ORONO, Maine — Thirty years ago this month, a capacity crowd filled the brand new Maine Center for the Arts on the campus of the University of Maine for the center’s opening gala. The program featured a warm, congratulatory address by Frank Hodsoll, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and performances by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Isaac Stern.

As they passed through the lofty central lobby, audience members that night gazed upward to admire “The Flames of Inspiration,” a bold, 21-foot-high bronze sculpture created by respected Castine sculptor and former UMaine art professor Clark Fitz-Gerald. A $50,000 gift from the UMaine class of 1942, the piece was commissioned specifically to enhance the entry to the posh new arts center. Rendered in swirling, undulant strips of polished bronze and lit brightly from within, the 1,800-pound sculpture hung high above the open lobby like a giant burning bush.

Clark Fitz-Gerald died in 2004 at the age of 87.

“He hoped the performances here at the arts center would inspire university students and that like flames the inspiration would spread,” the late artist’s 62-year-old son, Stephen Fitz-Gerald, also a metal sculptor, said in an interview earlier this week.

Some people admired the piece and others didn’t, Fitz-Gerald said, but there was no ignoring it. Even as the bronze flames tarnished over time and took on a rich, brown patina, the bold sculpture was as integral to the experience of the Maine Center for the Arts as the spiraling, open ramp to the upper-floor galleries of the Hudson Museum or the plush, red-velvet interior of the Hutchins Concert Hall.

Until 2007, that is, when the building closed for renovations. When it reopened 18 months later, several changes were evident. The center had been renamed the Collins Center for the Arts after prominent donors Richard R. and Anne A. Collins. There was a new, glass-enclosed entry vestibule and a sensible center aisle down the middle of the 1,600-seat performance hall. The original lobby ceiling had been dropped to make new space on the second floor for the museum’s anthropological collections. And “The Flames of Inspiration” was gone.

“I was not privy to the discussion,” said Danny Williams, CSA executive director and longtime advisory board member, who has led the arts center since 2014. “But there was significant discussion. It was agreed that it needed to come down for the renovation but that it would go back up afterward because this is where it belongs. But once it left the building, apparently it was out of sight and out of mind. Were it not for the advocacy and determination of the Class of ’42, it might still be in storage.”

Rekindling the flame

In fact, “The Flames of Inspiration” spent more than six years in an unheated storage shed on the Orono campus. Williams said the piece was safe and protected during that time, but other than occasional queries from the public and some members of the ever-diminishing class of 1942, there was little interest in restoring it to its place of honor in the arts center.

Among those concerned was Robert Roy of Deer Isle, a member of the class of 1942 who was known to his classmates as “Mike.” Roy died last December, when he was 95 years old. “It really upset him that somebody had made a decision to do away with it,” Roy’s widow, Joan Roy, said. “He got a bee in his bonnet that he was going to get it put back. He kept on pushing and rattling cages about it.”

Another alum, Dorothy Erikson of Cumberland, was also dismayed to learn the sculpture had been put in storage, according to her daughter, Nancy Ladd. Her mother died in May 2014.

“We pined away for the chandelier for a little while,” she said. But then, in concert with other alumni, the family started fundraising to have it restored to its place of honor. “We really didn’t want this to become one of those projects that never gets off the ground,” Ladd said.

Before being named director of the arts center, Danny Williams had worked with the UMaine Alumni Association for several years. Interest in the status of the sculpture came and went, he said. But when he took the took the job at the arts center, “I understood this was now my issue to deal with.”

Critical to the project was the early interest and support of UMaine President Susan Hunter, Williams said. “As a class gift, she said it was essential to honor it as best we can,” he said. Clearly, the sculpture’s storage-shed location would not be tolerated. Hunter authorized initial university funding to find a solution.

The first step was an engineering study in 2015 to determine the feasibility of hanging the sculpture in the only spot that could still accommodate it in the renovated Collins Center — in the high, open center of the winding rampway. When the study showed the building could support the weight without difficulty, Williams got the green light to move forward.

“We needed to find an artist to do the work of rehabbing and modifying the piece,” Williams said. Though it had not sustained any real damage, he said, time had loosened some of the many welds and rivets that held the sculpture together. There were bits of rust and other surface blemishes to deal with.

Most critically, the new plan included installing an electric motor on the ceiling that would raise and lower the heavy piece for cleaning and maintenance with the press of a button. The top of the sculpture would have to be modified to obscure the machinery.

“When you start tinkering with a piece of art, you get into tricky ethical territory pretty quickly,” Williams said. Since the original artist was deceased, Williams decided to start his search by contacting the Fitz-Gerald family for any possible leads. He had no idea how quickly his problem would be solved.

He found Clark Fitz-Gerald’s obituary, where he learned the sculptor had been survived by his second wife, Elizabeth, and by three children with his first wife, Leah. He did a Google search of the children and came across Stephan Fitz-Gerald’s website, which clearly showcased the younger artist’s craftsmanship. Williams picked up his phone and called Stephen Fitz-Gerald, reaching him at his home in Santa Rosa, California.

“It was immediate,” Williams said. “Within five minutes, I knew I had found the right person for the job.”

Answering the call

“I got a call from Danny in August,” Stephen Fitz-Gerald said. “He said, ‘We’re hoping you can tell us who can do some work on your father’s sculpture.’” After a short conversation and a protracted silence, “I asked him, ‘Who in the world could be more qualified to do this than me?’”

He and his father had had a difficult relationship, Fitz-Gerald said, including an 11-year period when they had barely spoken at all. “Clark always had an effervescent personality, larger than life, like Zorba the Greek,” he said. “He was one of those people who suck all the oxygen out the room — it was hard for anyone else to shine.”

It had taken a move to northern California to finish college — a degree in art and one in parapsychology — to set up his own art studio and establish his independent identity, Fitz-Gerald said. The two reconciled about a year before his father was commissioned to create “The Flames of Inspiration.” Stephen Fitz-Gerald had consulted on the design and helped with some of the work.

“We were more like siblings than father and son,” he said. “We were yelling and screaming at each other all the time, but it was always in love.” They remained close until Clark Fitz-Gerald’s death in 2004.

About a month after the call from Williams, Stephen Fitz-Gerald was on a plane to his home state of Maine to meet with university staff and assess the job of restoring the sculpture. In April of this year, he flew to Maine again, ready to get to work. He had arranged to do the restoration in his father’s old sculpture studio in Castine, at the home where he and his siblings grew up.

The rambling house had been occupied since Clark Fitz-Gerald’s death by his second wife, Liddy Fitz-Gerald, an accomplished fiber artist he had met and married a few years after his first marriage ended in divorce and the sudden death of his first wife.

Now in her late 80s, Liddy had developed early symptoms of dementia, but she was still living in the family home. Stephen was looking forward to spending a few months with her while he worked on the sculpture. But it was not to be.

“Two days before I flew back, she had a stroke,” Stephen said. She died a few days later.

“So the house was really empty,” he said. “I didn’t have Liddy to talk to or take care of. I could really burn the candle at both ends.”

UMaine crews trucked the sculpture down to Castine and maneuvered it, in pieces, into the studio. “I worked 40 days and 40 nights to get it done,” Fitz-Gerald said, adding that he felt his father’s presence keenly as he worked.

Earlier this week, the finished sculpture — buffed to a gleaming finish and sealed against future oxidation — was stashed in pieces under a stairwell at the Collins Center for the Arts, shrouded against the curious eyes of passers-by. The restoration and installation cost a total of about $70,000, Williams said. About two-thirds of that was raised through private donations and a third was contributed by the university.

On Saturday evening, during the opening night gala of the 2016-2017 performance season, “The Flames of Inspiration” will be raised with fanfare and ceremony to its new position. There will be speeches and a dedication. It’s easy to imagine a swell of pride coursing through the crowd.

Joan Roy will drive up from Deer Isle to be there on behalf of her late husband. “I’m only sorry he’s not going to be around to see how his persistence paid off,” she said.

Nancy Ladd and her family will be there, too, thinking of her mother. “I know how pleased she would be that this came together,” she said. “There are many people who hold this sculpture very dear.”

“When [‘The Flames of Inspiration’] was not reinstalled following the Collins Center restoration, it sent a message to some that the university did not value its donors or honor its commitments,” UMaine President Susan Hunter said in an email. “That needed to be dispelled, and at the gala we’ll do just that.”

“The Collins Center for the Arts is often thought of as a being a beacon in the darkness,” Danny Williams said. “And the ‘Flames of Inspiration’ is a perfect representation of our commitment. I am pleased and proud to have had a role in bringing it back.”

For artist Stephen Fitz-Gerald, the moment will be one of gratitude, communion and closure. “The moment I walked into the studio to start this project,” he said, “Clark’s spirit was right there at my elbow, guiding me all the way.”

Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.