PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A Presque Isle university is poised to offer students, art lovers and scholars more insight into the talent and artistic process of acclaimed sculptor Bernard Langlais after receiving a gift of more than 800 Langlais art pieces from the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation Inc.
The news was announced late last week during a press conference at the Reed Art Gallery, when UMPI officials provided the public with its first glimpse of the new collection, which includes sketches, sketchbooks, studies, models, archives and more than 30 wooden sculptures and wall pieces valued at more than $200,000. Many of the works are on display in the Reed Gallery for the exhibit “Bernard Langlais: The Man Behind the Owls,” which opens Friday, May 2, during Presque Isle’s First Friday Art Walk and runs through June 21.
Linda Schott, the president of UMPI, said that college officials were “thrilled beyond words” with the gift.”
“We are indebted to the Kohler Foundation for giving us so many works by a sculptor who holds such significance for our campus,” she said. “We look forward to helping to preserve this piece of Langlais’ artistic legacy and welcoming visitors to campus who want to explore our learning collection.”
Langlais, who died in 1977 at age 56, has been a familiar name to the UMPI campus since the 1970s, when he created the 4-ton, 30-foot-tall outdoor wooden sculpture “The Owls.” Born in Old Town, Langlais was an internationally renowned artist, who received many of the art world’s top honors, including a Fulbright grant, Guggenheim fellowship and Ford Foundation prize, and whose work has been featured in museums throughout the country, including the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. His “Owls” piece for UMPI was the result of a competitive commission contest initiated in 1976, and became his last sculpture. After more than three decades of harsh Aroostook County winters resulting in serious deterioration, the iconic sculpture underwent a restoration and preservation process, through the help of UMPI’s Physical Plant and Andres Verzosa, director and owner of Aucocisco Galleries in Portland, who has worked for years to preserve Langlais’ art. “The Owls” was relocated to the center of campus in 2012. Prior to the gift from the Kohler Foundation, it was the only Langlais work in UMPI’s entire art collection.
Heather Sincavage, director of the Reed Gallery, said on Tuesday that in order to honor the recent “Owls” restoration, she had planned to assemble and curate an exhibition of Langlais’ work by borrowing artwork from existing collections. It was through this process that she was referred to the Kohler Foundation. The Colby College Museum of Art had been willed the Langlais estate and, in 2012, gifted nearly 3,000 pieces of it to the Kohler Foundation to preserve and ultimately gift the works to nonprofit institutions throughout Maine and the U.S.
The Kohler Foundation invited Sincavage to the Langlais estate in Cushing in the summer of 2013 to select a few items for her exhibition.
“When I got down there, I was just awed by the number of pieces they had and how beautiful they were,” she explained. “It was just breathtaking. It was almost like you had been invited into his brain, it was that rich of a collection.”
Sincavage said that to her surprise, the foundation allowed her to take home a lot more pieces that she originally thought she would be allowed to take. In total, Sincavage picked up for UMPI a carved wooden lion face thought to be Langlais’ self-portrait, five assemblage pieces, two scale models of “The Owls,” and a larger-than-life-sized Gerald Ford in an actual cast iron bathtub. The works on paper that UMPI received, which includes Langlais’ sketchbooks, early paintings, chain saw drawings and accomplished pen-and-ink, animal-filled landscapes, comprise the Langlais Study Collection. A special piece within this collection is a preliminary sketch on loose-leaf paper of “The Owls.”
Because the university is providing a permanent home for these hundreds of works, it will become a part of the official Langlais Art Trail. Currently in development, this art trail will provide art enthusiasts, Langlais fans and anyone else interested with a “road map” connecting the locations in Maine and beyond, where they will be able to view the works Langlais created throughout his prolific artistic career.
“It was truly a pleasure to work with the Kohler Foundation on this project,” Sincavage said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would walk away with such a substantial gift. What I find even more special is that through Langlais’ legacy, we are part of a united collective of arts organizations across the state. I can’t think of a better way to connect with others across Maine.”
She added that not all of the pieces will be displayed at once, due to the size of the collection. Some of the pieces also will be put on display in the university’s library. Sincavage said that she believes that art students will be especially thrilled with the collection.
“He was so wildly talented, I think they will get a lot of inspiration from his work,” she said on Tuesday.
Anyone interested in viewing works from UMPI’s new Langlais Collection is invited to visit the Reed Gallery starting on May 2, when “Bernard Langlais: The Man Behind the Owls” officially opens. The public is invited to view the exhibit throughout the show’s run and attend the opening reception from 5 to 7 p.m. May 2, which is being held in conjunction with the Presque Isle First Friday Art Walk. Sincavage will hold a gallery talk at 5:30 p.m. Light refreshments will be served. The exhibition will also be open for the First Friday Art Walk from 5 to 7 p.m. on June 6.