Additional Articles for December 2003 Issue

Forest Hart: If the skin fits...

Story and photos by William Lannon

Two large rooms beneath Forest Hart’s large studio atop a hill in Monroe contain a remarkable display area. Though the two rooms aren’t quite a museum, the objects displayed are of museum quality. The larger room with an eastern exposure contains a dazzling collection of Hart’s sculpture: bears, otters, ravens, dogs, moose, bucks and does with fawns. He has also created a series of models, which show the steps involved in the casting of the sculpture. The art’s energy and virtuosity eclipses a magnificent stone fireplace of baronial proportions.

Forest Hart

 

 

Forest Hart in the gallery beneath his Monroe studio.

 

 

 

 

 

In the smaller room, Hart displays examples of his taxidermy, his first career. Crows, caribou, wolves, and wolverines seem ready to leave their dioramic captivity and bound back into the land of the living. Dozens of magazines crown the walls over the exhibits. Each of the publications attests to Hart’s skill in this demanding version of sculpture, which he began studying at the age of 10 after flirting for a while with painting.

Not so long ago, Forest Hart was on the phone with a wolverine breeder in Washington State and made some comment about the animal’s appearance. The breeder replied, “How would you know? You don’t have wolverines in Maine.” Hart replied that was true enough, but he’d just spent a good deal of time observing them in Siberia.

Forest Hart does get around. He doesn’t just sit on his hill in Monroe waiting for inspiration and visions of mammals. He travels to his subjects. Indeed, Hart is a well-traveled citizen of several worlds: the natural world in out of the way locations from Alaska to Newfoundland, the art world and the business world. This sculpting of wildlife in bronze represents, in fact, his third successful career. His dedication to his latest calling has made Hart’s reputation in his chosen artistic niche, like some of his creations, much larger than life. His recent representation of the University of Missouri Tiger in Columbia, Missouri, created for Old Mizzou’s Alumni Association, at one-and-a-half times life size exemplifies his bravura approach.

moose

This Forest Hart moose can be seen on Union Street in Rockland. Prior to its assembly and installation, the piece consisted of 125 separate bronze panels, which had to be welded together. Those seams then had to be ground down and the whole sculpture burnished, polished and colored.

 

 

 


 

“ I have dedicated my life and career to the appreciation and study of wildlife and art,” Hart declares. It’s no idle assertion and he might easily have added that his dedication extends to the teaching of that appreciation to the vast public that sees his work. For see it they do and out in the open where the original animals lived. Hart’s bronzes are infinitely better suited to outdoor display for the artist manages to capture the specificity of the moment in the same fashion as the painter who decorated Keats’ famous urn.
Here at home in Maine, Hart’s work is installed on the Midcoast at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, as well as at MBNA New England sites in Belfast, Camden and Northport. His sculptures can also be seen in locations as diverse as the Hampton Inn in Freeport and at the University of Maine’s Performing Arts Center in Orono, to name just two of dozens of locations.

raven

These bronze ravens, like Forest Hart’s more familiar moose and bears, express action rather than stasis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

His recent commissions range from that larger than life tiger in Missouri to a new black bear for the University of Maine as well as smaller versions of the bear for presentation to alumni. Actually, when a work is larger than life, Hart prefers to call the piece a monument. The artist’s work has won Best in Show awards at the World Wildlife Festival in Logan, Georgia; the World Sculpture & Bronze Championships in Lawrence, Kansas; the Northeast Wildlife Exposition in Albany, New York; the Maine Wildlife Art Show in Augusta; and the Art Exhibit of Alaska Wildlife in Anchorage, Alaska; as well as many other competitions.

Hart’s conversation, however, avoids mention of these honors and triumphs. Rather, he tells stories on himself such as the tale of his rejection for membership in the prestigious Society of Animal Artists. The group first turned him down, it said, because his paintings were inadequate. Hart’s wife, Susan, informed the society that Hart had submitted bronze sculptures for consideration. Oh, they said, well, he needs to study anatomy. This to a man who had pioneered in the creation of highly accurate forms for taxidermists.

Hart now laughs off the incident and says that he would “never belong to an organization that would have me as a member.” And he still keeps meticulous records of the measurements of each creature he immortalizes just as he always has. In fact, when he was studying taxidermy at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh from 1964 to 1967, he devised the system he still uses to measure the animals. These measurements enabled him to create extremely accurate wood-and-wire armatures, the “skeletons,” over which he would mount skins to produce his extremely lifelike anatomical reproductions.

As he continued to work as a taxidermist for private clients and various institutions, including the Denver Museum, Hart grew increasingly frustrated with the inadequacy of the common paper mannequin armatures that were then available. Convinced that he could do better using his own measurement system and a different material, Hart started a business called Hart Forms to create polyurethane foam models. The Hampden project was a major success within the trade and continues to be to this day under a different owner. Hart sold the business in 1991 to concentrate on the bronze sculpture which he had started to pursue in 1984.

He confesses, however, that he was unprepared for the length of time it took for his sculpture to be noticed and appreciated. His taxidermy and form businesses had been practically instantaneous successes. He has been forced to conclude, however, that in the art world, “It’s not enough, or even necessary, to be good…” adding, “the good don’t always earn a living.”

He also found out, contrary to his expectation, that a presence in the galleries did not guarantee success. To counter that discovery though was his realization that “People will support you if they like you.” He started his production of large bronzes “on spec” working with Lands End Foundry in Paonia, Colorado. The foundry has specialized in bronze art casting since 1972. According to Steve Lyons writing in the Valley Chronicle of Hotchkiss, Colorado, foundry owner Bob Zimmerman, a 1958 graduate of the Colorado School of Mines, an expert “engineer and industrial castor brought space-age skills and knowledge to a field ambling along with techniques that hadn’t been appreciably updated since the 1700s.”

Lyons quotes Zimmerman, “We applied new methods as we went.” Some of the methods have “revolutionized the art-casting business.” In the Lyons article, Zimmerman speaks highly of Forest Hart as “one of our best customers” and recalls how the foundry “recently cast an eight feet to the shoulder, life-sized moose by Hart and shipped it to Saint John, New Brunswick, to stand in a plaza in that city.” Observers of the art scene will recall that a can of Molson’s beer was placed inside that statue when it was installed on the Saint John’s waterfront last summer, a gift to the city from Moosehead Distributors.

For solid as the sculpture may appear, it is hollow and is a result of the “lost wax” casting process. When Hart creates a new sculpture, his first step is to build the armature which he does working from the meticulous measurements he has taken. The armature is amazingly flexible, one of the reasons his forms were so popular with taxidermists. That flexibility enables Hart to capture the “frozen motion” positions for which he is so well known. The moose outside the Wyeth Center on Union Street in Rockland is an example. Many of those positions would have been considered examples of “mannerist” art in the late Renaissance.

Once Hart has created the armature, he proceeds to create the sculpture itself. He then goes through a number of procedures to fashion a series of molds. The first takes an exterior impression of the sculpture and the result of that step is a rubber mold, which is then covered with plaster. That mold is then filled and emptied of wax three times to create a wax lining that will, in turn, produce a hollow positive version of the sculpture. Then that wax reproduction is attached with wax sprues to a wax plate and a ceramic mold is fashioned over the entire model. The ceramic mold is then heated to 1800 degrees, which causes the wax to melt and run out of the mold—hence the term “lost wax” casting. Bronze heated to 2100 degrees is poured into the newly empty mold. When the ceramic mold is broken away, Hart has a bronze bear with a hole in its back. The remainder of the process involves welding the pieces together, in this case putting the back on, grinding down the weld seams till they match, then polishing, burnishing, and coloring.

The process is more complicated when a large piece is cast because it comes out in many pieces which must be assembled. That Farnsworth Museum moose, for instance, required the welding together of 125 pieces of bronze. All of the arts require some technological expertise. Hart’s sort of sculpture requires a great deal of that expertise and some conspicuously heavy lifting as well.

Forest Hart started his career in wildlife appreciation by preserving what had been alive in as vibrant a fashion as could conceive. He then shared his innovative techniques with the world. Interestingly, those techniques had to do with rendering the archival nature of taxidermy more precise and accurate—literally more true to life.

The artist speaks of the ultimate test to which every taxidermist is subject at the conclusion of every project. And that is? “Well,” Hart replies, “Does the skin fit?”

One description of Hart’s work insightfully points out, “No longer bound by the need for biological perfection, now Forest could interpret life, not merely mimic it.” The paradox is an important one. Regardless of what the laity may believe, the task and responsibility inherent in interpretation is much greater than in imitating. The artist has to be true to the nature of life and not just its appearance.

Whether the skin fits is still the question, but the answer may be a good deal more elusive. Forest Hart has been a successful entrepreneur three times now. A good deal of that success has obviously come from his ability, his work ethic and from the fact that he does superior work—certainly an understatement. Underlying all those attributes, however, is the bedrock of Hart’s dedication to wildlife and art. Forest Hart’s own skin fits very well indeed.

FMI: Examples of Hart’s work are on display at Northport Landing Gallery on Route One in Northport (338.2210). A new catalogue of Forest Hart’s work will be available this winter. Copies will be available at Northport Landing or by calling 525.4437. Hart’s Web site is at www.hart-bronze-sculpture.com.

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