Beautifying a neighborhood’s roots

A loc­al artist’s tree-carving pro­ject, the first of its kind in Phil­adelphia, has been com­pleted in Port Rich­mond’s Camp­bell Square, and neigh­bors said they are thrilled by the strik­ing nat­ur­al beauty.

Un­der a drizzle and gray skies last week, an un­usu­al sound echoed across Camp­bell Square in Port Rich­mond.

Chip. Chip. Chip.

The sound was artist Ro­ger Wing, 44, put­ting the fin­ish­ing touches on an un­usu­al tree-carving pro­ject, which was sched­uled to be of­fi­cially un­veiled in Camp­bell Square this past Sat­urday.

“As I’ve worked in the park, I’ve been meet­ing the hu­man res­id­ents of Port Rich­mond, while por­tray­ing the non-hu­man res­id­ents,” Wing ex­plained, adding that the an­im­als whose im­ages he has carved in­to the tree are all in­di­gen­ous to the area around the park.

That is why he named the carving “Get to Know the Loc­als.”

Those non-hu­man loc­als in­clude deer, like those that still roam Pennypack and Fair­mount parks. There’s a turtle, which you might spot swim­ming in the creek un­der Ara­mingo Av­en­ue. There’s shad and stur­geon, pop­u­la­tions of which have re­cently re­sur­ged in the Delaware River, thanks to en­vir­on­ment­al con­ser­va­tion ef­forts. There’s also a bird of prey at the top of the 26-foot-tall tree, which could be a re­l­at­ive of the hawks Wing has seen circ­ling over the square.

“I wanted to por­tray an­im­als that were once plen­ti­ful and have been pushed to the mar­gins by hu­man civil­iz­a­tion, but are still around,” Wing said. “A lot of them were im­port­ant food sources for early set­tlers, like deer, tur­key, shad and stur­geon.”

The tree is es­tim­ated to be 96.8 years old, ac­cord­ing to Bill Borowski, 76, a mem­ber of the Friends of Camp­bell Square, the group that hired Wing for the pro­ject. It was one of six trees in the park slated to be cut down after be­ing deemed a li­ab­il­ity due to fungal in­fec­tions.

“They start dy­ing from the top. You know they’re dy­ing when there are suck­ers grow­ing out all over the place,” Borowski ex­plained.

There’s no oth­er rooted-tree carving like this in Phil­adelphia, ac­cord­ing to Parks and Re­cre­ation De­part­ment Dir­ect­or of Stew­ard­ship Bar­bara Mc­Cabe — her­self a Port Rich­mond nat­ive and former Friends of Camp­bell Square vo­lun­teer.

“There was a lot of big ma­ture Lon­don plane trees in the park at the end of their lifespan, so the tree was already de­clared done. We would nev­er cut down a healthy tree,” Mc­Cabe ex­plained. “It was, ‘Let’s save one and do something dif­fer­ent with it.’”

The nature of the pro­ject is that Wing has been work­ing out­doors while loc­al park-go­ers stroll by, many of whom have come to know Wing and have be­come fans of his work.

“How’s it go­ing, man?” asked re­cent Phil­adelphia trans­plant Doug Prince as he took his dogs on their daily walk in the park.

“It’s just beau­ti­ful,” said Betty Palumbo as she passed through. “I hope the neigh­bor­hood and the kids ap­pre­ci­ate it.”

“It’ll bring the neigh­bor­hood closer to­geth­er,” said Susan Ongirski, 52, sec­ret­ary and founder of Friends of Camp­bell Square, who stopped by the park with her dog, Ban­dit, to see Wing at work.

“It means a lot,” said Port Rich­mond res­id­ent Tom Gregory, 68. “It’s go­ing to be a big im­prove­ment for these people, es­pe­cially the older people. They’re really en­joy­ing this.”

“It’s mag­ni­fi­cent,” said the Rev. Den­nis Fedak of the Nativ­ity of the Blessed Vir­gin Mary Par­ish, which is loc­ated dir­ectly ad­ja­cent to the park. “They turned a dead tree in­to something beau­ti­ful.”

The pro­ject was part of on­go­ing ef­forts by the Friends of Camp­bell Square to in­ject new life in­to the park, in­clud­ing Hal­loween cel­eb­ra­tions, movie screen­ings, a Christ­mas tree light­ing, and a “Love Your Park” clean-up sched­uled for Nov. 17.

The Friends re­ceived a Green­Plan Phil­adelphia grant, which is ad­min­istered by the Pennsylvania Hor­ti­cul­tur­al So­ci­ety and has gone to­wards vari­ous park im­prove­ments in Camp­bell Square. It covered this pro­ject’s budget of $10,000, which paid for ma­ter­i­als, equip­ment and 20 days of Wing’s labor.

Susan Man­ning, of the Friends of Camp­bell Square, said she was very pleased with the res­ults of Wing’s work. She said she and her sis­ter, Friends’ events co­ordin­at­or Jen­nifer Bytof, haven’t heard any com­plaints about the pro­ject.

“My only con­cern about it is that they [teen­agers] are go­ing to graf­fiti it or something, and I don’t know a way to stop that,” Man­ning said. Also, the carving starts a few feet up the tree stump so that it won’t be dam­aged by loc­al dogs mark­ing their ter­rit­ory, Man­ning said.

But the easy-go­ing Wing didn’t seem too per­turbed when one dog ran up last week and lif­ted its hind leg over the tree while he worked. “There’ll be plenty of time for that when I’m fin­ished!” Wing joked, as the own­er stepped for­ward to pull their dog away.

Wing, 44, is a nat­ive of Colum­bus, Ohio, and lives in the Pow­elton Vil­lage neigh­bor­hood of West Phil­adelphia. He came to Philly in 1997 to at­tend a one-year pro­gram at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which is where he met his wife.

Wood carving was his first pas­sion, but he also carves ice and marble. He’s worked in Fin­land and Po­land, and has par­ti­cip­ated in the World Ice Carving com­pet­i­tion in Fairb­anks, Alaska. He had no prob­lem talk­ing with loc­als as he chiseled.

“It’s just something that comes so nat­ur­ally to me,” he said of his carving.

For this pro­ject, Wing first cut the ba­sic shapes of an­im­als with a chain­saw. Then he went over each an­im­al again and again carving and re­fin­ing the de­tails. The carving was burn­ished by blow­torch, and fin­ished with tim­ber oil. This pro­ject will not only beau­ti­fy the tree but pre­vent it from col­lapsing due to age, he said.

At one point talk­ing and chisel­ing, Wing en­countered an obstacle.

“It was a block –- crap!” he ex­claimed as he found an old nail ob­struct­ing his chisel.

“There’s a couple of nails that have been driv­en in­to the tree,” he ex­plained as he tried to pull out the of­fend­ing mail.

Wing’s an­im­als in­clude a snake swal­low­ing an egg –- a visu­al nod to the Ser­pent Mound in Wing’s nat­ive Ohio. All the creatures have emotive faces and pop­ping eyes.

“I wanted to make the faces an­im­ated,” he said. “You’re look­ing at them and they’re look­ing at you.”

Mul­tiple sources noted that the unique art­work was draw­ing dozens of curi­ous pass­ersby. In fact, at one point a bus­load of so­ci­ology stu­dents from Bucks County Com­munity Col­lege on an edu­ca­tion­al trip pulled over to take a look.

“Tour buses are rolling in already,” Wing said play­fully, adding that he hopes people from oth­er parts of the city will con­tin­ue to be drawn to Port Rich­mond.  “Hope­fully they’ll come to the deli around the corner, too.”

Re­port­er Sam Ne­w­house can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at sne­w­

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