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A replica worth the wait in bronze

Caption: Jack Langford made the bronze replica from Russell Beebe's original wood carving. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)
Sculptors Jack Langford and Russell Beebe color the bronze replica of Beebe’s “We Are Here” statue. (Ashland Tidings file photo)
‘We Are Here’ statue took talent, ingenuity ... and a little luck

Third of five parts

As recounted in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, Matthew Haines hired wood carver Russell Beebe to sculpt a memorial to the First Nations of the Rogue Valley from an alder tree that had been growing near the site of the current bronze replica.

The wood carving was dedicated September 30, 2006. Within a few years, Beebe and Haines realized that the sculpture would have to be moved indoors in order to survive long-term.

Haines wanted to find a way to continue to honor Native Americans at this public spot. After discussing alternatives, Haines and Beebe decided that a bronze casting of the wood sculpture would be ideal. However, they faced two daunting challenges.

First, find the money to pay for a bronze of this size; and then, find someone local with the skill to cast a bronze from this huge, complicated wood carving. As often happens in happy-ending stories, everything clicked into place.

Here is the story as I heard it.

The alder wood carving was not only about 20’ tall, it was also complex. The carved branches of the tree and the details of the carving called for years of experience with bronze work. It also meant a very large budget.

As Haines was mulling these problems, a buyer unexpectedly appeared for one of Haines' buildings that was not even for sale! The purchase took place and he had some unexpected money.

Jack Langford, a local bronze sculptures artist, was hit at the same time with a one-two punch that rocked him.

He had just completed the multifaceted and expensive process of moving his entire sculpture studio from Talent to Ashland. After only one week in the new studio, the building owner told him to leave, and to clear out within a week!

He came out of the meeting with the building owner reeling both mentally and emotionally. His friend Jesse Biesanz, a stone worker, happened to be visiting. Jesse heard his plight and said, “I have an idea.” The next day, Biesanz brought Haines to meet with Langford.

Langford’s extensive experience working with bronze met Haines’ need. Haines offered Langford the “We Are Here” commission, which met Langford's need. Soon after, Langford found space at 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 more than a year. With his son as assistant, he began by erecting a scaffold around the wood statue and making a mold of it.

To write “making a mold” oversimplifies the process. With a statue this large, they could only create molds a small section at a time. “We Are Here” required 55 molds all together to create the bronze replica!

Starting at 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 wood carving — cracks, knots and all — without harming it. They then applied a rigid epoxy-like material over the flexible layer.

After the two layers were removed together, each flexible mold was transformed through many steps into a tough, heat-resistant mold made of fused silica powder. Langford now had 55 fused silica molds to use for bronze casting. It is an art and a science, and both have to be balanced every step of the way.

In a crucible, bronze was melted at 2,000 degrees. The liquid bronze was poured — very carefully, wearing padding and face protection — into each of the 55 silica molds! Langford pounded with a hammer to free each bronze casting from its silica mold. Precision sandblasting followed to remove every bit of silica clinging to the bronze.

Then came the puzzle of combining the 55 small molds back into one large sculpture. It took a surprising amount of pounding, clamping, tacking, welding, torching, grinding and polishing to get the bronze "We Are Here" that we see at North Main Street and Lithia Way today.

I found it fascinating when Jack Langford explained a change that was made in the transition from a wood sculpture to a bronze replica sculpture. Before Langford began his work, he and carver Russell Beebe met at the wood statue. Langford explained that in the transition from wood to bronze, he could make adjustments to the statue if Beebe wanted any.

Beebe requested thinner wings for the Canada goose at the top of the statue. When he carved the soft alder wood tree, Beebe kept the wings thicker than he would have liked in order to be sure the wood didn't crack or break. Now with the bronze, he was able to make his ideal Canada goose wings.

The bronze replica of “We Are Here” was installed and dedicated in May of 2013.

Continuing the theme of ceremony associated with "We Are Here," there was a small blessing ceremony with Grandma Aggie, her daughter Nadine Martin, Matthew Haines and Jack Langford when the sturdy steel band to anchor the sculpture was bolted into place. More ceremony, with offerings and songs, took place at the bronze replica dedication.

Langford told me he was deeply moved by Grandma Aggie’s words to him the day his bronze replica of "We Are Here" was installed. She told him that she felt the presence of Spirit just as strongly in the new bronze replica as she did in the original alder wood prayer pole.

Peter Finkle writes about Ashland history, neighborhoods, public art and more. See WalkAshland.com for his Ashland stories.