Sculptor Jeffrey Bernard is being remembered as a major contributor to Ashland’s art and history over the past four decades, with much fanfare for his restoration of Lithia Park’s Perozzi Fountain and the Abraham Lincoln statue.
After a short decline, Bernard, 69, died of on Aug. 20 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“He skied Mt. Ashland from the opening bell to closing time,” said his wife Debbie Hansen-Bernard. “He was a kite-flying, marble sculpting, roller-blading, sky-diving, boat-building, fly-fishing son of a gun.”
Bernard was a true Renaissance man who mastered sculpting in Italy, boat-building in Utrect in the Netherlands, loved carpentry, sailing, hiking in the mountains and fly-fishing with his son Brandon, she said.
Reminiscing at their 20-acre Little Creek Ranch off Siskiyou Boulevard, she notes, “He would master one thing and move onto the next. He could think out any problem and would draw plans and put it together. He just had one of those brains.”
A native of the Boston area, Bernard was offered scholarships to Harvard and Yale, choosing the latter, graduating in 1970. He earned a Master of Arts in Teaching at Reed College the following year, then learned to build teak and mahogany sailboats in the Netherlands, soon branching into a sculpting apprenticeship, shifting to Italy in 1978.
Bernard was often in Ashland news with restoration of the Butler-Perozzi Fountain and its crowning Cupid statue in Lithia Park in 1985-87, as well as sculpting the missing head of the Abraham Lincoln statue in Lithia Park in 1988-90. Both brought a rebirth of interest in public art, drawing big crowds at their re-dedication. He also sculpted the bronze gargoyle for the fountain which used to be in front of the Black Swan Theatre.
In a 1985 Tidings story on the cherub, Bernard said, “It’s a weird profession to get into … a lot of tools, a lot of sweat, a lot of work. It’s a mode of expression that appeals to me. I seem to be able to say things I can’t say any other way.”
In a Tidings article on the Lincoln project, then-city Planning Director John Fregonese said, “Ashland has a strong history of public art early in this (20th) century, but there was a period of neglect from the mid-40s to the mid-60s. All the old pieces have been restored, except our Lincoln, which is being restored by a highly trained and qualified marble sculptor trained in Italy, a sculptor we found right here in our town of 15,000.”
Bernard moved to Ashland in 1972, soon meeting his wife, who moved here in 1973. With some Yale buddies, he bought a large piece of land on Dead Indian Memorial Road and donated half of it to the Nature Conservancy, she said.
“He was a kind person, with a quiet strength, a grown-up kid and not one to brag about his many accomplishments,” said Eric Farrally, his daughter-in-law.
Bernard brought back many tons of marble from his work in Italy, enough for all his projects in ensuing decades. His resume concisely sums up some years there, “Worked at antiquated marble quarry in Carrara, where all the heavy roughing-out of marble blocks was still done by hand … carved larger-than-life sculpture of Icarus. Employed in several sculpture studios in Pietrasanta to carve figurative, decorative, ornamental and architectural sculptures in marble.”
Longtime friend Richard Angell said his sculpturing studio “was a complete mess, but full of treasures, as you would expect of such an exceptional artistic talent with such a breadth of interest and love of nature.”
Angell’s wife, Kristin, notes, “It took a couple years of talk before I had a clue how many things he could do. He was so unpretentious, modest, interested in talking to us, with no desire to tell us how many things he’d done.”
Friend Jani Rollins said, “He was a brilliant man, always positive, and never made anyone feel less than adequate. He never just went on a walk — only an adventure.”
“He had an extraordinarily bright mind and was the most helpful guy in the world,” said stepson Toby Fite. “He took care of all us kids, even the troubled ones. He cared about everyone.” Other stepsons are Christopher Fite and Joshua Hansen.
Bernard also worked on software for Accenture, Plexis Healthcare and Harry and David, according to his LinkedIn page.
In a written family history, it notes, “On his first date, Jeffrey showed up at her doorstep dressed to the nines but missing some front teeth (from a kayak accident). ‘This is going to be a short date,’ Debbie thought to herself. She was flustered, in the midst of an emergency. The pasture had flooded and she needed to move a horse to higher ground, but it was a complicated, muddy mess. He volunteered for the job, saying he could ride. Debbie knew right away he was stretching his abilities when he vaulted over the horse like an Olympic gymnast and firmly planted his entire body in the mud.”
Riding double, they soon got the horse issue fixed, took a picnic in Lithia Park and started their 26-year romance by telling stories for hours.
The family plan a memorial and slide show with a large number of invited guests on Oct. 8. In lieu of flowers, the family asks contributions for a memorial plaque and bench in Lithia Park. The fund is at Rogue Credit Union.
—John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer.