Dying tree transformed into a sacred work of art

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann blesses a statue of Our Lady of Fatima outside of St. Mary Church in Hartford. A chainsaw artist transformed an old tree into Our Lady. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Jan Dixon

HARTFORD — Our Lady of Fatima revealed herself in quite an unusual way to the faithful of St. Mary Church here recently.

And now, what was once a beautiful, old pin oak tree is a life-size sculpture of the patroness of their church.

It was chainsaw artist named Lyn Robinson who cleared away the dead wood, so to speak, “so you can truly see what has always been there.”

“The tree in front of our new parish hall wasn’t doing well and we thought we would cut it down,” explained Father Nicholas Blaha, pastor of St. Mary Church. “People were sad to see it go.”

After some discussion, he continued, “we chose to use chainsaw carving, because it was a way to incorporate artistry that is typical to our part of Kansas.”

Tim Menard, a parishioner of St. Mary and a wildlife biologist whose travels frequently take him out west, had seen chainsaw sculptures done by a local Kansas artist and contacted him about the plan for the tree.

A self-taught chainsaw carver, Robinson, of Concordia, was nervous about the St. Mary’s project.

“I only watched a man carve a sculpture with a chainsaw one time and thought I could do it,” he said of his initiation into the art. His first project was a full-size Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Ten years later, Robinson has become known as “the Tree Slayer” and has carved eagles, bears, raccoons and other animals into signs, benches, and furniture.

“I only make what people order,” he explained. “So I was nervous because this was the first order I had ever received for a statue of Our Lady of Fatima.”

Father Blaha provided the artist, who is not Catholic, some background on the Virgin Mary and what occurred at Fatima.

Then, using only a chainsaw and a little grinder, Robinson started at the top of the trunk. He did not draw on the tree or make any calculations.

“I carve just by looking at a model or following a picture in my head,” he said. In this case, he was using a picture on his phone.

“I adjust as I work,” he said.

On the day of the carving and as part of the parish’s 140th celebration, people brought lawn chairs to the site — they were there for the duration.

And though there were a lot of games played, and roast pig consumed for the occasion, many parishioners stayed on just to watch the artist at work.

“The parish came together for a whole day,” said Father Blaha. “People really appreciated the investment of the artist. His enthusiasm was evident.”

Carving bodies is challenging, said Robinson. Carving a rooted tree means the artist cannot move the wood; he has to continually move his body to get the right angle.

But that didn’t discourage Robinson.

“I am a challenge-based person,” he said, and he likes to work in front of people.

“I feed off of the crowd. It was a good time,” he added.

Near the end of the project, he asked that the original model be brought outside so he could duplicate all of the fine details into the carving.

“That tree statue is a very close model of Our Lady of Fatima,” said Father Blaha. ”She is about six feet tall with flowing robes, folded hands and a prayerful look on her face.”

People driving down the main road of Hartford now often stop to look at the statue.

“Of all the things we could have done to the tree, to create something sacred and beautiful is a witness to the wider community,” said Father Blaha. “It is our hope she will be standing there for a very long time.”

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann dedicated the statue while making a pastoral visit to the parish on Dec. 9.

Father Blaha, Menard and the parish family of St. Mary are pleased with their new tree statue.

Robinson is, too, but for a different reason.

“This is the very first of my carvings to be blessed,” he said. “This one is special.

“I feel blessed, too.”

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