Some people allow obstacles to define their lives. Others mold obstacles into a shape of their own choosing. Forest Hart, wildlife observer and renowned sculptor, belongs to the second category. Beneath a quiet, humble exterior, Forest houses a fiery independence and a relentless drive to create. That drive has led him to stunning success as a bronze sculptor. It also led to an unparalleled gift of time, beauty, education and history for the town in Maine where he grew up.
Forest — known as “Toby” to old friends — moved to Hampden with his family in 1948 when he was five years old. His house was a short walk from his first school, a one-room pre-K to 3rd grade program in what is now the Kiwanis building. Where the Weatherbee Elementary School sits today, Hart used to go and watch dairy cows grazing in a pasture. He spent so much time out and exploring that he knew the town and surroundings intimately. He sketched out a map of who lived where and which houses had been torn down.
“Dr. Weatherbee lived right here,” he showed me. “He was our doctor. I used to mow the lawn for him.” There were elm trees all along Summer Street. “It was like a big cave.”
Hart was drawn to both wildlife and artistry from a very early age. He recalls lots of time in the woods and fields observing nature, painting wildlife on his bedroom walls and caring for an array of pet animals. One of his favorites was a porcupine named “Chico.”
“She’d follow me into the house, eat bananas, and she’d go on my shoulder and nibble my ears.”
In addition to a spine-raising story of rescuing Chico from a local rooftop, Hart told how Chico led to his first reference in a newspaper. Chico had a run-in with another porcupine and got quills in her nose, so Hart called the local vet.
“Sure, you bring him in and I’ll take the quills out for nothing,” said the doctor, thinking it was a joke. When Hart appeared, he was stunned; “Sheesh! You really have a porcupine!”
A story appeared later in the newspaper, “Unidentified youth brings in porcupine…”
“I had a wonderful time growing up,” he said with a big smile.
It is his nature to see the best in everything, but as Hart talked about some parts of his childhood, it became clear that there were painful times as well. School was a difficult place for him as a boy. Learning didn’t come easily, and kids can be mean. He maintained a jovial exterior, but the sting went deep.
“I had to really struggle in school. I was used to being on the bottom. We were called the dumb kids.”
In a way, though, he said, “I think it was good. I was smart enough to know that I wasn’t dumb; I just had to work a lot harder.”
Instead of letting limitations drag him down, the determination to overcome them gave birth to a formidable drive to succeed. That drive was supplemented by lessons from his father, who knew how to prepare “study skins” of animals and birds, and by encouragement from his mother to pursue his artistic talents.
When Hart was 12, he was already a licensed taxidermist. When he was in eighth grade, he decided to raise mink for income. Throughout his school years and into young adulthood, Hart never stopped innovating and working. Since it represented the path to future independence, hard work became as much a part of him as his two hands.
“I was always intent on earning a living by myself.”
Hart worked many different jobs, but his taxidermy talents eventually caught the notice of professionals, and he was offered a position working for the Carnegie Natural History Museum in Pittsburgh. Two years in the city were enough for him. His discontent was not just with the lack of woods and space, but the lack of activity. They paid him, but gave him little to do.
Hart moved back to Maine and began his own taxidermy business in Aroostook County. A few years later, he moved back to his hometown of Hampden, self-employed and thriving.
Artistry was always a part of Hart’s motivation as a taxidermist. His animals display the spirit and authenticity of living creatures, and his unique work won awards in competitions all over the country. Given his drive and his innate creativity, the progression to casting animals in bronze was, perhaps, inevitable. Now his bronzes are winning accolades far and wide.
Monumental as his success may be, Hart’s no-nonsense approach to life remains unchanged. In 2005, he and his wife, Susan, faced a loss that most would consider an insurmountable tragedy. Their home, studio and lifetime collections of taxidermy, artwork, books and records were all destroyed in a fire.
Hart and his wife rebuilt and started fresh with hardly a pause.
“We didn’t dwell on what we lost. It was all material things. We did enjoy it all, now we can remember it … We made a lot of improvements when we rebuilt. We had plenty to do.”
Meaningful work, not wealth, is what fuels the soul of this artist-outdoorsman. That explains why he so readily took on the job of creating a gift for the community that inspired his youth.
In 1992, Hart created a bronze bronco, Hampden Academy’s mascot, to stand in front of the 1843 historic school building. It became as much of a community landmark as the building behind it.
This fall, 2012, a brand new Hampden Academy will open on a new site, and Hart is making a new bronco to stand before it. The new statue was modeled after a wild mustang, and its creation has included a multigenerational assembly of locals, united in its creation.
Since last summer, carloads of MSAD 22 folks have been showing up at Hart’s studio in Monroe to help with the new bronco. Teachers, elementary and high school students, alumni, parents, the principal, and even a local police officer have all come to learn, create and take part.
“I figure this is a part of history,” said Officer Dan Stewart, who has been one of the regulars. “I’d like to be a part of it.”
Last weekend, a group gathered to add a plaster mold to the bronco’s exterior, one of many steps toward creating a mold which will be the start of the bronze casting process. The previous weekend, Hart had begun work at 2 a.m. in order to apply the first of three coats for a rubber mold. It is intense work.
When Hart spoke to the new school’s building committee about the statue last year, he told them he would create tabletop-sized versions of the new bronco. The sale of those smaller broncos will cover the costs of the full-sized monument.
“What if you don’t sell enough to pay for the job?” they asked him.
“That thought never entered my mind,” Hart remembers saying. “But I told them, ‘that’s my responsibility, not yours.’”
He is charging the school nothing for the new monument.
When people see this extraordinary animal, I am guessing that the sale of the smaller horses won’t be a problem. This horse exudes an irrepressible spirit of freedom and independence, mane and tail flying in the wind. There is a driving force behind that charging steed — to push beyond limits, to excel, to charge forward unfettered by limitations.
There could be no better inspiration for students looking forward. What an extraordinary gift from one former student who never let obstacles get in his way.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at email@example.com.