From ash to art

When Tiffin resident Beth Walliser found out an ash tree in her yard had been affected by emerald ash borer, she decided to find a way to preserve the 134-year-old tree.

Walliser, who describes herself as an environmentalist, said the idea of having the dying tree carved into a totem pole was sparked after she saw a tree that had been carved into a dragon at a Miami Street residence. That project was completed by woodcarver Matt Smith in 2011.

“When I found out last year that the ash tree was dying, I decided to have a totem pole made in memory of the tree,” she said. “I didn’t want the tree to go to waste, and I thought it’d be neat to showcase his artwork again.”

“I’m an environmentalist myself and it was really hard for me to have it cut down,” Walliser said.

Walliser said the totem pole not only honors the tree, it also pays homage to American Indians. She said she asked Smith to make the carving face northwest, honoring especially northwest American Indians.

The animals featured on the totem pole include a raven, frog, snake and beaver, and they are a copy of one of Walliser’s tattoos. Walliser said the raven represents mischief; the frog represents good fortune; the snake represents wisdom; and the beaver is a symbol of strength.

Two tree stumps are in front of the totem pole, and guests are welcome to sit at the site and meditate or admire the carving, Walliser said.

“Anyone’s more than welcome to sit and meditate and enjoy the pole and pay homage to the forefathers who walked this land before us,” she said.

Walliser said while Smith was completing the carving project, he found a nail inside the ash tree that had been overgrown by the tree. Walliser said it appears the nail had been in the tree for a considerable time.

“He said he never seen that himself,” Walliser said. “It’s a nail we can’t identify. It may be back from 1880.”

Walliser kept the chunk of wood in which the nail was found and said she plans to insert the nail back into the portion of the totem pole where it was discovered. Walliser said Smith also cut out a portion of the tree that resembles the face of an owl.

Smith finished that piece for Walliser and she now has the owl face set aside, she said.

Walliser said the complete totem pole project took Smith less than a week to complete, and she couldn’t be happier with the results.

“What an awesome way with this huge tree to make a totem pole,” she said. “I was absolutely amazed. It is beautiful. It’s unique, the carving in itself. He’s a true artist and for him to be able to work the wood. He’s amazing.”

Smith, a Willard resident, said his interest in the art of wood carving began after first admiring it at a pow-wow at Mohican State Park. After a storm later knocked down a tree at his residence, he picked up his chainsaw and began creating artwork. He’s now been at it for 10 years and operates his wood carving and tree service business full time.

“I had a chain saw lying around and I just started doing it,” Smith said.

Smith said, to learn about the art, he initially researched woodcarving online and also discovered a rendezvous in Pennsylvania in which hundreds of wood carvers from over the world converge.

Smith also now performs wood-carving demonstrations at festivals and estimates the number of trees he has carved to be around 100. Those trees are all over the country, including California, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Alaska.

Smith said, in Alaska, he carved a totem pole after camping in the state for a month. On the top of the tree, he carved an eagle, and on another portion of the tree, he included everyone’s name who was camping with him.

Smith said many people request animals to be the subject of his artwork, and other requests have included farm scenery. Several years ago, he completed a woodcarving project in Fremont that had a dozen animals on it, including an eagle, squirrels, a bear and a cat.

Most recently, he completed morel mushrooms for Walliser’s sister.

Smith said the amount of time it takes to complete a project depends on the amount of detail it requires.

While the totem pole on Thomas Street took Smith about a week to complete, the dragon on Miami Street took him a couple of weeks, he said.

Smith said 90 percent of his woodcarving projects are completed with a chainsaw, grinders and sanders.

“That’s about all you use,” Smith said.

After the carving is complete, a seal then is put on the tree to preserve it.

With emerald ash borer on the rise, Smith said the last three trees he has carved have been ash trees. Although many were dying of the disease, live or dead trees can be used for woodcarving as long as they are not rotting, Smith said.

“Ash trees, that’s really nice wood to carve and it lasts a long time,” he said.

Creative Chainsaw Carvings can be reached at (419) 752-4161.