The University of Maine at Presque Isle has partnered with a Portland gallerist to renovate and preserve a well-known campus symbol and work of art: the 4-ton, 30-foot-tall Owls sculpture by famed Maine artist Bernard Langlais. The 35-year-old outdoor wooden sculpture, which is one of the very last Langlais produced before his unexpected death in December 1977, has been exposed to decades of harsh Aroostook County winters resulting in serious deterioration and erosion.
The University has been consulting with Andres Verzosa, director and owner of Aucocisco Galleries in Portland, regarding conservation and preservation efforts to help ensure that future generations are able to appreciate and enjoy the sculpture. Verzosa has worked for years to preserve Langlais' work.
Bernard Langlais (1921-1977) was born in Old Town. After experiencing both commercial and critical success in New York City, he returned to Maine with his wife Helen Langlais in the late 1960's. "Blackie," as he was affectionately called, was quite prolific in his artistic career – particularly in the last 10 years of his life – creating many works at his farm and studios in Cushing, Verzosa said. During that time, Langlais departed from working in abstraction and started to work figuratively. He became known as an "animalier" with works that included large figurative outdoor wooden sculptures. Many of these works remain today, though they have been ravaged by the elements and are in great need of repair.
"Bernard Langlais' sculptures are primarily made of wood, which is vulnerable to Maine's extreme seasonal fluctuations in temperature and humidity throughout the year as well as to pests and encroaching vegetation," Verzosa said. "The ongoing maintenance and preservation of these works is necessary albeit quite time-consuming and costly – it is very much like taking care of a wooden boat – but it's vital to preserve the work of this celebrated Maine artist. I'm very pleased to be partnering with President Don Zillman and UMPI on this effort and to see this come to fruition at the campus."
UMPI's Owls sculpture features five owls and is carved out of timbers salvaged from Portland's Grand Trunk Railroad Grain Elevator that was demolished in 1974. UMPI was awarded a $7,500 grant in 1976 by the Maine State Commission on the Arts, through a federal grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, for the 1976 Bicentennial Community Sculpture Program. Officials used that funding to commission the Owls sculpture. The owl is the mascot and symbol of the University of Maine at Presque Isle. At the time it was commissioned, Owls was Aroostook County's only public sculpture. Langlais became ill during the construction of the sculpture and passed away two weeks prior to its installation on campus in January 1978.
For 34 years, the sculpture has stood on the UMPI campus between Main Street and Emerson Hall. The owls range in height from 18 to 30 feet. Originally, the owls were painted, but the colors have faded and flaked away. The wood is weathered, split and cracked. The sculpture shows significant deterioration overall, but the worst damage – rot and erosion – was not immediately noticeable as it was located at the base, which was surrounded by evergreen bushes.
Earlier this year, officials discovered that collapse of the sculpture was imminent, so this spring, they began efforts to renovate and preserve the sculpture before it was too late.
"This is such an important symbol for UMPI, and one that our campus community resoundingly said we should preserve so that future generations can enjoy it for decades, if not a century or more to come," UMPI President Don Zillman said. "This work of art is among a dwindling number of wooden sculptures by Bernard Langlais that can be rescued and we are very pleased to be going through the months-long process to do just that and restore it to a central location on campus."
Officials determined that the sculpture could be treated with a preservative coating that would extend the life of the art work by many years, but that it would have to be dismantled and the pieces would have to be fully dried out and repaired first. On February 21, crews began disassembling the sculpture. The pieces will dry naturally until late spring or early summer and then the repair and preservation work will begin. The preservation process will effectively petrify the wood and prevent it from undergoing further deterioration. Officials hope to have all steps of the preservation process completed and to have the sculpture reinstalled on campus in time for Homecoming.
The work is expected to cost approximately $20,000. When officials first decided to move forward with preserving the Langlais sculpture, President Zillman contacted Verzosa. Zillman has known Verzosa since his days at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland and realized that the University needed to be in touch with the man who has made it his mission to preserve Langlais' sculptures.
Through Verzosa, UMPI learned about the Maine Community Foundation's "Bernard Langlais Fund." The University applied for and received a $5,000 matching grant from the fund to help pay for the preservation work. Verzosa created the donor-advised fund for the preservation and conservation of public outdoor sculptures by Bernard Langlais. This is the first year Verzosa has dispersed monies from the fund. The University will be raising the remaining funds needed to complete the renovation and preservation work from private donations.
When the sculpture is reinstalled, officials plan to relocate it to a more central campus location.
"Many campuses have a physical symbol of the university in a central location," President Zillman said. "The symbol serves as an obvious location for campus publicity, a site for marriage proposals and graduation photos, a spot for which students have a special place in their hearts, and a setting for many other purposes that define the campus experience. We envision the renovated and relocated owls as taking on similar roles."
Community members who would like to make a donation to the project are encouraged to contact the UMPI Development Office at 768-9568 or give online by visiting www.umpi.edu/donate-owls.