Helen was instrumental in creating Maine’s first-in-the-nation artist’s estate tax law, which allows payment of estate taxes in works of art. The first use of the law was in 1980 when the Langlais estate donated numerous works to state institutions in lieu of taxes.”
Helen died in 2010, age 80, at Windward Gardens Nursing Home in Camden, Maine. Aprile Gallant, who curated the Portland Museum of Art’s Langlais retrospective in 2002, was quoted in Helen’s obituary as saying, “Being the widow or widower of an artist is a particularly demanding job … Helen was tough-minded but generous. She devoted her life to preserving Blackie’s work and his memory. His workshop was preserved almost as if he had just stepped out for a moment.”
Before Helen died, she arranged for her husband’s work and their home to go to Colby College Museum of Art, in Waterville, Maine. The museum partnered with the Kohler Foundation in Wisconsin and the Georges River Land Trust of Rockland, Maine, to secure the future of that sizable legacy.
The Kohler Foundation played a key transitional role. It took temporary ownership of the collection, restored and preserved works on the property, and eventually gifted hundreds of Langlais artworks to nonprofits in Maine and beyond (see below). The Colby College Museum of Art has 187 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. In 2014 The Georges River Land Trust took ownership of the land and operates it as a preserve open to the public.
“Helen really liked the role of the artist’s wife,” said Wisseman-Widrig, who was Helen’s neighbor for many summers. “She had a great romantic idea about what it meant to be an artist. She loved the idea of the serious artist willing to sacrifice everything to make art. She was just so supportive, of Blackie and everyone else.”
Extending from Kittery to Presque Isle, west to Norway (Maine, that is) and east to Eastport, the Langlais Art Trail encompasses public libraries, museums, art centers, town offices, community centers, the First Baptist Church in Gardiner, the Portland International Jetport, Colby College Museum of Art, and the Langlais Sculpture Preserve.
Under the stewardship of the Georges River Land Trust, the Langlais Sculpture Preserve, 576 River Road, Cushing, Maine, is open dawn to dusk, with a 1/4 mile ADA-accessible path. Admission is free.
The photographs of Bernard Langlais as a child, his letter, the Castelli show, the wedding couple, and Helen on the sidewalk, in the loft, and on the porch are all from the Bernard Langlais Papers, circa 1925-2010. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
For more on the story of how the daunting task of organizing, preserving, and distributing the Langlais estate was accomplished, you can read this article in the Colby College’s alumni magazine.