June 7, 2010

Restoring a Skowhegan icon

Chamber steps up efforts to repair Indian sculpture

By Amy Calder acalder@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

SKOWHEGAN -- For 41 years, the Skowhegan Indian sculpture has stood over downtown, a towering 62-foot symbol of a time long ago when natives hunted and fished along the waterways here.

click image to enlarge

THUMBS UP: Restorer Stephen Dionne holds a deteriorated thumb of the Skowhegan Indian sculpture at his shop in Skowhegan. Several other digits and an arm will be restored.

Staff photo by David Leaming

click image to enlarge

NUTS: A gray squirrel runs down the face of the Skowhegan Indian sculpture last week. At least four squirrels ran in and out of holes in the figure that will be refurbished this year.

Staff photo by David Leamin

But now, the important work by renowned artist Bernard Langlais has fallen on hard times.

Its right forearm and hand are rotted, parts of the left hand and foot need replacing, paint is peeling, and squirrels and pigeons have taken over the structure.

The Skowhegan Area Chamber of Commerce, which owns the sculpture, is stepping up efforts to raise money to restore the Indian, built by Langlais over three years and erected in 1969.

"We want to get this rolling before we start losing more of the sculpture," says Cory King, the chamber's executive director. "It's gone far enough. It's not the best time, economically, to start fundraising for something like this, but we also can't afford to wait any longer."

The chamber has about $22,000 from fundraisers for restoration, but about $45,000 more is needed, according to King.

The 24,000-pound Indian, made largely from white pine, is not in danger of falling over, however. Two steel I-beams inside the concrete base extend inside the sculpture to its shoulders to support it, according to experts.

"In my opinion, only about 7 to 9 percent of the sculpture needs serious work, either by replacing or rebuilding or consolidation with epoxy, so it isn't all gloom and doom," said Stephen Dionne, a Skowhegan builder, architectural woodworker and restorer chosen to do the work.

"If nothing is done, it's just going to continue to deteriorate like an old building would. It's the size of a six-story building. It will just, over time, continue to wear away."

The restoration and preservation effort requires special scaffolding that will be expensive, according to Dionne. An estimate about four years ago was more than $15,000, he said.

Work on the sculpture also requires a delicate balance.

"You want to do as little as possible, but at the same time, preserve it," said Dionne, whose history with the artwork goes back several years. "At all costs, pretty much, you try to keep what is original and not replace."

The sculpture's history

In 1966, the Skowhegan Tourist Hospitality Association, the precursor to the chamber, commissioned Langlais' sculpture in memory of Maine Indians, "the first people to use these lands in peaceful ways," according to a sign at the base of the structure.

Langlais, who grew up in Old Town and was a student and teacher at Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, worked on the piece at his Cushing home. The sculpture was erected in 1969 off Madison Avenue, behind where Cumberland Farms now sits.

Langlais was born in 1921 and died in 1977; his wife, Helen, who grew up in Skowhegan, died recently.

Back in the 1960s, The Tourist Association borrowed $20,000 for the sculpture and later gave it to the town. It later gave it to the Chamber.

There were initially big plans to develop a park around the sculpture. A grist mill nearby was to remain as a museum. But the plans never materialized and businesses were built nearby.

Trees by the Indian have grown so large their branches obscure the piece. Over the years, debate about moving the Indian to a more visible location cropped up. And money was raised to fix problems plaguing the sculpture.

Ongoing repair

Repairs were undertaken after a structural engineering study in 2004.

Bird nests were removed from the structure and the concrete base cleaned of bird droppings and soil, and then pressure-washed, according to Dionne's records. A special solution was applied to the Indian's legs, feet and other features to deter decay; and special screening was stapled to the underside of the sculpture to keep out birds and squirrels.

(Continued on page 2)

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