BELFAST, Maine — Tap, tap, tap.
In the shade of a spreading maple tree and under the lazily waving branches of a weeping willow, Belfast sculptor Ron Cowan used a chisel Thursday morning to carve a personality into his newest face.
As the artist worked in his sun-dappled outdoor studio, many of his other creations are placed nearby in various stages of weathering. The faces carved into old barn beams, stumps and logs seem to gaze upon him benevolently as he employed chainsaw and chisel to discover more of their brethren.
“Wood is alive — it’s like us, cells and earth,” Cowan said as he gestured around the faces that surrounded him. “Any day I get the inspiration and my chain saw has gas, I work on them.”
The 72-year-old artist was getting his faces ready for the 20th annual Arts in the Park show in Belfast, which has named him the 2015 artist of the year. He said that he has participated in the show every summer since it began, and loves the scene at the waterfront park.
“It’s such a great atmosphere,” Cowan said. “I always get really positive feedback. I gather all my people and meet all the live humans … it’s just a nice kind of family, and a carefree weekend.”
The sculptor said that he arrived at his avocation via a winding path that included a stint serving in Germany in the U.S. Army in the early 1960s, a few years working as a restaurateur in Florida and an attempt — ultimately unsuccessful — to be a New York City high-roller.
“I really wanted to be a rich businessman. I was keyed towards making a million dollars,” he said, smiling at the memory. “But I went really bust in Manhattan in the late 1970s.”
He and his wife, Cherie, ended up “limping back” to an old farmhouse in Vermont, and that was where he learned that he was a sculptor. Someone gave him a bag of clay, and he went to work on it.
“A face came right up and was looking at me,” Cowan said. “That was the one that led to all the rest.”
The Cowans came to Belfast in 1988, and for a time Ron Cowan rented a studio on the waterfront. One day he was gazing out at the harbor and decided that the scenery needed something special.
“What a wonderful place to put people in the harbor and watch the tide come and go,” he said.
So Cowan put seven faces, adorned with seaweed hair, into the harbor. That was in 2000, and while he’s had to replace and refresh some of the works, he still gets a kick out of watching tourists and other visitors notice them.
“It’s really enjoyable,” he said.
The city of Belfast now owns the work, which he called “Long Breath.”
Cowan uses lots of different types of wood for his art, including cherry, black locust, white birch, spruce and oak that had been used for harbor piers at the Belfast waterfront. He bought a stash of 37 of the 37-foot-long piers when the city replaced them several years ago, and is still “fishing in that pile.”
He estimates that he completes about 20 faces every year. He does some commissions and also works from his imagination. He also gazes at the faces he sees in humans around him to see if they could get translated to wood.
“Nobody else really does this,” he said. “I get a lot of requests [to carve] animals, but I like faces, because therein rests the soul. That tiny little hole in the center of your eye — there it is.”
Cowan and the other 80 or so Arts in the Park artists will show their works from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, July 11, and Sunday, July 12, at Heritage Park on the Belfast Waterfront. There also will be lots of live music, strawberry shortcake and other food options. For more information, check out artsintheparkbelfast.org.