Helen Langlais, 80
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1929 - 2010
CAMDEN -- Helen Langlais, widow of artist Bernard Langlais and beloved champion of the Maine arts, died Feb. 22, 2010, at Windward Gardens nursing home in Camden. She was 80 years of age.
Born Helen Friend in Skowhegan, on Oct. 6, 1929, she was the daughter of Francis and Elizabeth Friend. A graduate of the University of Maine, she earned a master's degree at Ohio University in 1953. That same year, Helen paid a fateful visit to artist Nancy Wisseman-Widrig in New York City. A friend since her days at Ohio University, Wisseman- Widrig changed the course of Helen's life when she introduced her to Old Town native Bernard 'Blackie' Langlais. 'I wanted them to meet,' recalled Wisseman-Widrig, 'because they both had these funny accents.'
Helen and Blackie Langlais were married two years later on Jan. 15, 1955, in Oslo, Norway, where Blackie was studying on a Fulbright Fellowship while Helen worked for the Norwegian government. 'Helen really liked the role of the artist's wife,' said Wisseman-Widrig. 'She had a great romantic idea about what it meant to be an artist. She loved the idea of the serious artist willing to sacrifice everything to make art. She was just so supportive, of Blackie and everyone else.'
Upon their return to the United States in 1956, Helen and Blackie settled in New York City but bought a summer cottage in Cushing. In 1966, the couple purchased an 80-acre farm in Cushing as their year-round home. Helen, who had been studying voice in New York, took a job as a teacher at the Cushing Elementary School, allowing Blackie to pursue his art. Blackie Langlais soon transformed their Cushing farm into a local landmark.
Langlais animated the River Road property with more than 100 monumental outdoor sculptures, from the Trojan horse on the front lawn to Richard Nixon flashing his signature 'V for Victory' sign from the pond below. The grounds came alive with a carved and carpentered menagerie of wooden lions, bears, rhinos, and elephants.
When Bernard Langlais died of congestive heart failure on Dec. 26, 1977, at the age of 56, he left Helen with a lifetime of artworks to care for. An earthy woman with a sardonic sense of humor, strong opinions, and a hoarse, throaty laugh, Helen Langlais devoted herself to preserving and promoting her late husband's artistic legacy.
In 1979, Helen protested when the new owners of the Samoset Resort in Rockland dismantled the 24-foot wooden fountain he had been commissioned to create there. The Portland Museum of Art stepped in and tool possession of the fountain's remains.
Helen was instrumental in creating Maine's first- in-the-nation artist's estate tax law, which allows payment of estate taxes in works of art. The first use of the law was in 1980 when the Langlais estate donated numerous works to state institutions in lieu of taxes. Helen also saw to the long-term future of her husband's work
by arranging for the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville to receive Langlais' work and the Cushing property.
'I think it's the end of an era of art in Maine,' said Hugh J. Gourley III, former director of the Colby College Museum of Art, of Helen's passing. 'When Blackie died, a great Maine- born sculptor was lost, but Helen carried on his legacy in a superb way. She was a force in the Maine art community, championing not just Blackie's work but encouraging young artists as well.'
'We are saddened to learn of Helen's passing,' added Sharon Corwin, the current director of the Colby museum. 'She did so much to promote Blackie's legacy. Thanks to Helen's vision for his art, the Colby Museum is able to add a significant group of his works to the collection. We are honored to be able to maintain and exhibit his work for the people of Maine and our visitors, and we are deeply grateful to Helen.'
Aprile Gallant, who curated the most recent Bernard Langlais museum retrospective, 'Bernard Langlais: Independent Spirt,' at the Portland Museum of Art in 2002, pointed out that 'being the widow or widower of an artist is a particularly demanding job.'
'Helen was tough-minded but generous,' said Gallant, now curator at the Smith College Museum of Art. 'She devoted her life to preserving Blackie's work and his memory. His workshop was preserved almost as if he had just stepped out for a moment, not as if he had died 30 years ago.'
Gallerist Andres Verzosa, who represents the Langlais estate through his Aucocisco Galleries in Portland, said, 'Helen was pragmatic, determined, and clearly focused. She walked her destiny ardently, and diligently navigated 30 years of faithful stewardship upholding the reputation and appreciation of Blackie's artistic legacy. I hope that her efforts will continue now without her in the spirit and manner consistent with her resoluteness of purpose and unbending dedication in these next 30 years. I am grateful to have known her and it has been an honor and a privilege to assist her these last several years.'
Verzosa credits both of her caretakers-longtime friend and neighbor Suzanne Young from Cushing and Glenn Tremblay from Bowdoinham-with helping Helen in recent years, as well as care for Blackie's art. 'I am not sure how Helen might have gotten by without either of them and her niece Cathleen,' said Verzosa.
Helen's niece, Cathleen Olson of Clayton, N.C., who was more like a daughter to her, and her nephew, Mark Desmond of Sidney, survive her.
A funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 26, at Burpee, Carpenter & Hutchins Funeral Home, 110 Limerock St., Rockland, (207)594-4212. A memorial service is also being planned for later this summer.
Donations in Helen Langlais memory can be made to:
The Bernard Langlais Fund Care of Maine Community Foundation
One Monument Way
Portland, Maine 04101
Published in Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram from Feb. 24 to Feb. 26, 2010