17 January 2011

An Example . . . .

Yesterday, I spent about an hour capturing video imagery of the historic live oak tree at the courthouse in downtown Fort Myers.  The oak tree, like most of the property owned by the city and county, has been neglected for decades.  Other places under the city's and county's care that have gone to ruin because of this "benign" neglect include:

the Pleasure Pier

the Hall of Fifty States

Exhibition Hall

The live oak at the courthouse has undergone, over the last twenty years, a number of "fixes," usually meaning the cheapest remedy available, and it's now destined to being cut down after two of its limbs have broken off, constituting a legitimate safety concern.

The current plan is to "save" the trunk by commissioning wood sculptor Marlin Miller to create an eagle out of it.  He's made something of a name by sculpting "Katrina trees" in and near Biloxi, Mississippi.  At best, some of his work is whimsical, and to his credit, he works with the natural shape of the tree to create his carvings.  One of his signature pieces is located at the town square in Biloxi.

He transformed this dead tree

into this sculpture

I have no doubt that Miller's work will be received well by the community, and in that respect, I suppose it will be a successful work of public art (and there are much worse examples, for sure). But I am having a difficult time of it, as it seems a grotesque usage of the oak, a degradation, another cheap erasure. I think of all that makes use of a decaying tree, from the termites to the air plants and fungus to the woodpeckers and bluebirds, that slow heatening and releasing that is death, an old, old carbon breakdown.

So we break out the chainsaw, cut and hew a cartoon emblem, and it is clean, reassuring, and not the least disrupting, not the least ironic, not the least arresting. Yes, I am angry about it.

So, in translating the live oak to some digitalized coding,  I realize my own hand in making use of the oak. I'm no better than Marlin Miller in that respect.  No, I won't go Julia Butterfly on it, either, as the tree is too far gone to survive (the enemy here is the sidewalk and pavement, what modernized Oak Street into Main Street in Fort Myers, over 100 years ago). The county commissioners have done a good job of it, with plenty of hand wringing, gathering up of the acorns, and then doing nothing. The tree was to be cut down three months ago. Evidently the county has not the funds to finish the job.

I don't know if I'll ever make anything at all from the video (just the capture itself might be enough of a fugitive artistic response), but it exemplifies the kind of thing I'm after these days.


  1. Great post and pics. :) I've never seen the Fort Myers Oak, but I bet the tree, dying or dead as it is, is still beautiful, just like the Biloxy tree above. The sculpture of that tree by Miller does seem to echo the original shape of the tree, but it also looks really cartoony and artificial, like something out of SeaWorld. I have a hard time seeing the "art" in it.
    - Allison

  2. Yeah, Allison.

    He's really awful with the eyes, a kind of happy anime-winky-closed-eye thingie going on there. To be truthful, I really hate this kind of totem pole art. I like real totem poles, but this kind of thing is just so much empty fetish for me, and it really lacks any kick to make it kitschy, too.

    To me, it's dreary, dreary, and maybe it makes it something fitting to be before the Lee County Courthouse.