When Glenn Hines of southern Aroostook created a life-sized bronze moose in 1998, he was not seeking to replicate the animal that prances across Maine highways without regard for traffic. He wanted to capture the essence of a creature that is “both comical and majestic at the same time.”
An elk or bison present one image. They are majestic.
“The moose is different,” said Hines, well-known sculptor of bronze monuments and memorials in Maine and New York. “It is incongruous, with its huge proboscis, its broad rack of antlers, its spindly legs and large body on top of those spindly legs. It is a very interesting animal as a subject for sculpture.”
But when the moose Hines sculpted in New York found its permanent home in Van Buren, Maine, in April, residents began to take sides on its merits.
Hines, of Hammond, near Houlton, worked with New York-based artist Nina Katchadourian to create The Grand State of Maine, a sculpture featuring the 10.5-foot-tall moose and incorporating every official emblem of the state of Maine, along with a few unofficial symbols. The stately animal stands at the entrance to the new $45 million U.S. Customs and Border Protection Port of Entry in Van Buren, near the bridge across the St. John River to St. Leonard, New Brunswick.
The work was commissioned through the Art in Architecture Program of the U.S. General Services Administration, which reserves a percentage of the construction cost of each new federal building to commission a work of art by an American artist for the building. In this case, $145,000 was spent on the artwork.
Art in Architecture artists are drawn from GSA’s National Artist Registry, a database of artists who have submitted digital images of past work. Artists who receive commissions work with project architects and others as members of a design team, “to ensure that the artworks are meaningfully integrated into the overall project,” says a description of the program on the GSA website.
The commission for the Van Buren Port of Entry went to Katchadourian, 45, a conceptual artist born in Stanford., Calif., who has worked in a variety of media including photography, sculpture, video and sound. She purchased Hines’ moose in August 2012 and the two artists got together in Van Buren in the fall to orient the moose on the site. Katchadourian then sent Hines photographs of Maine’s official symbols as she envisioned them affixed to the moose sculpture indicating the size and position of each one.
The Maine coon cat rides on the moose’s back and the tips of its antlers are perches for the state bird, the chickadee. Even though neither the lobster nor the potato has been designated an official state emblem by the Legislature, their popular association with Maine is acknowledged on the statue. The quote marks around the word “Dirigo” are lobster claws and the “o” in the work’s title is a potato.
A can of Moxie, the official state soda, rests on the bronze base supporting the statue and a leaping landlocked salmon, the official fish, jumps away from the moose’s front hoof. Other emblems represented around the base of the statue are the official state dessert (blueberry pie), treat (whoopie pie), flower (pine cone and tassel), insect (honeybee), fossil (pertica quadrifaria), herb (wintergreen) and mineral (tourmaline), which is surrounded by a ring of nautical rope.
Between December and March, Hines sculpted the emblems in clay, made rubber molds, cast them in New York, then welded them onto the structure in April. The moose then was brought from New York and hoisted onto the stone base with a crane in an operation carefully scheduled so it could be completed in a day — April 26.
Since that day, the moose has generated heated discussion among townspeople.
“I’ve seen a lot of moose, but never one that looked quite like that,” wrote John Ezzy of Frenchville in a letter to the St. John Valley Times. “This one must have been anorexic or something.”
“It had a hard life,” Lydia Martin of Van Buren said in defense of the artwork. “Our parents had a hard life, but they stuck together. Our faith and our culture held us together. We have to be positive and thankful.”
But Ezzy was “thinking about the fact that our government was spending $145,000 on that statue while the sequester is cutting benefits and services largely to the poorest of our citizens.” He calculated the money that could be saved by eliminating the percent for art on 500 government projects and wondered how many months of rent could be subsidized by the savings.
“Where are our government’s priorities?” he asked.
“The moose is there for us to appreciate all the elements that make Maine truly great,” said Van Buren lawyer Phil Parent. “It’s a very important artwork that has found its way into our little community and we should rejoice,” he said, noting that the town had no input as to the kind of gift it would receive. “Now that we have it, the appropriate response is ‘Thank you.’”
Parent and his wife, Marguerite, composed a statement interpreting the significance of the sculpture which was read at a recent meeting of the board planning the town’s events for the 2014 Acadian World Congress. “The placing of the moose with its body facing east makes it the daily vanguard of energy from each sunrise,” they wrote. “It is possible that our moose is facing east, at least in part, because our Acadian ancestors came from the east to settle in this region of Maine.”
The Parents praised the ethnic diversity of Aroostook County, saying the moose “conceptually galvanizes the cohesiveness of all elements of Maine into one, getting along and acting in unity.” They noted the 16 points on the moose’s antlers represent the state’s 16 counties and the 10 chickadees atop the rack could symbolize the potential for the community to attain a “Perfect 10.”
“It’s a positive thing,” said Phil Parent in an interview. “And we need positive things in Aroostook County.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.