A Visit to Maine Artist Blackie Langlais’ Place

Recently, I was invited to take a little field trip to Cushing, Maine to the property of amazing sculptor, the late Bernard (Blackie) Langlais. The Langlais estate had been left to Colby College, which quickly found itself overwhelmed with hundreds of sculptures in need of restoration and conservation, not to mention permanent homes. Enter the Kohler Foundation. This is a philanthropic organization with a mission: they bring in restorers, repair and conserve the artwork, find it  homes, and– give it away. Wouldn’t you love a job like that?

Museums, colleges, libraries and other non-profits were invited to be the recipients of the artworks, and we were there to choose a piece of sculpture for the Monhegan Library. It was a trip to remember! If you’ve never visited the Langlais place, it’s a little hard to convey the uniqueness of the experience. There’s a definite sense that you’ve gone down the rabbit hole with Alice. Or Christina, as the case may be.

As we followed paths that wound through over 80 acres of overgrown fields and forests, we glimpsed giant animals, people and totems hidden in the underbrush or towering in the open. The monumental scale of the sculptures was fabulous, and created a wonderful sense of play and delight.

Was that an elephant in the distance?

I remembered, back when I first visited the Langlais place as a teenager, being able to climb up inside the elephant. It isn’t in good enough condition today to go up– but we did duck inside the bottom and, sure enough–the paintings were still there, of bananas and nuts and all the foods our elephant had been eating. (for scale, check out Bruce’s legs underneath the sculpture).

Off in the cattails, I thought I detected a familiar gesture. Could it be–yes, Richard Nixon himself, real frogs jumping around him and a tiny symbolic elephant keeping him company. While a good number of Blackie’s sculptures are topical/political, and I enjoy the satirical glee evident in his depictions of his human subjects–

(Gerald Ford in the bath, anyone?), the pieces that really stay with me are the animals. There are several barns and workshops on the property, and each one is a treasure trove of sculptures, from life-sized animal figures to whole tableaux of jungle or barnyard creatures in huge bas-relief panels.

We wandered in awe among them, taking in Langlais’s ability to convey the spirit of each animal, and feeling his joy in the tactile experience of shaping them from rough and reclaimed wood. We could imagine how great it would be to come home with the giant alligator, basking on his back with all four legs in the air…

or any of the whimsical canines hanging out together in an area I dubbed the “dog park.”

Most of the pieces were too large for our little island library, and all of the outdoor sculptures had already found homes.

But in the end, we found a perfect fit in this charming little stable scene in a box! And a bonus: this butterfly wall sculpture!

This project is a partnership between Colby College Museum of Art, the Kohler Foundation and the Georges River Land Trust. Colby is planning a major Langlais show in 2014. The land trust will take ownership of the property, along with several of the large sculptures, and will maintain it as a sculpture park. Thus, the land will be protected for conservation, and the legacy of a great Maine artist be preserved and shared. We were so glad to have been able to visit all these works together in the place where they were made, before they were dispersed to museums, schools and other locations all over the country. And very glad to be able bring a small piece of that heritage to our small corner of Maine.