Photo by John Douglas/Flying Squirrel
I heard about Joe Wheelwright before I knew him – that’s the natural order of things in a small town.
“There’s this guy out in East Corinth who turns trees into men.”
“No. Plucks a bifurcated tree out of the ground. Flips it over. Turns the roots into wild, Medusa hair. Turns a split trunk into a pair of giant legs. Builds a giant head. Stands the whole thing up.”
“How big a tree?”
“A full-grown tree?”
“How does he get it out of the ground in one piece?”
“I have no idea.”
When I called Wheelwright and told him I wanted to meet him and see some of his work, he told me I was in luck. He was about to start on The Giant – the biggest sculpture he’d ever done. It was going to be 40 feet tall and weigh around 8,000 pounds. It was going to touch the sky.
I met Joe over at his studio, a whimsical hilltop retreat. There’s a glade full of oneroom cabins and a big workspace with a rock tumbler and a foundry and a custombuilt 40-foot double-rig overhead bridge crane – like the kind they use to pull boats out of the water. There’s an uncovered clawfoot bathtub heated by a copper waterline strung through an antique chunk stove. A faucet coming out of a tree trunk, soap resting on a bronzed shelf-fungus. Walk through the woods and 30 years worth of tree men – action figure to totem-pole sized – stare up or down at you. Some are unnerving, some beautiful, all playful. Wheelwright creates serious work that doesn’t take itself too seriously. (One sculpture is veridically entitled Walking Stick with Dick.)
Joe gives the tour in a smooth, musical voice. He’s in his mid-sixties and tall and thin like the figures he creates, but fluid, with an animal’s grace of movement. As he speaks, he orchestrates with his hands and his shoulders. He’s been working with trees – which he calls “excited, and jumpy; all body” – and stone – “brainy, solemn, patient” – since his early twenties.
Business hasn’t been so good since the recession began, but he told me that instead of shrinking he was going all in with this latest piece, an epic sculpture that he hoped would be impossible for the art world to ignore. He’d front the production cost, and then someone would fall in love with The Giant, would buy him, would pay for him to be cast in bronze.
The Giant lived in a patch of ugly pasture pine a mile or so from the studio. To me he looked like a big weevil-damaged pine. To Wheelwright, he looked like a giant with his head and arms stuck in the earth. The first step was to hire an intern to dig out the roots. A young art student showed up in skinny jeans and flip flops. Wheelwright handed him a shovel. The kid lasted a couple days and never came back. Joe and friend Doug Perkins finished the job.
Now we were looking up at The Giant with Ron Rich and Josh LeBlanc, who were there to top the tree. “See the knee; the hip,” said Wheelwright, pointing up into the tree’s crown. “See how the legs end around that split?” Ron, an arborist who spends his days clearing power lines for a local utility, saw it. He’d topped trees for Joe before.
Ron scampered up the pine like a squirrel. Soon waist-thick limbs were raining to earth. The stem trembled with the vibrations, charges of animation coursing through the wood. The first stirrings of life.
The tree stood all that winter and all the next spring. In July, Scott Fisk, a logger from Bradford, came down with a log truck, a feller-buncher, and a two-man crew. They hooked onto the tree, its roots exposed, and pulled it to earth, setting The Giant free.
Once on the ground, Wheelwright and fellow artist Isaac Bingham went right to work. They trimmed the roots and collected bark that came off in the fall. Joe was still trying to figure out who The Giant was while he worked. The pose he’d strike. The expression he’d wear.
“Is it a man or a woman?”
“It’s a man – look at the hips.”
This whole idea that you can tell the gender of an upside-down tree may sound crazy, I know. But spend any amount of time with Wheelwright and you see that he really means it. And walk in the woods with him and you’ll start to see things like he does, too. Faces in stones. Tiny figures in white spruce brooms. Curves and phalluses and rib bones and noses.
“When we were digging, some of the roots had thumbs and five little fingers.”
This line of thinking works the other way, too. Look at the stretch marks on your lover’s hips tonight and compare them to the ray cell patterns in quartersawn oak. Look at the palms of your own hands and see that, like wood, your skin has grain.
Using a feller-buncher and the loader on a log truck, the men lifted the giant onto a flatbed and drove it to the studio. The work began in earnest now.
“Creativity, art, it’s all about creating a problem and coming up with a solution,” said Isaac. “An artist’s job is to push the boundary between what’s possible and what’s not.” How to turn a tree into a man? To accentuate the knees they added shims, then reupholstered the bark skin. Joe carved a head out of three-inch laminated planks. The tree had lost about one third of its bark in the year since it was topped, so they found new bark and painstakingly glued and screwed it back into place using thousands of sheetrock screws and about 100 pounds of PC7 epoxy. Four straight months of work. “It’s the only time I’ve spent an entire season working exclusively on one piece,” said Wheelwright.
When the head and arms were affixed to the body they seemed practically seamless. Visitors would stare at the prone tree man, ponder for a moment, and then say: where’d you find a tree that grew like that?
The big day broke misty. Late September – the cold, heavy air in the valleys burning off to reveal a gloriously high sky. Wheelwright and Bingham had been at it since first light, preparing The Giant for takeoff. Rick Hutchins was there with a 167-foot crane. Ned Ordway came from Capitol Steel with a 6-by-6-by-½-inch steel plate with which to affix the monster to a four-foot-deep concrete slab. Neighbor Wayne Irwin. Doug Perkins. Wheelwright’s wife Susan. Photographer John Douglas and his wife Joan Waltermire.
“Get a few more people and we’ll be able to just pick it up,” Irwin deadpanned.
The idea was to lift it with the studio crane around the waist, then pull upward with the 167-foot crane attached around the armpits. The head was blocked and braced and strapped. Then the strapping undone and reconfigured, two, three, four times. “Everybody’s nervous,” said Isaac. “We don’t have the courage to start.”
Finally, they went for broke. Ned on the studio crane controls, Hutch in the big one, and Wheelwright giving crane signals. The cranes tugged slightly – the sound of an enormous fishing reel – and pulled the figure clear. Then they unhooked the bridge crane and gave Hutch the green light.
“Whoa,” said Wheelwright as the crane lifted his creation, like a little boy would say “whoa” when gazing up in awe at a roller coaster or a hot air balloon – that sense of wonder. The Giant came to life and stared down at us all – Hutch a puppeteer manipulating an 8,000-pound marionette. As it swung across the yard, The Giant momentarily blotted out the sun. It came to rest on the steel plate, where Lilliput Ned set to work on Gulliver’s feet.
Soon it was late afternoon and everyone was tired. The manlift they’d rented wasn’t working right, so Isaac ascended The Giant on an aluminum ladder. Up his tree trunk legs. Over a waist so big you couldn’t put your arms around it. He reached out and unhooked the crane’s skyhook and The Giant stood. Back on the ground there were high-fives and cheers. Isaac descended to get a screw gun, then climbed again to clear the blocking for photographs. They were going to run guidewires as an added measure of stability – they even had the eyebolts set – but it was late and they were anxious to be done and they didn’t. Isaac at the top of the ladder now – 40 feet high – feeling something subtle give. There was an electric silence – this pregnant moment where the whole glen seemed to catch its breath.
“Joe,” Isaac called down. “It’s moving.”
Isaac bolted down the ladder and instinctively leapt at around 25 feet. The fall ripped the soles off his logging boots, broke his left arm in two places and three bones in the left side of his face. Looking back, he feels lucky it wasn’t worse. The Giant returned to earth with a sickening thud and died. The left side of his skull cracked irreparably. His left arm shattered.
Looking at where the wood failed, it seemed clear that the piece was never meant to stand in this fashion. But none of us saw this – at least I didn’t. I couldn’t see beyond Joe’s moxie. How do you put bark back on a log? How do you make an 8,000-pound giant fly? But Joe did, and did. If he told me The Giant was going to walk, my first thought would not have been, “Oh, that’s impossible.” It would have been, “Oh, how cool.”
A few weeks after the tragedy I asked Wheelwright to reflect. He was still a little shell-shocked, his answers practical. “Assume nothing,” he said. “Don’t work late in the day. Appreciate the process, not the result.”
Isaac had a more philosophical bent. “Lots of people have big ideas but they don’t take the risk to make them real,” he said. “In my mind, this was all worth it. I have no regrets.”
Just before Isaac fell, when it was high-fives all around, Hutch came out of his crane cab, gave me his business card, asked me to send him this article. “I collect things like this,” he said, “so when I get old and can’t get around anymore, I can look back on all the crazy things I used to do.” And while it’s probably too soon for Wheelwright to appreciate it, the fact is that stories passed around a small town have a way of looming larger than even an 8,000-pound sculpture in the end. I’m smiling as I write this, picturing Hutch telling his grandkids that he was once a puppeteer; Isaac sitting around a table sharing a scar story that’ll beat just about any story out there.
There once was a man who found a giant trapped upside down in a white pine. He ran to town and got help, called in artists and arborists and loggers and steel workers, and together they plucked the giant from the earth and freed him from the tree. The man strengthened his legs. Repaired his wounds. Built him a crown. It took a year-and-a-half, but he stood. For one hour he was king of all the North Woods.