ALEXANDER, Maine — Many travelers zipping along Route 9 — caught in the pre- or post-vacation mode, heading off to a business conference or even to Bangor for a medical treatment — are completely unaware that just off the main road is an artful respite.
The largest hand-carved, outdoor sculpture collection in Maine awaits the harried traveler along a serene path through the woods.
The Alexander Art Trail is part museum, part gallery and part fairy wonderland — a collection of more than two dozen life-size, hand-carved figures, scattered along a winding, wooded path. Dozens of local artists also have loaned their works to the trail.
Walking along the art trail, crossing little wooden bridges over streams, a sense of peace settles on visitors. Birds call. A breeze plays in the treetops. And the sculptures alternately surprise, enthrall and enchant.
In its natural, outdoor setting, each exhibit changes as the light moves. A giant, playful bear may seem a bit aggressive in the shade but when struck by the afternoon sunlight, it comes playfully alive.
Sitting on a bench along the trail, visitors can either feel watched by the life-size carvings or feel a joyful part of their wonder.
The art trail was created by Roland and Grazina Paegle, who live nearby on the shores of Barrows Lake at the foot of Breakneck Mountain. They have called this place home for 40 years, but spend the winter months traveling around the world.
It was during these travels that the idea for a Maine art trail was formed. Both of the Paegles have art backgrounds (Roland’s driftwood sculptures are tucked throughout the art trail) and they were struck by the artistic forms of the large totem poles in Alaska.
Then, while traveling in Europe, the Paegles found that in wooded areas quite similar to Maine, “fantastic” trails were created that included life-size wooden sculptures.
“We decided to create something similar here in Maine,” Grazina said recently. “On an art trail, you not only get exercise, you get inspiration.”
Grazina said she often visits the trail in the evenings. “I feel so peaceful there,” she said.
During a visit to Lithuania, Roland said the couple began negotiating with an artists’ cooperative there.
“They were creating these large-scale sculptures,” Roland said. “They work with solid oak and hand carve each piece. There is no chainsaw work.”
Once a price — $1,200 a foot — and designs were agreed upon, the pieces began arriving at customs in New York City.
“It took a lot to get them imported,” Grazina said. “Customs held the containers up for three weeks.” She said that the sculptures were X-rayed so many times that she is surprised they don’t glow in the dark out there in the woods.
While waiting for the individual pieces to arrive, the couple purchased the land for the trail, cleared and developed the path — hand setting each border stone — and began courting local craftsmen and artisans.
Special display cases were created for smaller pieces and this year, the trail opened for its first full season.
“One of our greatest motivations,” Roland said, “is that we have become so partial to the Down East area. We wanted to provide a venue for local artists.”
Roland said that the art trail also will provide a destination on the Route 9 side of the county, hopefully luring some tourists away from the coast for a morning or afternoon.
“It is such a fluid exhibit,” Grazina said. “The artists are adding new pieces all the time.”
What remains constant, however, are the life-size dwarfs, ogres, mystical creatures or playful sculptures that the Paegles imported.
“We’d like to get more schools involved — high school art departments, the University [of Maine at Machias] and others,” Grazina said. “They can come to the art walk, then draw, carve, photograph. There really is something for everyone.”
The trail will be expanded soon, when donations increase, the Paegles said.
“There is a whole set of designs ready to be carved,” he said. These include Red Riding Hood, a wolf, 11 woodsmen and two ladies, Roland said.
Students at Washington County Community College have created an information booth and additional local artists are preparing new works.
The Alexander Art Trail is on Barrows Lake Road. Visitors should take Davis Road off Route 9 (just west of the South Princeton Road) and follow the yellow signs. A donation of $2 per adult is requested. It is a self-guided trail is open from 8 a.m. to sunset. For more information, go to www.arttrail.net, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call the Paegles as 454-3563.