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Arts & Culture

Painting with Wood

Sculptures by Maine artist Bernard Langlais

Sculptures by Maine artist Bernard Langlais

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For a moment, indulge your creative side and imagine you’re Bernard Langlais. Growing up in Maine, you exhibit exceptional artistic talent. After high school, you leave Maine to study commercial art at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. Your talent earns you prestigious scholarships, including a Fulbright to study the paintings of renowned Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, in Oslo. You return to New York and garner acclaim for your modernist landscape and still life paintings. You’re beginning to live the life artists dream of. So what do you do next?

You change everything.

All the while Bernard “Blackie” Langlais was on his odyssey through the art world, he never lost touch with his Maine roots. He had returned for a time to study at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. He and his wife, Helen, kept a summer cottage in Cushing, Maine. In 1956, while renovating the cottage, he began to repurpose and rearrange scraps of wood that had been left in the wake of the remodeling project. When the dust settled, Bernard Langlais had created a mosaic-like wall composition from the reclaimed wood. As the artist would later explain, “It was an awakening.” From that point forward, he put his paints and brushes aside to explore a new form he called “painting with wood.” In the New York art world, Langlais’ abstract wood reliefs were celebrated and lauded. His work was featured in the famous New Forms-New Media exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1960. Additional showings followed, including the Whitney Museum’s 1962 Drawing and Sculpture Annual. Bernard Langlais had arrived.

The thing about roots in Maine, though, is that they’re really strong and really deep. Disenchanted with the New York art scene, Langlais felt a calling to create something more authentic and true to himself. So he returned to Maine, where the landscape itself became his gallery, and a woodcutter’s tools his palette and brush. For the next eleven years, until his death in 1977, Bernard Langlais created works unlike any the art world had ever seen.

Free of the constraints of a studio, Langlais began to create large-scale, permanent wooden sculptures on the land around the farmhouse he and Helen had purchased in Cushing. All told, he would create more than 65 monumental sculptures, including his most well-known, the commissioned seventy-foot-tall Indian sculpture in Skowhegan. Langlais also populated the landscape and, in time, museums with an ever-expanding menagerie of three-dimensional works, including countless representatives of the animal kingdom.

When speaking of the motivation behind his creative outpouring, Langlais said: “The more you do, the freer you can be.” It is a statement about his work, but also a reflection on the way he pursued his artistic dreams. Think of it as a challenge to live the life of your own dreams – and an invitation to visit Maine for an intimate and soaring look at how one native son lived his.

While Bernard Langlais was partial to the road less travelled, Mainers have taken to marking parts of the trail for you. The Langlais Art Trail maps out the many Maine communities and institutions that house the state’s amazing trove of Langlais’ work. In addition to the legendary Indian, Downtown Skowhegan has upwards of twenty outdoor sculptures. Other outstanding works are found in the town of Norway and Roberts Farm Preserve. And make a note on your sketchpad for the grand opening of the Langlais Sculpture Preserve in September 2017 on the site of the Langlais Farm in Cushing.

For a personal tour of the artistic legacy of Bernard Langlais, please view the video.

Looking for even more inspiration? Discover The Maine Thing Quarterly: The Art of Maine.