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.”