SKOWHEGAN — Maine artist Bernard Langlais made a bet with fellow artist Joan Purcell in the late 1960s or early 1970s that she wouldn’t be able to sell a particular piece of his art at her gallery in Bar Harbor.
Purcell sold the piece and won the bet, according to the man who bought the gallery from Purcell last year.
Langlais paid up with another piece of art — a large wooden sculpture of a sea gull, which Purcell promptly mounted on the front of her gallery.
The Bar Harbor sea gull, being restored at Oak Pond Mill Works in Skowhegan, is a good example of Langlais’ whimsical and prolific art created from used pieces of wood, said Hannah Blunt, Langlais curator for special projects at the Colby Museum of Art.
Blunt said she is glad the sea gull is getting some notice as a Langlais sculpture outside of a museum or a formal collection.
“I have heard sort of rumblings about this gull in the last few years and I’m excited to hear it’s been brought to light,” Blunt said. “I am not aware of it being made on a bet, but that doesn’t surprise me at all. That would be sort of in keeping with his whole attitude about his work and sharing it in funny ways like that.”
The restoration project started earlier this summer when Stephen Dionne and his wife visited Bar Harbor and saw the sculpture — 25 feet wide from wing tip to wing tip and 11 feet tall. Dionne, who has been contracted to restore Skowhegan’s iconic Indian statue by Langlais, said he knew immediately who the artist was and inquired at the store.
“I was just walking down the sidewalk and saw it and said, man, that’s got to be a Langlais,” Dionne said. “I left my card and didn’t hear anything for two and half months and he just happened to call a couple of weeks ago and said he wanted the restoration done.”
The gallery, now Jack’s Jewelry on Main Street, was bought last year from Purcell by Jack and Sherri Coopersmith. The Langlais sea gull came with it, now weathered by decades of sun and sea and in need of repair.
Jack Coopersmith, a tourmaline jeweler who has worked in the building since 1975, said he was aware that the huge sea gull on the front of the store was a Langlais piece and had heard of the restoration effort underway for the Langlais Indian in Skowhegan. He said he was told the story of the bet with Langlais by Purcell.
“I’ve seen it there all these years wanted to get it restored and then Stephen Dionne happened to be in Bar Harbor and saw the bird on the building and stopped in and dropped off his card,” Coopersmith said. “I wanted to do it anyway. It was great timing. I grew to really love the thing and I saw what a great landmark in Bar Harbor it is. Then we found out about Bernard âBlackie’ Langlais and it got more interesting.”
The restoration work filling cracks and gouges left by exposure to the sea air in Bar Harbor and scraping and repainting big bird is done. Dionne said he and his crew of two other men are to deliver and remount the piece on Thursday.
He said the sea gull is made from plywood, two-by-fours and scraps of cedar shingles to form three pieces. The whole thing weighs about 350 pounds.
Langlais, who died in 1977, was born in Old Town and is best known for making oversized wooden sculptures such as the Skowhegan Indian — and now the Bar Harbor sea gull. He studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, moved to New York and made a name for himself there in the 1950s. He returned to Maine in 1966.
The Skowhegan Indian, typical of the Langlais art standing 62-feet tall in the heart of downtown Skowhegan, was dedicated in 1969.
A photograph of the sea gull mounted on the gallery front appears on the Smithsonian Institution website’s collections search center as an example of American outdoor sculpture. The sculpture has a copyright date of 1970.
“Wood was his medium,” Dionne said. “It was either relief or three-dimensional and it’s all impressionist type art. This sea gull is a perfect example of what he was all about.”
Langlais was a prolific artist, Dionne said.
A portion of the Langlais collection of nearly 3,000 pieces was willed to Colby College by the artist’s wife, Helen, who died in 2010. Colby then donated the collection and 90-acre estate in Cushing to the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation, a group focused on art preservation, for a museum, according to Blunt at the Colby Museum of Art.
Colby has retained about 200 pieces.
Some of the items will remain at the Langlais home in Cushing, where the couple lived. The rest will be given to nonprofit museums, colleges and other public institutions in Maine and around the country, including Main Street Skowhegan. More than 20 other art pieces by Langlais have been donated to the town through Main Street Skowhegan, a downtown revitalization group, as part of an agreement with the foundation.
Dionne said 18 of those pieces are set to arrive Friday in Skowhegan.
As for the value of the Langlais sea gull, people at the Kohler Foundation said there is no way to calculate what someone would pay for it.
Susan Kelly, preservation coordinator at Kohler, said in September that Langlais art is highly collectible. Some of his large wood-relief pieces had recently sold for thousands of dollars in a gallery in New York, she said.