If you’re used to working in a gallery … and you walk through the park, there’s this big boulder there split in half, and it’s better than any sculpture. And what’s the point of taking away from that? I’m trying to direct people to those experiences,” said artist Wade Kavanaugh, graduate of Bowdoin College.
Kavanaugh is in the process of building site-specific, utilitarian sculptures at Peaks-Kenny State Park in Dover-Foxcroft. The artwork — 12 picnic tables built to complement nature — is administered by the Maine Art Commission’s Percent for Art program commissioned by the Department of Conservation.
Kavanaugh completed the first two tables in July and returned this week to complete a third by Sebec Lake, and perhaps a fourth, by the park’s new state-of-the art restrooms.
While Kavanaugh works on the tables, he camps at the park. At his current workstation by the beach sits a two-burner propane stove and a pot along with a massive toolbox on wheels. Park Ranger Bill Beeaker frequently brings Kavanaugh tomatoes and blackberries from his home garden.
“I bring home a dozen eggs every time I come,” Kavanaugh said.
Kavanaugh is known for creating large-scale installations that depict relationships among art, nature and architecture, but in much of his previous artwork, he has created landscapes inside a gallery.
“But this is the opposite. You don’t want to build something that will take away what’s so great in the park. I wanted to use something that already existed here, and the picnic table was the kind of obvious one,” he said as he pointed to a group of standard picnic tables beside the playground.
Maine’s Percent for Art law, enacted in 1979, requires that at least 1 percent of construction costs be used to purchase original artwork for new or renovated buildings receiving state funds. Park constructions and improvements are included.
In 2007, state voters approved a bond for $7.5 million in state park investments. Therefore, $75,000 of the investments approved in 2007 were designated to fund the purchase and installation of original artwork in the parks.
“The Peaks-Kenny project is one of the several we will do with that money,” said Bureau of Parks and Lands Deputy Director Alan Stearns, who was a member on the committee that selected Kavanaugh.
Peaks-Kenny State Park covers 839 acres, has a 56-site campground and about 10 miles of hiking trials.
Using state funding, restrooms at Peaks-Kenny recently were upgraded and a playground and a shelter for events were built. Last year, the park completed a state-of-the-art restroom.
“We didn’t put a stained-glass window in the bathroom, we commissioned Wade’s work separate from other park projects,” Stearns said.
The Maine Arts Commission put together a Percent for Art selection committee composed of three people from the Department of Conservation — Eliza Townsend, Alan Stearns and Mike Leighton — and two arts community representatives — Elizabeth Finch, curator at the Colby Museum of Art, and artist Alan Bray. The committee conducted a national solicitation and reviewed 85 artwork proposals.
At the time, Kavanaugh was living in New York, but he grew up in Skowhegan and attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick. His work has been featured at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, the Soap Factory in Minneapolis, Roebling Hall in Brooklyn and the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
A series of tables carved to fit the park’s glacial erratics — boulders carried by glacial ice and deposited some distance from their places of origin — was Kavanaugh’s second proposal, after an ambitious proposal of turning the lake upside-down, a project that would involve solar-powered pumps and a simulated glacier in the winter.
“[The committee] told me to try to think of something that people can experience over the summer,” Kavanaugh said. “The last day before coming back up here, I had the picnic table idea, and they liked it.”
The committee unanimously chose Kavanaugh’s final proposal.
“We’re really glad we opened it up nationally to find him,” said Stearns. “There is always a stated preference for Maine state artists.”
Since the committee selected Kavanaugh, he has moved back to Maine and is living in Albany Township outside of Bethel.
“The most exciting part of Wade’s project for me is that kids in the park will actually be touching and feeling — loving — a piece of art that’s woven into the natural landscape.”
Kavanaugh sat down at a standard park picnic table and with his hands he drew a rectangle in the air along the table’s center.
“This is social space. I’m replacing the social space with landscape,” he said. “So you’re bumping up against the park.”
“I’m really trying to make the tables with one person in mind,” he said. “I can imagine being 13 and coming to the park with my family, trying to get away from them and coming to sit here.”
“It’s an area people can go and find some solace and stop long enough to be amazed at what Mother Nature has created here,” said Peaks-Kenny Park Manager Carter Smith.
The tables are wedged and latched into boulder crevasses.
He uses pressure-treated lumber and multiple coats of stain to make the table more weather resistant.
“Each one of these is a little bit of a surprise,” he said. “You don’t really know what you’re getting into.”
It takes him about two days of uninterrupted work to finish each table, according to Beeaker, who has watched his progress.
“I thought this one was going to be easy, but not so far,” he said as he chiseled the end of a plank to fit the contours of the erratic he was fitting the table against. He had poured a concrete base to stabilize one of the table’s legs.
“I’ve never done a permanent installation before, but this is supposed to be around for a while,” said Kavanaugh.
The tables will be spaced out around the park.
“I enjoy them being anomalies,” he said.
He’s already selected nine of the 12 table locations, all with erratics to build around.
“I looked around and then I tapped into Bill’s wealth of knowledge and experience of how people use the park,” he said. “He took me out to the swimming rock and a point at the edge of the park — places I never would have gone.”
He plans to complete all 12 by mid-October.
Peaks-Kenny State Park is open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $1 for children 5 to 12 and free for children under 5. Camping is $15 per Maine resident and $25 per out-of-state resident. To view Wade Kavanaugh’s previous artwork, visit www.wadekavanaugh.com.