Celebrated artist and longtime Pemaquid Beach resident Cabot Lyford passed away at the age of 90 on Jan. 21, leaving behind countless sculptures of metal, wood, and stone.
A full-time resident of Pemaquid Beach for almost 30 years, Lyford was an accomplished sculptor known for his work in stone and wood.
Lyford was well-known throughout the art community, however, he maintained a fairly private life, said his daughter, Julia Lane, of Round Pond.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1925, Lyford attended Cornell University to major in architecture and engineering, however, he left school to serve in the U.S. Army in the Philippines during World War II. Lyford would go on to destroy almost all of the paintings he made during his time in the army.
“There are a few paintings with peasants in the field and pastoral scenes he kept, but he did not want to remember the war,” Lane said. “I think that’s why all of his work has a life-affirming quality to it.”
After the war, Lyford returned to Cornell University with the intention to complete his degree, however, a summer at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture sent him on a different path. Lyford changed his major to study art and sculpture instead.
Lyford graduated from Cornell University in 1950, after which he moved to New York City to write, produce, and direct television shows and commercials. Lyford eventually would relocate his wife Joan and children to Durham, N.H., where he was instrumental in establishing WENH Channel 11 at the University of New Hampshire.
Lyford, an avid letter-writer, kept carbon copies of his correspondence with various producers and executives to help launch the station, Lane said.
“I was 4 years old at the time, so I wasn’t aware of what was going on,” Lane said. “Looking back and re-reading his letters and notes now, it’s really quite fascinating what he accomplished.”
While in Durham, Lyford began to explore sculpture, claiming the garage as a workshop, Lane said.
The family moved again in 1963 when Lyford accepted a position teaching art history and sculpture at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Lyford’s studio space expanded, and he began to work on larger pieces.
“He had this intense energy for it,” Lane said. “He could go to school and teach all day, and then home and sculpt late into the evening. He would keep a cot in his workshop so he could rest and then get right back to work.”
During the school’s summer break, the family would vacation in Pemaquid, his wife’s hometown. Having spent some time on the coast of Massachusetts in his youth, Lyford held a great fondness for life on the water, Lane said.
In 1986, Lyford retired from Philips Exeter and he and Joan moved to Pemaquid Beach year-round.
“There is something here that feeds you in a way that you aren’t fed other places,” Lane said. “It challenges you to find your essence and your connection to the elements. You find out what you’re made of living in a place like this, and it makes you stronger and more resilient. I think he found that to be true as well.”
Lane had already settled in Round Pond at the time and was pursuing her passion for music. When Lane was younger, Lyford had wanted her to follow in his footsteps and become a sculptor.
“He believed I had an aptitude for it, but that wasn’t where I was led,” Lane said. “It wasn’t until one day when I told him I sculpt sound that he understood.”
Lyford briefly maintained a studio next to the house at Pemaquid Beach, but moved it to New Harbor due to the noise generated. The studio did not have running water, however, Lyford used the space year-round to create.
“He would work himself into a sweat while he was out there in the winter,” Lane said. “He would just get into this mindset, where he would dive into a carving furiously. He wouldn’t be tip-tapping away; it was an attack.”
Although he was best known for his granite and wood sculptures, Lyford also experimented with watercolor painting. Lyford found the medium to be “unforgiving” in a way carving was not, Lane said.
“He always said there was no room for error, you couldn’t go back and fix a mistake,” Lane said. “When he was carving, he could always go back and tinker away. Watercolor was very immediate. He would just look at the scene and commit it to the paper.”
Some of Lyford’s most famous sculptures are on display in public and private collections throughout Maine and New England. Two of his largest granite pieces include “Life Force,” a sculpture of dolphins located in front of the Portland Regency Hotel, and “My Mother the Wind,” Lane’s favorite piece of her father’s work, located in Portsmouth, N.H.
Lyford would many times personally accompany his smaller pieces of art for delivery to a buyer.
“He would say it was like finding a good home for kittens,” Lane said.
Lane said Lyford did not pursue his art for the prestige. After Lyford passed away, Lane discovered her father had won a gold medal from the National Academy of Design in New York City in 1990. Rather than frame and display the certificate, Lyford had folded it in half and stuffed it in a box.
The letter informing him of the award, however, was well-worn, as if it had been read multiple times, Lane said.
“As much of an egomaniac as he appeared to be, he was also full of self-doubt,” Lane said. “He never really believed he was as good as everyone told him he was.”
Lyford developed arthritis in his hands during the last three years of his life, which prevented him from sculpting any new pieces. He also turned away from watercolor during that time, saying if he couldn’t sculpt, he didn’t want to create at all, Lane said.
“It was very hard for him, coming to terms with that,” Lane said.
Lane said there is no way to know how many sculptures Lyford created during his career, as Lyford reworked or renamed many of his pieces. Lane does, however, believe her father accomplished his goal to leave a legacy of life-affirming artwork.
“The sculptures are his memorial that he crafted himself,” Lane said. “He wanted to remind people of the life force and connection we all have with one another, and he hoped people would respond to them in a positive and emotional way. I really believe he accomplished his goal.”