Tree transformed into art in Port Richmond square

Roger Wing at work in Campbell Square. He has transformed a London Plane tree into a 26-foot wraparound cascade of animals, topped by a raptor.
Roger Wing at work in Campbell Square. He has transformed a London Plane tree into a 26-foot wraparound cascade of animals, topped by a raptor. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 26, 2012

When Roger Wing showed up with a chainsaw at Port Richmond's leafy Campbell Square in late September, the locals despaired. There goes another tree.

But no, Wing was not there to cut down one of the 128 remaining trees in the 2.2-acre square so strikingly tucked in by three soaring copper-topped churches (the Irish one, the Polish one, and the German one, as they're known).

Wing, an internationally celebrated ice sculptor (Poland, Finland), locally revered wood carver (Trenton Avenue, Shadfest), and a stone restorer of the New York Public Library's pedimental sculptures (Fifth Avenue), was there to carve the tree, and not in any small way.

One month later, the old, dying London Plane tree with the Pisa-like tilt toward the southeast is transformed: a 26-foot wraparound cascade of animals, topped with a visual nod to the gilded crosses of the church spires - a raptor that is a hawk or an eagle, depending on whether you think everything in Philadelphia has to relate to its sports teams.

It will be formally unveiled at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the busy public Square, located at Allegheny and Belgrade (and Almond and Madison).

"Hopefully it will outlast me, which is never the case in an ice carving," Wing said this week, as he used two propane torches to darken the spaces in the carving, and his trusty hammer and chisel to finish final details. The trunk was carved with both chainsaw and chisel.

The square's lovely trees have been hit by a fungus in recent years, with nearly two dozen removed. But not this one. "It's been a collaboration between me and the tree," said Wing, a 1998 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts graduate who works out of a Kensington studio. "I had my ideas, and there's been a push back from the tree."

'Beautiful!'

The carving, depicting wildlife indigenous to the region - shad, saw whet owl, woodpecker, squirrel, wild turkey, red eared slider, great blue heron, bufflehead ducks, beaver, mountain lion, white tailed deer, and a sturgeon - is called, with a wink, "Get to Know the Locals."

And that Wing has, as day after day a steady stream of park regulars has walked by, or pulled over in their trucks, and commented approvingly in Polish, Albanian, English, Spanish, and Croatian.

"Beautiful!"

"Good job."

"You missed a spot!"

"It's amazing," said Pat Moritz, 64, a lunch lady at Our Lady of Port Richmond who walks by each day. She says kids count the animals and study them at school.

Catching the eye

It is an unusual coup for Campbell Square, which anchors the community of two-story rowhouses, Polish delis, and narrow side streets. The park already is home to a modernistic 12-foot iron archway carved by another local artist, Warren Holzmen, on its Allegheny Avenue border (framing a long view of Liberty Place).

It is the city's first permanent public sculpture by the bearded Wing, who has carved ice in front of 20,000 people in Poznan, Poland. His expressive wood carvings caught the eye of Barbara McCabe, of city Parks and Recreation, at the Trenton Avenue Arts Festival five years ago.

McCabe thought, How about a dying park tree, and connected the dots for the Friends of Campbell Square, which won a city grant to cover Wing's work. (The total cost was about $5,000, mostly for materials, lift rental, and four weeks of Wing's time.)

The square, which has become less hospitable to drug users known to gather at night, has been lovingly tended to by some of the Friends, including Bill Borowski, 76, of Gaul Street, whose 30 years working for the Weyerhaeuser paper company yielded an ace steward. There are concerts and Christmas tree lightings, and the site has become a growing and animated focal point of neighborliness.

Borowski has championed new plantings and the labeling of the park's ash, oak, and sycamore trees (among others). He calculated the age of Wing's tree to be 96.8 years.

The only piece attached to the carving is the body of the cross-shaped raptor on top, carved from a limb removed near the squirrel and attached with two bolts. He needed park department approval for that.

Wing said locals had strong, proprietary feelings for this particular tree. So he left the base natural, with its pattern of burls that people remember lifting their children onto (or being lifted onto). One woman carved her name in the tree in 1948. "A lot of people were concerned about the burls," he said.

As for the subject matter, he said: "My own carving is mostly human figures. But I have young children. I know animals mean so much to everybody. And yet, where are the animals? They've been pushed to the margins. This is a way of bringing them back into view."

The square itself has regular flyovers by a hawk and her young. Mostly, though, it's humans and dogs.

The carving has one nod to humans: a serpent in the style of the prehistoric Serpent Mound formations of Wing's native Ohio. (He says he resisted the temptation to add a Buckeye.)

"It's going to draw some attention," said mail carrier Daniel Pakstis, 50, who has been listening daily to the peck, peck, peck of Wing's chiseling. His route just got a whole lot more interesting.


Contact Amy S. Rosenberg

at 215-854-268 or arosenberg@phillynews.com, of follow on Twitter @amysrosenberg.

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