Lucian Burg and his wife Marie got more than a home with a view of Arey Cove when they purchased a house on Vinalhaven. They also bought a piece of Maine art history.

The property once belonged to the late and much beloved longtime island artists Carolyn Brady and Bill Epton. In 1986, Epton sculpted the Statue of Liberty in the shape of a Coke bottle into a damaged elm tree that stood near the widely traveled (by island standards) intersection of Round the Island and Pequot roads. He made the piece of art as part of a Vinalhaven Fourth of July celebration, passing commentary on the commercialization of the land of the free. Instead of a lighted lamp representing hope, the Statue of Liberty in Epton’s sculpture holds a universally recognized bottle of Coke, representing capitalism.

Bill Epton pauses during his work on the Coke bottle statue on Vinalhaven in 1986.

Lady Liberty’s arm extends high above her bottle-top head, thanks to a well-placed limb. Epton’s “Statue of Liberty Coke Bottle” became an instant landmark.

Ever since, people have been taking a left at the Coke bottle to get to the dump.

Over time, it also became endangered. This fall, the statue came down, sawed off at the base by a local craftsman, who took it down before it came down on its own. Dave Moyer, an island builder, will spend the winter restoring the rotting 12-foot-tall hulking piece of wood, and promised its return to Round the Island Road in the spring.

Burg and his wife have begun a crowd-sourced fundraising campaign in partnership with the Vinalhaven Historical Society to raise $8,500 to pay for restoring Epton’s sculpture. Going into Thanksgiving, they were more than halfway to their goal, with $5,775 raised.

The Burgs knew what they were getting into when they became owners of the house and, by extension, the sculpture. They were friends with Brady and Epton from the time the sculpture was made and had rented the house from the late couple’s son for a decade before purchasing it this spring. The restoration of the Coke bottle was among the first things they began planning for when they knew they were buying the house, said Lucian Burg, a Portland designer.

The Coke bottle is not just an island landmark, but “the sole sculpture of Bill’s public legacy that lives on to this day, and has touched so many island folks over the years and attained iconic stature. It’s a beloved piece of sculpture, no question about it,” he said.

TURN LEFT AT THE COKE BOTTLE

Brady was a celebrated photorealism watercolor painter, with work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and other high-profile national museums. Her death in 2005 was reported in the New York Times. Epton, who taught sculpture at the University of Maryland, died early in 2008. His death drew less notice in the national press but was deeply felt on the island, in Maryland and elsewhere, Burg said.

“Billy was a brilliant sculptor. The guy was just brilliant,” he said. “He was a master of all materials, and he could figure out how to do stuff – just anything.”

The Coke bottle was a manifestation of his curiosity, humor and quirkiness.

The Fourth of July on Vinalhaven is a high-time celebration of America, summer and community. The parade theme that year was the centennial of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York. Epton led a team that built a float for the parade, then turned his sights on the elm tree.

Photos from that summer show him up on a ladder in a T-shirt, shorts and a baseball cap, smiling. He’s got a mallet and chisel in hand, and is shaping the tree. Gigi Baas remembers everybody being curious what was Epton was carving, and then amused with what he created.

Conservator Ron Harvey inspects the Coke bottle earlier this year.

“Putting together the patriotic and the commercial was really kind of brilliant,” said Baas, who lived on the island 35 years and recently returned to her hometown in upstate New York. “Bill had an ironic sense of humor, and I think that figured into his decision to fuse the whole concept of the Statue of Liberty and Coca-Cola. I think the shape of what was left of the tree was a determining factor, as well. He was really a brilliant and quirky guy, and he certainly had his own perspective on things.”

The Coke bottle benefited from its location. The lower half of the island is bisected by Round the Island Road, and the Coke bottle is at the intersection with the road the goes to the dump. “Anybody who wasn’t familiar with the island who wanted to know where the dump was, you’d say, ‘Just take a left at the Coke bottle.’ It became a signpost and just something that people drove by everyday. You go to the north end of the island, you’re going to go by the Coke bottle,” Baas said.

The artist Diana Cherbuliez remembers bicycling past Epton while he up on the ladder carving, but she was too young and shy to stop and talk. She left the island for a few months that summer, and when she came back the tree that Epton had been carving had become the Coke bottle. She felt a “strange, emotional resonance. And I have to say, I was impressed.”

During a recent conversation, a younger islander complained about the sculpture and called it cheesy. Cherbuliez defended the piece and Epton’s intent. “I had to explain the context of the centennial, the commercialization of Coca-Cola and the power of advertising. It wasn’t cheesy at all. It was the opposite of cheesy,” she said.

Cherbuliez didn’t know Epton well, but they talked occasionally and were in a small island exhibition together. During a political uproar surrounding nudity and the National Endowment for the Arts, Cherbuliez remembers Epton carving maple fig leaves that he intended to give to senators. “He was clever, funny and he was irreverent – and he was a phenomenal craftsman,” she said.

Suzanne Heller, another longtime Vinalhaven artist, said it has been sad to watch the Coke bottle deteriorate. Everybody has been wondering what’s going to happen to it, and people are pleased it’s being restored. “We knew something had to be done, and I think there’s a sense of relief about it,” she said. “This is so important to the island.”

IN PERFECT HARMONY

The restoration of the Coke bottle sculpture is a tribute to both Epton and Brady and what Burg called “the heady times” of the 1980s on Vinalhaven, when the island was home to many young artists who looked up to Epton and Brady. They were good together as a couple and, especially Brady, generous with their time and talent, Burg said. When they opened their house for parties, everybody “pretty much jumped.

“I jokingly always thought to myself that Carolyn was the sun, Billy the moon and the rest of us island artists during those heady artistic years of the ’80s on Vinalhaven were planets orbiting around them. The creativity, love-of-life and artistic curiosity demonstrated daily by the two of them was an inspiration to so many of us,” he said.

One of the first phone calls he made after buying the property was to conservator Ron Harvey of Tuckerbrook Conservation in Lincolnville. Harvey has assessed and restored outdoor wooden sculpture by Bernard Langlais across Maine and is an expert in writing conservation plans for vulnerable art. Much of Langlais’ art was outdoors for more than 40 years before it was conserved, Harvey said, and a recent inspection of the conversation work completed over the past four years indicates the repairs “are holding up well, and they will be around as long as they’re maintained.”

Like Langlais’ art, Epton’s Coke bottle had quite a bit of wood rot, especially at the base, and some open seams where water has worked its way in. For the Coke bottle, Harvey prescribed a winter of rehabilitation that includes drying it out, removing the rot, creating an internal support system and filling the cavity with epoxy foam. With care and maintenance, there’s nothing to prevent the Coke bottle from lasting long into the future, he said.

He saluted Burg and his wife for saving the sculpture. It’s not about cost vs. value, he said. It’s about doing the right thing. If you acquire or inherit a work of art, you inherit the responsibility to maintain it. “When you have iconic pieces, someone will often ask, what’s the value? If it’s held in high esteem by the community, it has value. Whether you put a dollar value on it is not the issue. It’s worth saving,” he said.

The man doing the work, Dave Moyer, is looking forward to the high-profile project. He took the sculpture down in October, cradled it up and hauled it off to his heated island workshop.

“I’ve been picking away at it,” he said last week. “The bottom of the tree was kind of in hard shape, but I dug the rot out and I’ve stabilized it. I’ve put some foam in there and built some baffles on the inside to stiffen it up. It’s all stable now.”

He plans to install a vertical steel pipe that will run the length of the sculpture and connect to a pipe attached to a matching base. He’ll fill the outside cracks with epoxy and turn it over to Burg to stain.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Moyer said of his winter project. “It’s kind of interesting in a way. There’s hope. The old Coke bottle will be back in place in the spring.”

 

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