As the tree service stripped the limbs from the 80-year-old laurel oak at her day care, Rose Samuels couldn't stand the idea of losing the tree that had shaded the playground at Rosie's Playschool II at 4500 38th Ave. N since she bought the school nine years ago.
But the tree was dying and would be a safety risk.
"I cried when it was coming down," Samuels said. Before removing the remaining 20-foot-tall stump, the tree service gave her another option. He knew a guy, a chain saw carver, who could transform the trunk into a giant sculpture.
"I'm into art anyway and I just figured how cool it would be to have a piece of art on my playground," Samuels said.
The idea lay idle for months until Samuels ran into Wes Wing, the owner of Tiki Mondo, at an art show. The two struck a deal: For $800, far less than the home and landscape artist would normally charge, Wing would bring out a team to create the piece.
Samuels saw a second opportunity in the project. Though the school is classified as a day care, what draws many of the working parents to Samuels' two locations is her focus on education, several parents and guardians of the students said. Stump Day became the cap on a week of environmentally themed lessons and activities, with family and friends invited to watch the sculpture come to life.
"We're trying to be a little greener," Samuels said. "We're teaching our children about planting, about recycling, about all that good stuff."
The tree, next to a little community garden, will be coated in sealant so the children can use it as a permanent, washable painting project — a symbol of reusing and recycling.
Recently, as children played in a drum circle, Hula-Hooped, dashed around the playground and munched on hot dogs as their parents and guardians chatted, five carvers, aided by ladders and a bucket truck, took chain saws to the tree. Within hours Phil Nottoli of Phil's Tree Service, perched in an extended bucket, roughed out a dolphin leaping from the top of the trunk. It was soon followed by the first third of a tiki totem following the natural curve of the tree and a relief of a fish surrounded by a sunburst.
Chain saw carvers are fast. With special carving blades they removed bark and cut out the design they saw within the natural shapes of the wood. The air filled with sawdust and the artists were covered by wood chips sent flying from their blades. On occasion they stepped back, taking stock while maybe smoking a cigarette, checking oil and gas, before continuing to transfer their vision into wood.
Wing said the work would require a few days to complete the carving, grinding, sanding and finishing. The elevation and the amount of bark affects the process.
The work can be surprisingly delicate, as Dave Flori of Treefrog Carving knows, creating cedar bowls with the aid of a pottery wheel.
"I never could draw or anything, but I wanted to be an artist," said Justin Schlafley, one of the Tiki Mondo carvers. Chain saw carving started as a hobby. Schlafley also does window tinting, but he hopes to make it his full-time job.
"This started as a hobby, but people started buying from us, so we went into business," said Thomas Cain, the third Tiki Mondo carver working on the tree.
And business is getting good, Wing said. He and his carvers get orders to build Polynesian themed "man caves," tiki bars and lawn decorations.
As many of the families left for the day, Samuels, for the first time, got a chance to really sit back and watch the artists carve.
"Oh my God! How cool is this?" she said. "I mean, I can visualize things, but this . . ."
"It makes my heart smile."