(Part 2 of 3: Bronze replica on North Main Street,
stories from 2011 to 2020)
Honoring Rogue Valley Native Americans.
Making of the bronze replica.
Artist: Jack Langford.
Ashland Public Art Series.
“The ‘We Are Here’ sculpture has had a healing effect on the valley.”Russell Beebe
Summary of “We Are Here” – Part 1
“We Are Here” is a sculpture that honors the First Nations of the Rogue Valley. In addition to a sculpture, it has been called a wood carving, a Spirit Pole and a Prayer Pole. The bronze replica is located where North Main Street and Lithia Way meet, a very visible location just one block from the Plaza.
Local attorney and arts patron Matthew Haines felt called to have the wood carving made from an alder tree that was cut down. He hired Russell Beebe, of Anishinaabe Native heritage, to be the sculptor (wood carver). The late Takelma elder Grandma Aggie (Agnes Baker Pilgrim) was the model for Takelma woman on “We Are Here,” shown in the photo below.
Grandma Aggie performed ceremonies for the tree and then the Prayer Pole, including at the original September 30, 2006 dedication. Within a few years, Beebe and Haines realized that the soft alder wood of the sculpture would deteriorate irreparably if it continued to be exposed to the elements for many years. There was only one way to save “We Are Here” — to move it indoors. But that meant losing this visible, public location for an artwork that honors Native people of the Rogue Valley.
From wood to bronze, the story continues…
After discussing alternatives, Haines and Beebe decided that a bronze casting of the sculpture would be ideal. However, they faced two daunting challenges: first, find the money for a bronze of this size, and second, 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.
This was not a simple bronze casting. The statue was not only 19’ to 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 extra money.
Jack Langford, a local bronze artist, has been a professional sculptor since 1980. He has operated bronze foundries in Israel, Maine and now in Southern Oregon.
At the same time Haines was trying to determine who would have the skill locally to cast a bronze of this size, Langford was hit with a one-two punch that rocked him. He had just completed the complex 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 there 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. Soon after, Langford found space at Jackson Wellsprings where he could work on it. The bronze casting project was underway.
Bronze casting of “We Are Here”
Jack Langford worked on the bronze casting of “We Are Here” for almost a year. With his son as assistant, he began in June 2012 by erecting a scaffold around the wood statue and making a mold of it. Writing “making a mold” oversimplifies the complex 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 rigid mold made of fused silica powder. Fused silica molds could withstand the heat of liquid bronze. Each individual bronze casting is a complex, multi-stage, labor-intensive process. It is an art and a science, and both have to be balanced every step of the way.
Finally, Langford would have to reassemble the 55 small bronze castings back into one sculpture. We will get to that in a moment.
2,000-degree melted bronze was poured – very carefully, wearing padding and face protection – into each of the 55 silica molds!
Hammering freed each bronze casting from its silica mold. I winced when the hammering began. Jack assured me, with a laugh, that he was not damaging the sculpture.
The photo below shows what the bronze looked like just out of the mold, with lots of silica sand still stuck to it. Precision sandblasting removed every bit of the silica.
Finally, the molds were combined back into one piece. 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.
Here is a peek at the welding.
Here is torching of the sculpture. Langford used a patina torch to apply a concentrated flame to the entire surface of the bronze replica. Then, while the bronze metal was still hot, he and Beebe ground the entire surface with small wire brushes to smooth out rough spots. The patina torch and wire brush sanding were both done twice.
The final step was polishing the entire surface of “We Are Here” with carnauba wax, followed by buffing with a soft cloth. This was also done twice.
Two changes from the wood sculpture to the bronze replica
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 considered this and requested two changes.
The first change was thinner wings for the Canada goose at the top of the statue. As he was carving the tree, Beebe kept the wings thicker than he would have liked in order to be sure the wood didn’t crack or break. For the bronze replica, Langford made molds for only the outer side of the wings. Then Beebe came to Langford’s studio and sculpted thinner, more detailed wings in clay for the bronze casting.
These two photos show the comparison. Wings on the bronze “We Are Here” are much thinner, with beautiful detail that is missing from the original wood statue. We as viewers benefit from the close cooperation between the wood carver artist and the bronze worker artist.
Second was another detail I had never noticed. Because of the shape of the tree in the original carving, Beebe had to carve the stag (deer) antler connecting with the Canada goose, as if it were goring the goose. When the bronze casting was created, Beebe and Langford made a slight adjustment in this area so the stag antler is free standing and no longer appears to be goring the goose.
You can compare the two for yourself by viewing the original wood “We Are Here” prayer pole at Southern Oregon University Hannon Library and the bronze replica on North Main Street one block from the Ashland Plaza. Currently (April 2021), the SOU library is closed to non-students. However, “We Are Here” is placed near a large window. You can’t walk all around it and see it up close, but you can see it through the window.
A memorable day
One of Langford’s most memorable days creating the bronze was October 29, 2012. On that day, Oregon Shakespeare Festival hosted an evening event featuring Grandma Aggie, Russell Beebe, Dan Wahpepah, Brent Florendo and others. Grandma Aggie gave a talk about the Oregon Trail of Tears in 1856.
After dark, Langford poured bronze into a mold, as Grandma Aggie and 80 other people looked on. This was his final bronze casting for “We Are Here.” Fittingly, this casting was of Grandma Aggie’s face near the top of the sculpture.
The bronze replica base
Jesse Biesanz made the base for the bronze replica, and also used his boom truck to lift the bronze sculpture into place on the base. This base has a theme of river rocks, as does Biesanz’s base for “We Are Here” in the SOU library.
“This is about healing.”Grandma Aggie
Installation and Dedication, May 2013
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 did not work closely with Grandma Aggie on the bronze replica, as he did with sculptor Beebe. However, 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 tree prayer pole.
When the bronze replica was installed at the site, Grandma Aggie said, “What a gift Jack has. I want to praise and thank him too. My name is Taowhywee, my Native name. My English name is Agnes Baker Pilgrim, and I’m the oldest living descendant of the Takelma Indians that once lived in this valley for 22,000 years that we know of. I’m very proud to stand here today and honor this statue that they’ve done, that the bronze man Jack has done. What a beautiful spiritual thing it is to my heart. It will touch the lives of people that come by. Now this will be here into perpetuity. It is a great honor to the ancient people of this land that lived here for over 22,000 years.”
Detail photos of bronze replica
See some details of the bronze replica below. When I view it up close, I am amazed by how many details of the wood carving – including cracks and knots in the wood – are captured by the bronze replica.
Part 1 of this series of articles about “We Are Here” described the creation of the original wood carving prayer pole, and its dedication on September 30, 2006. Click on the image below to read Part 1.
Part 3 of this series of articles about “We Are Here” will describe the challenge of moving the original wood carving from North Main Street to Southern Oregon University Hannon Library. Here is a preview photo.
References for Parts 1, 2 and 3:
Aldous, Vickie. “Downtown sculpture to be cast in bronze,” Ashland Tidings, April 18, 2012. (accessed 5/21/2020)
Aldous, Vickie. “Native people sculpture will move to SOU,” Ashland Tidings, November 3, 2012. (accessed 5/21/2020)
Anon. “Native Americans of the Rogue Valley,” North Mountain Park Nature Center, Ashland Parks and Recreation Department, Version 4: May 2010.
Anon. “We Are Here,” Book Marks, Hannon Library Newsletter, Volume 24, No. 1, Fall 2013.
Anon. “Takelma Tribe,” NPS.gov. (accessed 1/10/2021) https://www.nps.gov/orca/learn/historyculture/takelma-tribe.htm
Anon. “Takelma Legends,” native-languages.org website. (accessed January 17, 2021)
Ayers, Jane. “’Grandma Aggie’ leaves a lasting impact,” Ashland Tidings, December 3, 2019. (accessed May 21, 2020)
Beebe, Russell. Interview and personal communication, June 2, 2020 and other dates. Thank you, Russell, for sharing your photos with me.
Beebe, Russell. Website, accessed May 14, 2020.
Bernhagen, Jaimie. “’We Are Here’ Event with Oregon Shakespeare Festival,” Red Earth Descendants website, October 14, 2012. (accessed May 21, 2020)
Biesanz, Jesse. Interview and personal communication, August 2020.
Cardwell, James, “Southern Oregon Pioneers,” Oregon Sentinel, Jacksonville, July 8, 1882, page 3, from http://truwe.sohs.org/files/cardwell.html
Darling, John. “’Grandma Aggie’ dies at 95,” Ashland Tidings, November 27, 2019. (accessed May 21, 2020)
Doty, Thomas. Website, accessed May 14, 2020.
Gray, Dennis J. “The Takelma and Their Athapascan Neighbors,” University of Oregon Anthropological Papers, No. 37, 1987.
Haines, Lloyd Matthew. Interview and personal communication, May 13, 2020 and other dates.
Hall, Aaron. “Exploring with Beavers, Nature’s Ecosystem Engineers,” Defenders of Wildlife website, September 28, 2016.
Kuiryamf. “’We Are Here’ statue relocated to Hannon Library,” The Siskiyou, January 15, 2013. (accessed May 14, 2020)
Langford, Jack. Interview and personal communication, May 20, 2020 and other dates.
Martin, Nadine. Many thanks for reviewing the article.
Norman, Julie. Video of the dedication day and dedication ceremony.
Norman, Julie. Interview and personal communication, August 2020 and other dates.
Paris-Stamm, Glen. 31-minute Video. “Artist on Your Doorstep presents: Jack Langford, Sculptor, ‘We Are Here'(prayer pole now in bronze),” City of Ashland website (accessed January 18, 2021)
Also available directly on YouTube
Pilgrim, Agnes Baker (Taowhywee). Grandma Says: Wake Up World, Blackstone Publishing, 2015.
Pilgrim, Agnes Baker. Website, accessed May 14, 2020.
Rose, Karen. May 25, 2002. “Takelma Indians: An Essay on Native Americans in the Rogue River Area,” Hugo Neighborhood Association & Historical Society, Hugo, OR. For the entire article go to http://www.hugoneighborhood.org/takelma.htm
Sapir, Edward. “Notes on the Takelma Indians of Southwestern Oregon,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 9, No. 2, April-June, 1907.
Valencia, Mandy. “We Are Here,” Ashland Daily Tidings, December 21, 2012.
Valencia, Mandy. 5-minute Video. “We Are Here Dedication Ceremony,” Ashland Tidings website, May 24, 2013. (accessed January 18, 2021)
Valencia, Mandy. 4-minute Video. Russell Beebe carving eyes in the bronze We Are Here statue, Ashland Tidings website, April 2, 2013. (accessed January 18, 2021)
Valencia, Mandy. 3-minute Video. Color heating of the We Are Here bronze statue (Jack Langford and Russell Beebe), Ashland Tidings website, April 15, 2013. (accessed January 18, 2021)
Wahpepah, Dan. Interview, August 10, 2020.
Young, James Royce. James took many of the photos from the creation of “We Are Here” in both wood and bronze, as well as photos of the 2006 dedication and the 2012 move to SOU Hannon Library. I thank James for sharing so many of his photos with me.