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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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