Maine sculptors open their studios, offering an intimate look at their process

June LaCombe chats with artist Paul Heroux outside his studio just before the start of a tour at Heroux’s home and studio in New Gloucester. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A dozen would-be buyers crowded inside Paul Heroux’s studio, tucked in the woods of New Gloucester, on a late summer morning.

They watched as Heroux, one of Maine’s top ceramic artists, used his hands to expertly mold a piece of still-damp clay into his desired shape, rotating the turning wheel ever so slightly as he went and describing his process at each step.

Along one wall were shelves displaying several pieces of his finished work – abstract-shaped vases, ceramic boxes, plates – all with intricate, colorful designs that sprang from Heroux’s imagination.

Five of those in attendance bought a piece before they left.

The event last week was the first of six sculpture studio tours offered this fall by June LaCombe, a private art dealer and sculpture curator for more than three decades.

LaCombe is well known in the Maine art scene, in part for hosting large-scale sculpture exhibits both inside and outdoors at her property, Hawk Ridge Farm in Pownal, twice each year. She started the studio tours this spring in an effort to move in a new direction – one that brings patrons directly into the artist’s space, rather than bringing an artist’s work to a gallery or another venue.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I just maybe thought I could step back a little bit,” LaCombe said, acknowledging the amount of toil it has taken to host exhibits and events at her home. “Besides, it’s quite a unique experience to go into these artists’ studios and not something that comes along that often.”

Because she has built a career representing sculptors across New England, LaCombe has a stable of artists, including Heroux, who were willing to open their studio doors.

“Paul, like so many of my artists, is gifted in every way,” LaCombe said outside his studio. “His aesthetic is sublime.”

Katharine Watson, an art historian, patron and longtime former director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, said she always delighted in visiting LaCombe’s farm to see sculpture exhibits. Although those won’t be happening anymore, Watson said the next chapter could be equally exciting.

“I think that June, she really is superb in whatever she does. She she’s gifted in her support of artists, her presentation of her work and her loyalty to them,” said Watson, who attended the tour of Heroux’s studio. “I think this shift in format is not a cause for concern in as much as a curiosity for what she’s going to do next. We haven’t lost her, by any means.”

Heroux gives a demonstration of his work with a group visiting his home and studio in New Gloucester. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

Being inside an artist’s studio is a bit like having a magician invite guests backstage to detail how they perform an illusion, but Heroux seemed at ease sharing his secrets with an audience.

Before welcoming guests inside, he greeted them outside for coffee and refreshments and talked about his path to becoming a ceramic artist.

He studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (now part of Tufts University) but didn’t immediately start his career. Instead, he worked at a restaurant, Le Bocage in Watertown, just west of Boston. It was an upscale French restaurant that offered its own takes on classic Julia Child recipes. The famed chef and TV host, who has lived for decades in nearby Cambridge, has even visited the restaurant occasionally. Working at a fine-dining restaurant led him to start a catering business, but that was short-lived.

“I loved it, but that was all sort of in service of building my studio and getting to do what I wanted, artistically,” Heroux said.

Artist Paul Heroux speaks with a group visiting his home and studio in New Gloucester. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In school, he said he always thought being an artist meant to be a painter. But he was more interested in ceramics. The tactile nature of forming the clay with his hands, which he could then paint and glaze.

He’s still a painter, he just uses clay as a sort of three-dimensional canvas.

To do the kind of work he wanted, Heroux needed space.

He came to Maine in 1973 looking for land. He found a 24-acre parcel in New Gloucester, a few miles west of Pineland, and paid $6,000. He and his wife took a course from the Shelter Institute on how to build their own home – they even did the plumbing and electrical work – and have been there since.

His two-tiered studio gives him plenty of space to work and store supplies. There is a separate out-building where he keeps the kilns he uses to fire his work.

Artist Paul Heroux talks about his kiln with a group visiting his home and studio in New Gloucester. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Heroux explained that he will fire a piece multiple times before its finished. In each subsequent firing, the temperature is lowered, which ensures that the colors from previous firings don’t bleed.

He primarily uses soda ash in his glazing, which he mixes with water and sprays at intervals during the process. The chemical reaction can be unpredictable, but it results in something unique each time.

Inside, he gave a demonstration of how he forms his pieces. Ahead of time, he had wrapped a massive hollow ring of clay in plastic to keep it from drying out. Using his hands and some tools, Heroux applied pressure to each side, changing the shape of the soon-to-be vase into something that would be both artistic and functional.

“I would probably mess with this way too long for it to be entertaining,” Heroux told the audience, eliciting laughter.

The artist then described some of his glazing techniques, including adding a layer of wax that he scratches and then fills with another glaze or stain. The process is called “sgraffito,” which is Italian for “scratched.”

In addition to his ceramic work, Heroux has been a professor of studio arts at Bates College for nearly 40 years and has hosted workshops elsewhere, including at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle.

Watson said the opportunity to see Heroux, or any artist, in his studio is a rare treat for prospective buyers.

“He speaks with such clarity and talks about complex processes in a way that listeners can join right in what he’s doing,” she said. “And it was astonishing that he could just show us how he made something right there.”

LaCombe speaks with a small group visiting Paul Heroux’s home and studio in New Gloucester for the first of her new series of art tours. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

ENRICHING EXPERIENCE

LaCombe started thinking seriously about studio tours during the pandemic.

For decades, she has represented sculptors from all over New England and has curated exhibits at Maine Audubon, at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. She has guest curated at several private galleries as well.

She also has used her own home – which she owns with her husband, Bill Ginn, former chief conservation officer of the Nature Conservancy – as a rotating sculpture exhibit for the artists she represents.

“I’ve always been drawn to sculpture,” she said. “I think you react to it somewhat viscerally, you know.”

During the pandemic, events at her home became extremely popular because it was a safe, outdoor activity.

“It became almost too popular,” she said. “Because it’s my farm and my home, too, and there were a lot of people. Sometimes 15 to 20 groups a day.”

LaCombe didn’t close the door entirely on hosting exhibits in the future but said she’s comfortable taking a break and focusing on something different.

In the past, whenever she curated exhibits, LaCombe would have to carefully select just a few pieces. Now, with the studio tours, artists have an opportunity to show more of their work.

Some of her clients were less receptive than Heroux.

“Mostly the artists that I work with do not want people to come directly to their studios. They want to work with galleries that show their work and sell them,” she said.

To generate interest among patrons, LaCombe started by sending cards to everyone who has purchased a sculpture from one of her clients over the years. Even if people don’t end up buying something new after the tour, LaCombe said the experience is still enriching.

“I feel that for the people who have purchased work from these artists over the years, seeing the process, the polishing of granite or welding joints and seams, they will appreciate what they own even more,” she said.

Artist Paul Heroux speaks with visitors in his studio as they look around during their visit. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Watson agreed.

“I think there is a happiness of combining these elements,” she said. “Not just getting to purchase something but having the opportunity to understand the making of it and even more to see the extraordinary effort that goes into creating art.”

The next sculpture studio tour will be held Sept. 21 at the South Portland studio of Sharon Townsend, who is also a ceramicist.

LaCombe has also organized tours at the studios of: Roy Patterson in Gray, a sculptor for nearly 50 years, mostly of figurative pieces carved in stone that capture the human form (Oct. 5); Ray Carbone in Milbridge (Oct. 12), Jesse Salisbury and Kazumi Hoshino in Steuben (also Oct. 12), Melita Westerlund in Bar Harbor (Oct. 19) and Mark Herrington in Franklin (also Oct. 19).

Tours cost $25 to attend and space is limited to a dozen participants. For more information about the tours or to register, go to junelacombesculpture.com/autumn-2022-studios.


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