Local artist brings wooden canvases to life with carefully sculpted faces

First piece appeared in 1993’s ‘The Man Without A Face’
Fri, 07/12/2019 - 1:00pm

    BELFAST — While the 24th annual Arts in the Park drew artists of all types from far and wide, one local artist whose work is featured in landscapes far and wide has been coming back every year for decades. 

    Ron Cowan, 76, is the man responsible for the intricately carved faces featured in a wide array of wooden sculptures carved in beams, tree trunks, and old harbor piers that are visible around businesses and homes, near and far. 

    The sculptures come in all different sizes, each with a unique face emerging from the meticulously worked wood. 

    Cowan made his first piece when he was in his mid-30s, a sculpture that was featured in a 1993 feature film. 

    “That first piece that I did ended up in Mel Gibson’s movie, The Man Without a Face, in some really nice scenes. Mel’s got his arm around him and he’s reciting poetry and the camera comes right in on the [carving’s] face,” he said. 

    Asked whether his work being featured in the film led to a takeoff in business, Cowan said ‘taking off’ means something different in his eyes. 

    “Taking off for me is like a turtle going across the road, cause they’re expensive and not really a spur of the moment [purchase],” he said. 

    According to Cowan, in his earlier years art was not something he foresaw as his future; instead, he wanted to be a millionaire, but “failed miserably at that.”

    His sculpting start came after he and his wife moved from Manhattan to a friend’s Vermont farm that wasn’t being used. 

    “We moved out of Manhattan to an old farmhouse in Vermont that friends weren’t using and the quiet set in, from city life, and then it just happened, I got a bag of clay and an armature from somebody and I did that face that night and the next morning and thought, ‘whoa,’” Cowan said. 

    Though when he looks back at his first sculpture as “pretty primitive” now, he said at the time he was impressed with the work, and so continued on from there. 

    Between the chainsaw, grinding, coppering, staining, waxing, and drilling, Cowan said he spends about a week working on each piece before it reaches its finished form. 

    According to Cowan, most of the faces he carves come from inspiration, though he has also done portraits of existing faces.

    “Mostly I do inspirational, and that’s whatever this piece of wood and I and my chainsaw was doing that day and the stream of time and out it comes. Each one is different, different face and everything.”

    While his pieces are incredibly popular, he said he counts the day as a success if he sells a single piece during Arts in the Park, as it covers the cost of the show, though he was reluctant to say how many had been sold during the first day of the event. 

    Another part of participating in Arts in the Park Cowan finds enjoyment in is the many customers that return to tell him how much they love the pieces they purchased. 

    “Today we’ve probably had at least 10 customers come that have our pieces. It’s a love affair with them,” he said. 

    Fortunately for Cowan, he doesn’t need to wait for an event to see how many people enjoy his work, with his sculptures appearing all over Belfast and the surrounding areas. 

    “Every time I go [through] Searsport up to Bangor, on the way I know, ‘oh yeah, I’ve got one right there,’ and I know where to look for them,” he said with a smile.

    Erica Thoms can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com