BY GARY MAY
Early in the morning of Sunday, June 6, 2010, a tornado struck the north shore of Lake Erie and cut a swath of destruction from the village of Colchester in Essex down to neighbouring Kingsville and down to the Town of Leamington. While no one was seriously injured, homes and other structures were severely damaged, and 200-year-old trees were uprooted or torn in half. Leamington’s waterfront Seacliff Park, in the midst of a major renovation, was decimated.
It was a sad day for the community of 31,000, best known as Canada’s Tomato Capital. Hundreds of beautiful old trees were destroyed, most of them between Seacliff Drive and Lake Erie, in Leamington’s west end.
Fast-forward to June 2011, and the efforts of a community that has come together to rebuild are everywhere. Homes, greenhouses and docks have been replaced, and Seacliff Park reconstructed. And while little could be done to replace the hundreds of magnificent trees that took nature six to eight generations to bring to their full majesty, and mere seconds to smash to kindling wood, something wonderful has been carved out of all that devastation.
To commemorate how the community responded to the emergency and to memorialize the beautiful trees that were lost, the town held a contest for chainsaw artists to turn the remnants of three of the toppled giants into pieces of public art. Three artists were selected from seven applicants.
Robbin Wenzoski is a former builder of log homes who now makes a full-time career of using his chainsaw as a fine sculpting tool to transform logs into works of intricate art. At his studio in Muirkirk, in neighbouring Chatham-Kent, Wenzoski heard about the competition, and decided to take the 90-minute drive to Seacliff Park to size up the trees. A black ash with a slight lean, that was probably six feet in diameter at its base, particularly caught his eye.
“I immediately thought, ‘this tree’s got to be a lighthouse,’ ” he told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. After submitting sketches of his plan, Wenzoski was one of those chosen and in April, he and his wife set up in Seacliff Park, spending nearly eight days turning the 17-foot-tall tree trunk into a lighthouse, in recognition of the lakeside town’s nautical links.
A metal fabricator by trade, Wenzoski says he’d far rather be working in wood — old-growth tree trunks and “found” chunks of wood. “Wood is the most natural, beautiful substance there is,” he believes.
When he’s commissioned to do wood sculptures, Wenzoski charges $500 an hour, plus expenses if he’s required to travel. Often, he works at his home studio sculpting old logs that have been discarded. He believes repurposing old-growth tree trunks destined for the garbage dump gives them new life and meaning.
Grand unveiling to be held June 25
Frequently, Wenzoski appears at live shows, such as Chatham’s July 8-10 Ribfest this year, and is often asked to carve memorials in cemeteries. He also teaches chainsaw sculpting at his studio and gives an accredited course at the Haliburton School of the Arts.
Amanda Smith, Leamington’s manager of culture and recreation, was one of the driving forces behind the Leamington Tree Legacy program. She says the idea came to her and the municipality’s public works manager the day after the tornado struck, when they went to the park to survey the damage.
“We looked at all of the trees and we felt that there were three trunks that were suitable to be turned into sculptures,” Smith told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “We wanted a public art legacy. These three trunks create a lasting outdoor public art experience. They’ll stay as long as the trunks remain stable.”
The three artists received an honorarium of $2,000 to $2,500, depending on the size of the trunk and complexity of the artwork, from $10,000 donated by TV Cogeco. The rest will be spent for a grand opening ceremony on June 25, a day that will bring closure to a town traumatized by last year’s fierce storm.
The other artists selected to take part in Leamington’s Legacy event were Mike Winia Jr. of London and Paul Danielski, who lives just outside the gates of Rondeau Provincial Park on Lake Erie in Chatham-Kent. Winia says his work represents Leamington’s “strength, growth and renewal.”
He calls it Memories. The image of the tornado looms out of one side of his work. Small animals Winia associates with nighttime activity — raccoons, catfish and an owl — are portrayed to recognize how the storm struck in the middle of the darkness. “While most people were sleeping, only these creatures knew it was coming,” he explains.
He owns a tree service in London and was one of the hundreds of people who arrived in Leamington to help with the cleanup immediately after the storm.
Danielski’s sculpture, Community Pillar, is based on the sense of community the town’s residents showed after the disaster. Images of emergency workers — including firefighters and police officers — adorn one side. Other images include a family, a tomato representing Leamington’s agricultural economy, and butterflies that represent the annual migration at nearby Point Pelee National Park. There’s even a place within the trunk where children can sit and look up into the faces.
“I wanted to recognize how everyone got together, at 3:30 in the morning, when the tornado struck,” says Daniekski. “I wanted to contribute to the tremendous spirit that the community showed.”
He remembers coming to Seacliff Park as a child and how it was covered in wonderful old trees. “My 12-year-old daughter will never see that here, so I hope my work will be a legacy of the park and it will be here for her and for her children, too.”
Urethane will be applied to the carvings to protect them from the elements. The artists believe they could last anywhere from 10 to 25 years in their current state, until moisture loosens the roots and makes them unstable. Then the trunks can be cut down and either re-erected as part of an outdoor display, or placed indoors for public viewing.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — June 2011