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Tree Carvings Form Alfresco Art Gallery
by Hans Tammemagi
For Travel Writers' Tales

Wood chips rained down from high above. Gazing upward I saw, silhouetted against the sky, a man brandishing a chainsaw. Robbin Wenzoski, a master carver was standing on a scaffold cutting vigorously at a large dead maple tree. As I learned, Wenzoski was spending four weeks carving the tree into a sculpture called the Western Fair Story Tree. Already I could see agricultural animals and birds, a clown and a Ferris wheel taking shape.

Wenzoski's work is part of an innovative program started in London, Ontario, in 2006. Instead of putting large trees that have reached the end of their life through the wood chipper, they are being transformed into beautiful pieces of art. Wenzoski has turned dead trees into a crusader knight in full battle armour, a blue jay beside a waterfall and more. With brochure in hand, I was on the Tree Trunk Tour, strolling from one inspirational tree sculpture to another.

The tree carvings are helping to highlight the many identities of London. It's a city of history, starting from when Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe picked it as the capital of Upper Canada (sadly, its position was usurped by Toronto) and is infused with museums of every ilk. The centerpiece, Museum London, sits on the banks of the Thames and houses not only a treasure trove of history but also a vibrant art gallery. Fanshawe Pioneer Village depicts the life of early settlers and holds War of 1812 re-enactments. At Banting House National Historic Site you can see how Frederick Banting, the inventor of insulin, lived and worked. The Royal Canadian Regiment Military Museum is the oldest-and one of the best-military museums in the country. And at the Museum of Ontario Archaeology you can watch the excavation and reconstruction of a prehistoric Iroquoian village.

Culture thrives in London, centred around the Grand Theatre, which has operated since 1901 with a galaxy of stars such as W.C. Fields, Sarah Bernhardt, Sir John Gielgud strutting the stage. London is a university city with all the ebullience of youth, sports, pubs and lively nightclubs. And Covent Garden Market and the annual Western Fair are reminders that London, surrounded by rich farm land, is the agricultural hub of southwestern Ontario.

But the reason I love London is its greenery, the trees that eventually become the canvases for the carvers. The cityscape is softened by two meandering branches of the Thames River that bring a continuous swath of green space, parks and playgrounds into the heart of the city. You can hike or bike from one end of the city to the other on relatively flat ground and never have to battle with traffic. For these reasons, London is becoming a popular biking destination.

The tree-carving project demonstrates London's love of trees and is enhancing its reputation as the "Forest City". Two master wood carvers (Robbin Wenzoski and Neil Cox) were hired to create sculptures that, instead of being confined to an art gallery, are right out on public streets. The Tree Trunk Tour has been developed by a partnership of Tourism London, the City of London, STIHL Canada and the Woodfield Community Association.

At one street corner I gazed in admiration at a majestic eagle, at another a giant hand held a globe high in the air, and at another a castle turret soared into the sky. Fifteen carvings have been created and more will be added in the future.

Cox explained that about 95% of the carving is done with chainsaws ranging in size from large blocking saws to delicate carving saws. Finishing work is done with chisels and power rotary tools. The artwork is usually painted or stained and then finished with automotive polyurethane enamel to preserve the wood. "Designing the sculpture is the hardest part," Cox explained. "It needs to fit the history and style of its location and we need to get the approval of city officials as well as the people who will live next to it."

"Each carving is a magical adventure," said Wenzoski. He described how passersby often stop to chat and admire his carving. Once, a passing blind lady asked to "see" the sculpture he was working on. She ran her hands over the carving, recognized the parts and was excited by its beauty. "London is full of great, friendly people," said Wenzoski, " and encounters like that are priceless."

If You Go
For a brochure with map of the Tree Trunk Tour and general information on London:

Activities and Sights
Banting House:
Royal Canadian Regiment Military Museum:
Storybook Gardens:
Museum of Ontario Archaeoology:

Photos: by Hans Tammemagi

1. Neil Cox carving Mother Nature
2. The Learning Tree by Robbin Wenzoski
3. Come Together and Grow by Robbin Wenzoski
4. Waterloo by Robbin Wenzoski

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