Farewell, Neighbor

Langmesser remembered as one in a million

By Linda Dackman | Apr 05, 2018
Courtesy of: Ned Kahn

Uwe Langmesser, a larger-than-life figure easily recognized in Midcoast Maine, died in Bonn, Germany, March 23, 2018, of an extremely rare and very fast-acting prion disease that attacks the brain.

By dint of his 6-foot, 9-inch physical stature, his bristling intelligence, and his outsized enthusiasm for life and how the world works, Langmesser was a one-in-a-million character whose life was suddenly and tragically cut short by a one-in-a-million disease.

Langmesser worked with internationally known environmental artist Ned Kahn — a MacArthur “genius” award-winner — to realize many of Kahn’s large-scale public art projects around the world. Langmesser leveraged the project management, engineering, prototyping and production of Kahn’s works in places as far-flung as San Francisco, Toronto, Ghent or and Singapore, to favorably impact his adopted state of Maine. His work brought ongoing temporary employment, amusement, and unpredictable acts of kindness into the communities near where he lived, including Montville, Liberty and Belfast.

He was 67. He leaves behind a son, Spencer, and a brother, Andre, and his companion Isabelle Pelissier, as well as others who loved him around the world.

Langmesser was born in Osnabruk, northwest Germany, on May 31, 1950, to parents who were each 6 feet, 4 inches tall. As a high school student, he was part of a youth exchange program between Israel and Germany that altered the course of his life. At the end of his first day at a German university, he went home and packed up his gear in an old French Citroen 2CV, to drive all the way back to Israel and a new life. In Yugoslavia he was arrested as a spy because of his extensive camera gear.

Articulate and fluent in at least five languages, Langmesser learned Hebrew (and some Arabic) by carving gravestones. He earned a BS in physics at Tel Aviv University. He led science-exploration youth groups into the desert while carrying an Uzi. He worked with ultra-Orthodox rabbis in need of microscope-aided research to resolve arcane questions of Jewish law. But he was not Jewish.

He was asked to create interactive exhibits for the new outdoor Garden of Science at Israel’s premier Weizmann Institute of Science.

On an international tour of science museums, Langmesser visited San Francisco’s Exploratorium, known for making the best in interactive exhibits. Founded by the noted physicist and educator, Frank Oppenheimer — brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb — Langmesser found playful investigation there. Together, artists and scientists made interactive exhibits that inspired learning.

In 1984, Langmesser returned to San Francisco with a work visa from the Smithsonian and a job as an exhibit maker at the Exploratorium. Its giant machine, electronics, welding and other fabrication shops — all on public view — and the opportunity to work with the Exploratorium’s brilliant founder, attracted him. Some of the best minds in science often visited Oppenheimer and spent weeks at a time to work with his young staff. Langmesser joined a crew of uniquely esoteric multi-skilled, multi-faceted quirky types, all blessed with an innate curiosity and maker abilities.

There Langmesser met Ned Kahn, who began making exhibits with bubbles. Eventually, he made tornados of fog, or deserts of blowing sand and other beautiful realizations of turbulent landscapes and fluid dynamics. Now a well-known public artist, Kahn and his environmental artworks have since won the coveted recognition of a MacArthur “genius” award grant.

Kahn’s works include a building-sized tornado of hundreds of thousands of shimmering discs revealing the flow patterns of the wind that airport passengers will soon be flying in. The extraordinary technical demands of Kahn’s work are what brought Langmesser and Kahn together again.

“I needed someone to talk to a German engineering company for me. So I called Uwe,” Kahn said. “He called me back. ‘They’re idiots. I can do it for you much better,’ Uwe said. After that Uwe was my right arm. And by the way, I’m right-handed.” Langmesser completed 25 of Kahn’s many projects around the world. He was orchestrating a new Kahn project in Seattle just before his death.

“For the really complex designs, I’d bring in Uwe. I’d send him my napkin sketch, with no idea how to solve what I wanted to do.

“Uwe prototyped, made test pieces, we’d work together by phone and in person. Each new project involves acres of surface area and hundreds of thousands of devices to be designed, engineered, tested, assembled, to all work together seamlessly, outdoors, in all weather, all the time.

“It is unchartered territory. How do we make it? How do we organize it? Uwe was behind all of it. He spent days on the phone with people all over the planet, in many languages, in order to realize these huge works,” Kahn said.

“There was a time I needed a very particular kind of sand. Of course Uwe knew just the guy, an expert in the Negev desert who knows exactly where to find such sand. Uwe just calls him — in Hebrew of course.”

Langmesser’s Turn Table, still on display at the Exploratorium, is one at which visitors have a blast as they send a ball rolling straight across a rotating turntable. It zigs one way and then zags the other and demonstrates how the rotations cancel each other out as the ball suddenly returns to its path straight down the center of the table.

Langmesser, too, zigged and then zagged frequently. In the late 1980s he decided to move to Maine to learn wooden boat building. Maine satisfied his life-long quest to live as far from structure as possible.

Raised in a culture where, as he often joked, “The only freedom left in Germany is to drive fast on the autobahn,” and where citizens register with the authorities in every city in which they live, Langmesser cherished the ideals of the American Wild West. It’s no surprise that freedom and extremes defined his life.

He lived with no phone and Bedouins in tents in sight of his balcony in Israel. There, he liked to dine naked in the heat. In Maine he rented a rustic cabin in the dead of winter with no indoor facilities and a wood-burning stove.

Maine was sufficiently off-the-grid. He bought land in Montville and personally rebuilt a house to fit his giant specifications. At the kitchen counters friends had to climb on large boxes to reach the faucets or look in the mirror. When he finally had indoor plumbing, he encased the 7-foot bathtub on three sides with little German casement windows. He installed three back-up heating systems. Eventually a workshop and his exquisite hand-crafted guest building were added.

At the time of his death he owned three vintage Mercedes Benz — the Grease car that ran on kitchen grease; the Big One that he was rebuilding with white gloves, a magnifying glass, a crane and a homemade stand; and a convertible. Not to mention a backhoe and a truck.

Langmesser’s far-flung pursuits brought much-needed employment to local Maine residents.

Kahn’s projects often had a need for labor. Midcoast Maine was Uwe’s workforce. Thus the assembly of 200,000 parts, those shimmering discs that had to be individually hooked to larger structures that formed the basis of his massive wind sculpture for the San Francisco International Airport, were fabricated in Maine, as were many other projects. Langmesser organized work parties to put components together, with workers watching daytime TV and talking about nuclear physics and politics, as they worked.

Langmesser’s impact among his Maine friends and neighbors came at the individual level as well, as he often put his inventive mind to work to help those in need.

“Uwe had an amazing intelligence, inexhaustible perseverance and an uncanny ability to focus. Sadly, his first inkling that something was wrong, was that he could not gather his thoughts one morning,” Kahn said.

He was a familiar figure who buzzed around Maine (and the continental U.S.) in his Mercedes convertible in the warmer months. For overseas travel he preferred the Queen Mary 2 , which he’d taken 10 times. Wherever he went, he easily stood out, the rear seat of his Mercedes removed, driver’s seat pushed all the way back, to fit his long legs. He rode though life with pale blue eyes as alert as a hawk and usually a big smile, his long silver hair flowing in the wind.

He was often heard to say “Ah, life, itself. It’s wonderful. ”

A memorial gathering will be announced in the near future.

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