Click on the photos by Charlie London for a larger view.
below by Doug MacCash
Friday’s endless rain didn’t help artist Marlin Miller. Miller, a Florida wood sculptor has begun carving a dead oak tree on Bayou St. John near Orleans Avenue. As of noon Saturday (May 11) Miller had transformed one branch of the tree into a flying egret. He plans to carve more birds, plus a few musical instruments into the tree in time for Bayou Boogaloo, which takes place May 17 to 19. Bad weather tightens his already tight schedule.
Though Miller and I had never met, I knew some of his work. Those wooden wildlife totems along the coast road leading to the Ohr-O’keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi are Miller’s. Since Hurricane Katrina, he’s specialized in chain sawing dead coastal trees into monumental statues.
Standing in the soupy grass beside the bayou, Miller said his art was part of a campaign, sponsored by Bayou Boogaloo, to restore the trees along the historic waterway. Miller said that his 30- ft. tree had been killed by lightening strike during Hurricane Isaac. As I left, Miller used a mechanical man lift to elevate himself into the lower limbs. The sound of a chainsaw rattled in the bayou breeze.
Stay tuned for project updates.
Chain saw artist Marlin Miller transforms tree for Bayou Boogaloo, New Orleans
Doug MacCash, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
on May 13, 2013 at 11:34 AM, updated May 13, 2013 at 1:13 PM
I have a certain criteria and this tree right here just absolutely capped every one of my criteria — Marlin Miller
Wood chips flew like sparks as sculptor Marlin Miller used the tip of his roaring chain saw to carve feathers into the wings of an oaken seagull. As he worked, Miller stood in the basket of a yellow spiderlike mechanical lift – the sort of thing used to change street lamp bulbs. The coarse saw dust from his carving fell at least 30 feet before it settled on the damp grass beside Bayou St. John. On Sunday afternoon (May 12), Miller, who lives in Florida, had less than a week to finish his oak tree sculpture in time for the Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo, a neighborhood festival that takes place May 17-19.
Miller, wearing mirror glasses, hazard orange work pants and a T-shirt advertising the chain saw company that sponsors him, said he was born into an artistic family. His mother, grandfather and great-grandfather were painters, he said. But he was drawn to sculpture.
“I was always, like, three-dimensional,” he said. “I messed around with clay and wire sculpture and I got involved with wood and I just kept taking it to a higher and higher and bigger level. It’s what moves me.”
Miller said he has a thriving career selling portable wooden sculptures from several galleries, but producing monumental carvings from trees that remain deeply rooted in the earth is his passion. Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he said, he has had plenty of opportunities to transform trees killed by the storm and flood into sculpture. Anyone who’s traveled U.S. 90 through Biloxi, Miss., has seen his works rising from the median.
The tree Miller is carving on Bayou St. John did not die in 2005. It had survived the wind and water of Katrina, only to be killed by lightning during Hurricane Isaac in 2012. Money raised during the upcoming Bayou Boogaloo celebration will be used to plant more replacement oaks around the somewhat bare south end of the bayou – a few young trees already are in place. Calling in Miller to produce a carving from the remaining dead tree is meant to focus attention on the replanting.
“I get offers from all over the country many times a year,” he said. “I’m unfortunately not able to do most of the those projects. But I have a certain criteria and this tree right here just absolutely capped every one of my criteria. It’s got to be a big tree. It’s got to be an oak or a hard wood. It has to be on a public piece of property in a highly visual area, and the last thing it has to have is, it’s got to have some emotion. That’s this tree perfectly described.”
The emotion of the tree had to do with the history of the area in the distant and more recent past, Miller said. He had been told that almost 300 years ago, the bayou was the entryway for the French founders of New Orleans. He had been told that small boats used to move supplies along the waterway. He had been told that a helicopter had crashed not far from the tree during the 2005 flood evacuation. All true. Someone will certainly mention that the tree is a witness to the splendor of Mardi Gras Indians, who gather in its shadow for annual parades.
Miller said that other chain saw artists might have chosen to lop the large branches off of the top of the tree at the start of the project, using the massive trunk alone as raw material for a totem-like carving, but he wanted to “keep this sculpture looking like a tree.” To take advantage of the relatively narrow branches, he chose to carve delicate birds in flight.
“I decided to leave the branches (in place) and put in a lot of the birds that are indigenous to this area, the seagulls, the herons and the cranes and egrets, and a pelican. I think I might be able to sneak a little owl in there somewhere. And if I have time, I’m actually going to try to incorporate a school of trout in the base of the trunk.”
Miller said he had been told that the ecosystem of the bayou was changing since it had been better opened to Lake Pontchartrain, which raised the salt content of the water, possibly allowing trout to ply the waters.
Miller, whose face is perpetually coated in feathery wood residue, said the chain saw company that sponsors him covers his expenses, and he donates the art-making for free. The old oak, he said, is almost as hard as rock. He has 100 spare chain saw chains. His first day of work, Friday (May 10), had been completely rained out. He said he was blessed with a cool breeze and an overcast sky on the second day, as he stripped the tree of small branches. By Sunday, the sun was beginning to peek through the clouds, promising hot work ahead. The process is a labor of love.
“This is way too much work for money,” he said. “You have to have something way more powerful than money behind you to climb up a tree, 35 feet, and deal with these conditions.”
High in the branches of the tree, Miller petted the splintery surface of a diving gull as he explained that the coarse chain saw carving was only the beginning. Later, he would return to each bird, burning the carved lines with a torch to produce dramatic shadows. Then he would use a wood grinder to smooth the carving and brighten the surface of his enormous sculpture. He planned to varnish the entire tree and to treat the base with termite repellant to lengthen the life of the sculpture.
As Miller descended in the mechanical lift, a man appeared on the far side of the bayou, shouting and gesturing enthusiastically in his direction. When the man got close enough to be heard, he announced that he, too, was a chain saw operator, who had worked on construction sites across the city. The shouted conversation wasn’t about art; it was about the bond between chain saw aficionados everywhere.
Lots of people pass by the tree to offer Miller encouragement. Many, Miller said, recount their storm, flood and recovery experiences. Most probably appreciate Miller’s efforts to give the old oak a few more years.
“It makes me feel really good as an artist that maybe we can stick something out here that maybe people can reflect on.”