A replica worth the wait in bronze – Ashland Tidings
Caption: Jack Langford made the bronze replica of Russell Beebe’s original woodcarving. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)
Sculptors Jack Langford and Russell Beebe color the bronze replica of Beebe’s “We Are Here” statue. (File photo from Ashland Tidings)
The ‘We Are Here’ statue took skill, ingenuity … and a bit of luck
Third of five parts
As discussed in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, Matthew Haines hired woodcarver Russell Beebe to carve a memorial to the Rogue Valley First Nations from an alder growing near the site of the current bronze replica. .
The woodcarving was dedicated on September 30, 2006. Within a few years, Beebe and Haines realized that the sculpture would have to be moved indoors to survive in the long term.
Haines wanted to find a way to continue to honor Native Americans in this public place. After discussing the alternatives, Haines and Beebe decided that a bronze cast of the wood sculpture would be ideal. However, they faced two major challenges.
First, find the money to pay for a bronze of this size; then, find someone in the area with the skills to cast a bronze from this huge, intricate woodcarving. As often happens in good-ending stories, it all fell into place.
Here is the story as I heard it.
The alder wood carving was not only about 20 feet tall, it was also intricate. The carved branches of the tree and the details of the sculpture required years of experience in working with bronze. It also meant a very big budget.
As Haines was pondering these issues, a buyer unexpectedly appeared for one of the buildings in Haines that wasn’t even for sale! The purchase took place and he had unexpected money.
Jack Langford, a local bronze sculpture artist, was struck at the same time with a punch that shook him.
He had just completed the complex and costly process of moving his entire sculpture studio from Talent to Ashland. After only a week in the new studio, the owner of the building told him to leave, and get rid of it in a week!
He walked out of the meeting with the building owner reeling both mentally and emotionally. His friend Jesse Biesanz, a stone worker, was visiting him. Jesse heard his spell and said, “I have an idea.” The next day, Biesanz brought Haines to meet Langford.
Langford’s extensive experience in bronze work met Haines’ needs. Haines offered Langford the “We Are Here” commission, which responded to Langford’s need. Soon after, Langford found a space in Jackson Wellsprings where he could work on it.
The bronze casting project was underway.
Jack Langford worked on the bronze casting of “We Are Here” for over a year. With his son as his assistant, he begins by erecting a scaffolding around the wooden statue and making a mold of it.
Writing “make a mold” oversimplifies the process. With such a large statue, they could only mold one small section at a time. “We Are Here” required 55 molds in total to create the bronze replica!
Starting from the bottom, they made each mold by painting a flexible polyurethane material over the wood of a small area. This material captured every detail of the woodcarving – cracks, knots and all – without damaging it. They then applied a rigid epoxy-like material to the flexible layer.
After the two layers were pulled together, each flexible mold was made in several stages into a strong and heat resistant mold into fused silica powder. Langford now had 55 fused silica molds to use in casting the bronze. It’s an art and a science, and the two must be balanced every step of the way.
In a crucible, the bronze was melted at 2000 degrees. Liquid bronze was poured – very carefully, with padding and face protection – into each of the 55 silica molds! Langford pounded with a hammer to free each bronze cast from its silica mold. Precision sandblasting followed to remove all traces of silica clinging to the bronze.
Then came the puzzle of combining the 55 small molds into one large sculpture. It took a surprising amount of hammering, clamping, tacking, welding, torching, grinding and polishing to get the “We’re Here” bronze we see today in North Main Street and Lithia Way.
I found it fascinating when Jack Langford explained a change that was made in the transition from a wood sculpture to a bronze sculpture replica. Before Langford began his work, he and sculptor Russell Beebe met at the wooden statue. Langford explained that during the transition from wood to bronze, he could make adjustments to the statue if Beebe wanted.
Beebe requested thinner wings for the Canada goose atop the statue. When carving the soft alder wood, Beebe kept the wings thicker than he wanted to make sure the wood didn’t crack or break. Now with bronze he was able to craft his ideal Canada goose wings.
The bronze replica of “We Are Here” was installed and unveiled in May 2013.
Continuing the ceremonial theme associated with “We Are Here”, there was a small blessing ceremony with Grandma Aggie, daughter Nadine Martin, Matthew Haines and Jack Langford when the solid steel band to anchor the sculpture has been bolted in place. Other ceremonies, with offerings and songs, took place during the dedication of the bronze replica.
Langford told me he was deeply moved by Grandma Aggie’s words the day her bronze replica of “We Are Here” was installed. She told him that she felt the presence of the Spirit as strongly in the new bronze replica as in the original alder wood prayer post.
Peter Finkle writes about Ashland history, neighborhoods, public art and more. See WalkAshland.com for her stories on Ashland.