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Renowned sculptor reflects on career, life
By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
Acclaimed by many as the foremost wood sculptor of athletes and other celebrities in the nation, Armand LaMontagne didn’t achieve his success by playing it safe or taking on small challenges.
In fact, he has often said that he sought out the most difficult projects he could find to test his ingenuity and prove his mettle.
Today in his late seventies the man who carved startlingly life-like statues of Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Bobby Orr, and Larry Bird (and numerous others) from blocks of basswood weighing hundreds of pounds still wields his mallet and chisels in the studio attached to his home in North Scituate.
With minute attention to detail, in 1972 the artist painstakingly built the house, a precise replica of a 17th century stone-ender. He conceived it, designed it, and erected it. He created every single component right down to the individual hand-hewn timbers and forged nails. Each shingle was cut by hand. All the furniture was crafted by LaMontagne, and he even made the stone walls surrounding the property.
The house was one of several exact reproductions of period homes that he built early in his career prior to the time when he began creating statues of diamond immortals for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as well as other legendary figures for various museums.
To this day a larger than life bronze of General George S. Patton, a duplicate of another of Armand’s works in wood, stands guard by the massive fireplace in his workspace.
“The houses are all sculptures too. I built them to last forever. They’re practical sculptures, like the pyramids,” LaMontagne says.
At age 78 the charismatic Pawtucket native is still taking on colossal ideas. He works on a smaller scale though. For example, his latest piece, carved from a holly tree root burl, is called “The Giant Squid,” but it is a mere yard or so in length.
“The squid is the largest animal in the world. It’s 75 feet long. That’s longer than a right whale. It’s larger than the whale but not heavier,” he informs a listener.
He speaks as a teacher might address his students, adding details and facts the way a painter, which LaMontagne also is, adds layers of paint onto a canvas.
“The squid’s eye is the largest in the world,” he continues. “It’s the size of a soccer ball. He can see in the dark. The squid is a strange, strange animal. It can eat a man in seconds.”
Then adding an aside, he gestures toward the squid sculpture and comments, “This is fun – a lot more fun than doing portraits.”
A number of portraits he painted of former political leaders in Rhode Island, including Governor Joseph Garrahy and several speakers of the house, hang in the state house. One he did of Winston Churchill is in the collection of Gerald Rittenberg, executive chairman of Party City, a party goods chain, and the largest such retailer in the United States.
Currently, though, LaMontagne’s passion is mainly focused on transforming wood burls into exotic works of art. For a while now he has been making distinctive objects from what is essentially a diseased part of a tree.
“It’s cancer, really,” he says of burls. “That’s what it is, cancer that affects a tree.”
Found on the branches and trunks of many tree varieties, burls appear as bulging round outcroppings. They even grow underground on a tree’s roots. The grain of the wood inside a burl is very different from the typical grain of the tree. Because of the disease, cells in the burl develop closer together in intricate, yet random patterns and the wood is exceptionally hard.
“It’s actually the finest . . . wood that grows. [It’s used] for dashboards of Rolls Royces and Bentleys. Root burls are the wood equivalent of diamonds,” the sculptor exclaims.
In the case of the giant squid piece, he found a way to incorporate a rock that the root had grown tightly around into his idea. He has painted the rock to look like a moray eel in the act of being devoured by the sea creature.
Using the root burl from which to sculpt his giant squid and leaving the roots and rock showing seems to satisfy and amuse the multi-faceted artist, appealing to his sense of humor, or perhaps irony.
“It’s as avant garde as I get,” he notes, adding: “Humor is a big part of art; it’s a big part of life.”
This observation might explain why he is so gratified when viewers accuse him of using leather to make the shoes and belt of Ted Williams and Babe Ruth on his sculptures even though every bit of the figures and their uniforms is carved only from wood with nothing else added. He likens his ability to fool the eye of on-lookers – the French call it trompe l’oeil – to an inside joke.
“I don’t want them to be able to tell the difference even up close.”
An athlete himself, LaMontagne was a standout in three sports – baseball, football, and basketball – at Pawtucket Vocational High School, and he further honed his talent at Worcester Academy. He went to Boston College on a football scholarship where he played for famed coach Mike Holovak.
After college he won a grant to study art in Italy with a master teacher where he learned the principles of sculpting, but much of his technique and methodology were essentially self-taught. The lessons were well-learned. Each succeeding statue won him more followers and raised his standing until he became the artist whose name was synonymous with hyper-realistic images of famous athletes.
So, it’s significant that he reports a bronze version of his wooden statue of Bobby Orr, the original of which is at the New England Sports Museum in Boston, was the last large sculpture he will ever do. Completed in July 2014, it is on display in the Bobby Orr Hall of Fame and Museum in Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada.
So, from here on out LaMontagne is content to fashion his sculptures from burls and keep them at a comfortable size, but he still does an occasional painting. Currently, he is working on a piece for Rittenberg commemorating April 15, 2015 at the New York Stock Exchange, the day Party City went public. The executive, who Armand dubs the largest collector of Ted Williams memorabilia in the world, has become LaMontagne’s patron.
“We got to be friends,” Armand says of Rittenberg. “He’s a visual guy, like me.”
LaMontagne, it seems, has reached a point where he is ready to look back over his career. The artist, who has often been described as taciturn, seems voluble now and is more than willing to reflect on his life for the record.
Obliquely, he refers to the image of himself in the past as being brusque, declaring “you’ve got to measure your words in an interview, but I rarely did because I didn’t have that many words.”
He continues: “They [writers] think if you don’t say something strange, you’re not an artist. You’re just normal. Now, I’m making bold statements.”
As if to underscore his point he adds, “At my age I’m in survival mode. I’m re-living my misspent youth. That’s what you do when you’re slowing down.”
Yet, he shows no signs of infirmity or decreased energy. Advised by his doctor that people in their eighth decade should be as lean as possible, he has been on a campaign to get his weight down to what it was when he was a freshman in high school, a target set by the doctor.
“I was a big kid,” he says. “I was about 180 then.” However as an adult, at 6 feet 2, and playing football he carried 240 lbs. He weighed that for most of his life after high school. Recently, though, following a year or so of scrupulous eating and regular exercise he achieved his goal and now tips the scale at 182.
“The workout is the toughest thing for me psychologically,” he admits, but says that he is zealous about using a rowing machine habitually.
“I feel better. I can run up and down stairs. I don’t get as tired. It’s part of that survival mode. The toughest sculpture in my life is myself.”
One important insight that he has had, he confides, is that wanting to do something worthwhile, something that will stand the test of time and surpass the importance of wealth is what matters most. He alludes to immortal works of art like the Great Wall of China and cave paintings, even seeing a lasting creative statement in fine calligraphy. As he talks it becomes evident that the lens of Armand LaMontagne is always focusing on the art he sees in everything. He can discover inspiration in objects ranging from a twisted tree root to a Persian carpet to an old master.
“There’s a romance in the Declaration of Independence. It’s the signatures that make the document,” he says, for example.
It’s probably this way of looking at things that marks him as the multi-dimensional talent that he is, someone who carved a wooden pumpkin for the doorstep of his house so realistic that it is nearly impossible to tell it’s a fake, someone who made leaded windows for his house that are identical to a craftsman’s work from the 1600s, someone who sculpted a statue of Baseball Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski that looks so ready to swing his bat you are afraid to step in front of it.
This man with an international reputation, who is probably best known for his sculptures of legendary athletes, says that it is inadvertent that they occupy the central spot in his vast array of work. Portrait painter, lithographer, still life and landscape artist, builder of reproduction houses, he says he followed his interest in various forms and went where it led him. He didn’t become a sculptor of famous people by some career plan.
“You followed the things you were interested in and had the talent for. It was a natural outgrowth. One thing led to another.
“I was a little kid from Pawtucket, and then all those years later there I was with Ted Williams my childhood hero walking through my door, and there I was talking to him on equal terms.”
For a number of years, little to the knowledge of his neighbors, people like Larry Bird, Orr, Yastrzemski, and Williams made their way to Scituate to sit for this magician in wood, trading the secrets of hitting a baseball or scoring a basket or shooting a puck with someone who could relate to them from his own experience as an athlete. Yet, they were in awe of his skill in a medium they couldn’t hope to match, this master who could freeze their image in time, create an exact likeness that would preserve them forever at their peak.
These days he allows himself to savor the memories.
“At this time of life you think about what you’ve done, not what you’re going to do. I have no regrets,” he declares with satisfaction.
The recipient of dozens of honors, including an honorary doctorate from Rhode Island College and election to the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, he seems most proud of being the first charter member of the Pawtucket Hall of Fame.
He values his roots very much. To be recognized in your own community where prophets are often overlooked is sometimes the sweetest affirmation of all.