BELFAST, Maine — For 16 years, Belfast visitors and residents have enjoyed sharing their city’s waterfront with the Harbor Muses: mysterious faces carved into cedar logs placed in the harbor that disappeared and reappeared with the tides.
But time and tides have taken a toll on the seven muses that originally comprised sculptor Ron Cowan’s artwork, “The Long Breath.” After myriad blizzards, ice storms and daily exposure to saltwater, only one barnacle-covered muse remains in the harbor. Some fans of the muses are working to raise money to replace the works of art so that people will be able to enjoy them into the future.
“It’s something that we don’t want to see disappear,” Kathleen Coleman, office manager of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, said Tuesday. “It’s so iconic of Belfast. They’ve been reported about coast to coast, and people come here wanting to see them.”
Cowan, 73, who uses a chainsaw, chisel and other tools to unlock the personalities and faces he sees in trees, said he had the idea to construct the group of muses in 2000. That year, he had rented an old trap shop on the waterfront for his studio and would gaze at the remains of an old dock in the harbor during low tide.
“I began to think of how interesting it would be to see some of my muses coming and going beneath the tide each day,” he said. “I spent a lot of time on the rocks at low tide figuring out where to put them and how many there should be.”
Cowan carved the faces and then worked fast to place the cedar posts into holes he dug in the harbor at low tide. Then he chinked rocks around the base of the posts to make the muses stand up straight, and topped off his creations with seaweed hair stapled on for “added personality.”
They were an instant hit, he said.
“I can’t tell you how many people have said they’re the reason why they came to Belfast,” Cowan said, smiling. “Belfast is an artsy town.”
He didn’t know the work would endure as long as it has. About two times per year, the artist dons his tall boots and knee pads — because it is slippery out on the rocks — and hauls a ladder to the muses in order to freshen up their seaweed coiffures and do other maintenance.
“They’re owned by the city, but as the keeper of the hair, I guess they’ve kind of landed in my lap,” Cowan said.
After winter storms, muses often go missing, but they usually are found.
“They’ll roll up the bay, and I’ll get a call from the neighbors” to let him know he can recuperate the wayward muses they found on their property, Cowan said.
This year, that hasn’t happened. Five of the seven muses have gone missing, seemingly permanently.
“I walked the beach on either side and just couldn’t find a sign of them,” Cowan said.
Of the remaining two muses, one is still in its rightful place in the harbor, its weather-beaten face visible for all to see at low tide. Cowan found the last muse afloat near the installation, and he took it back to his house. It is in bad shape, and he would prefer to start anew with another batch of muses rather than put it back up in the harbor, the artist said Wednesday.
Coleman said that it would be terrible to just let the muses vanish with the tides, and so she started an online GoFundMe campaign at the end of March with a goal of raising $9,000 to purchase new muses from Cowan. So far, the campaign has been slow to ignite, with only $70 raised as of Wednesday, but there will be some other, more localized fundraising strategies in the near future. Cowan plans to bring one of the remaining muses to downtown businesses with a donation bucket nearby.
“We’re still trying. It’s not something we’re going to give up on by any means,” Coleman said. “Anything to get some of them back there. It’s just unique to Belfast.”