Snow still hides in shady spots and hollows, and the ground is moving from thaw to mud. On 90 acres in Cushing, decades-old towering sculptures of wood are beginning to dry out for another season — a season of renewal and change for the estate of the late Bernard and Helen Langlais on the Cushing peninsula.

Bernard, better known in these parts as Blackie, died young, at age 56, in 1977; Helen died in 2010, having spent her last few years at Windward Gardens in Camden. They had started spending summers in Cushing in 1956 (Blackie was a founding member of Maine Coast Artists in Rockport, now the Center for Maine Contemporary Art); 10 years later, they purchased a farm and moved permanently to the Midcoast. Helen started teaching at Cushing Elementary School, and Blackie, a Skowhegan native who had established himself in New York as an important American artist, began to put aside the painting canvas in favor of wood. Their land, which abuts River Road, became home to a menagerie of mixed-media sculptures, many of which can still be seen while driving by.

When Helen died, she left the land, its buildings and outdoor sculptures, the couple’s archives and some 3,000 smaller works of art to Colby College in Waterville. In the years since her husband’s death, Helen had worked vigorously to preserve his art and legacy, famously calling out the Samoset Resort in 1979 when new owners took a chainsaw to a commissioned Langlais wooden fountain (the remains were taken in by Portland Museum of Art, which mounted a retrospective in 2002). And she developed a relationship with Colby College Museum of Art.

“Helen was friends with Hugh Gourley, the former director, and also with Alex and Ada Katz,” said Sharon Corwin, chief curator and Carolyn Muzzy Director of the museum. “We had been working with her for a number of years before she died.”

Six years ago, Colby College Museum of Art hosted a traveling exhibition of Bernard Langlais’ abstract wood reliefs from the early 1950s. Hannah Blunt was working as curatorial assistant at the museum at the time and had the opportunity to curate the show. In 2008, she left to go to grad school, but Langlais’ work had made enough of an impression that she focused a small project at Boston University on it.

“As an artist, he really interested me. And the timing was such that Helen died in February 2010 and I graduated that May. Sharon had just come to Colby; she approached me about coming back as to manage the intake of the estate,” said Hannah Blunt, now the museum’s Bernard Langlais Assistant Curator.

Blunt ended up living in the Langlais house in Cushing for two years, taking inventory of the art inside and out, sifting though Helen’s records and working with the Colby curators, who were selecting what would end up to be around 200 works for the museum’s collection. Although she had not met either of the Langlaises, she said she felt a kinship with them, living in their home.

“Helen kept such wonderful records; she worked so hard! And his spirit is so alive in the space, through his art. It was a wonderful experience,” Blunt said.

Helen’s archives tell tales of their life and Blackie’s work … and of another famous Cushing artist, as well. One of the large outdoor sculptures is “Local Girl,” a wooden rendition of Christina Olson as depicted in Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” — with a twist.

“It was an homage, done the year Christina died. He said ‘I want people to see her face,’ which you don’t in the painting,” said Blunt, adding the archives indicate Wyeth suggested Langlais take the sculpture and place it in the field at the Olson House.

The Christina sculpture is among those likely to be preserved in coming months; others include the iconic Trojan horse seen from the road, “Five Bears” and a sculpture of Richard Nixon, flashing a peace sign. A team from the Kohler Foundation will be inspecting the outdoor works in a few weeks to ascertain their condition.

Corwin said it was clear from the start that the college would not be able to take on the land in Cushing permanently. What would be needed to deal with the estate’s unusual combination of holdings would be an unusual partnership. At the March 11 meeting of the Cushing Board of Selectmen, it was announced that just such a coalition had come together — Colby College, Kohler Foundation and Georges River Land Trust.

The Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation Inc. was established in 1940 by the family of Kohler Co., one of the oldest and largest privately held companies in the United States, family. It is dedicated to supporting the arts and education, as well as operating the John Michael Kohler Art Center, a world-class institution located in Sheboygan. Its arts focus is in preserving outdoor artist environments and the work of self-taught artists. Langlais was not self-taught, but the Cushing site is exactly the kind of place Kohler seeks to preserve and has been, in recent years, expanding out of the Midwest to serve.

“We are thrilled and honored to be a part of Maine,” said Terri Yoho, Kohler Foundation’s executive director, adding that the Langlais estate is the fourth such site outside of Wisconsin the foundation has preserved.

Yoho was approached by Blunt initially and both women spoke before the Cushing Board of Selectmen last summer and at a subsequent public hearing. The estate was transferred from Colby to Kohler at the turn of the year. By the end of this year, another transfer is scheduled to take place.

“We were approached by Colby College about a year ago,” said Gail Presley, executive director of Georges River Land Trust, adding that Rockland’s Farnsworth Art Museum also was approached in regards to partnership.

“Land that has a regional impact — natural, historical or otherwise — that can be a resource for the community, we’re always interested in conserving,” said Presley.

The timetable is still fluid, Presley said, but the plan is for the Kohler Foundation to transfer the land to the GRLT by the end of the year. The land trust will work on having a portion of the property become a publicly-accessible art exhibition, providing such things as parking and signage. Colby will maintain a selection of the outdoor sculptures and may have its art students visit as part of their studies. Guided walks and, perhaps, trails may be offered in the future. After two years of ownership, the land trust will be allowed to sell a portion of the acreage using conservation easements. A parcel currently being referred to as the Bernard and Helen Langlais Preserve will always be part of the property, and its sculptures will remain, well, as long as they remain — “recognizing they’re wood; they can’t last forever,” said Blunt.

The Kohler Foundation’s task this year is complex, entering Blunt’s inventory into its own cataloging system; conserving the thousands of smaller artworks and distributing them to museums and nonprofit organizations; and, this month, taking a first look at the condition of the outdoor installations and deciding what should be done to prolong their existence. After Kohler’s preservationists apply their skills, it will be up to Colby College to do annual maintenance.

“It will extend their lives, but it’s a finite conservation effort. If Hurricane Joe comes along, that’s the end,” said Blunt.

Providing a longer legacy will be the thousands of smaller mixed media sculptures, paintings and works on paper Blackie Langlais left behind. Colby College Museum of Art, which is closed for addition/renovation until it re-opens in July as the largest art museum in Maine, plans to mount a major Langlais show next year. And the Kohler Foundation is fielding requests and will be giving Langlais works to museums, schools, municipalities and more.

“Some of the pieces are so appropriate to be in schools and other places where children will see them! We require that recipients will care for the works as art, and they must be 501(c)3 nonprofits,” Yoho said.

Georges River Land Trust has of late been incorporating the visual arts into its mission, offering plein air painting workshops and, beginning next month, instituting a watershed artist-in-residence. That unusual combination is one of the things Kohler found attractive, said Yoho.

“We’re interested in new ways of exploring the interactions of nature and art and why they are dependent on each other,” said Presley.

All three organizations’ spokespeople praised their counterparts as wonderful to work with on this unlikely partnership.

“It’s a huge achievement and accomplishment. I’m so proud that no one gave up,” said Corwin.

Blunt, who said she misses living on the Midcoast, is particularly pleased with the coalition that came together to honor and preserve Langlais’ idiosyncratic legacy.

“Artist environment builders create a whole world around their homes. It’s a unique, eccentric site,” she said.

Nonprofit organizations interested in contacting the Kohler Foundation about receiving Langlais art may contact Yoho at

Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115 or