New proposal for oak tree

The toppling of the landmark Garry oak tree at the Oak Harbor post office and the conversion of its wood into artwork may end up on PBS TV someday.

The city’s Public Art Advisory Committee will recommend to the Oak Harbor City Council Tuesday night a $20,000 artwork proposal that includes hiring a professional artist to carve the trunk of the tree, in place, with the possibility that the process will be part of a documentary.

The meeting may be the last time the the public will get the chance to weigh in on the future of the oak tree. A year ago the council members made the decision to remove the tree, after consulting with an arborist, because of safety reasons. The 80-foot, 150-year-old tree is suffering from a decay that’s killing it from the roots up.

Instead of turning the tree into fire wood, city officials decided to commemorate the oak and use the opportunity to create something unique for the community.

“The challenge is to take a tree that clearly has public value,” City Administrator Thom Myers said, “and convert it into something with public art value.”

Last year the council allocated $12,800 to remove the tree and construct a pocket park, with a new oak tree, in its place. Officials set up a $5,800 Heritage Tree Program to map and evaluate many other local oak trees which, after all, are the city’s namesakes.

In addition, an ad hoc public art committee was set up to evaluate proposals the city received from artists. Robert Voigt, senior planner, said the committee worked with a long list of criteria — such as experience of artist, design aesthetics, scale, maintenance — to narrow the proposals.

The final recommendation is a combination of two proposals. The members chose South-Whidbey wood sculptor Steve Backus’ $17,000 proposal to create a “Century Tree.” His idea is to carve the tree trunk on site with images of flora and fauna at the base; a detailed ribbon around the middle showing historic events, important dates, or maybe a community phrase; and carved eagles at the top.

“The committee felt it was important to provide something of a monumental scale and create a memorial to the tree itself,” Voigt said.

As an added benefit, Voigt said there’s “a strong possibility” that the project could be captured in a small documentary for public television. Backus has an filmmaker associate who’s interested in filming his work.

The second part of the committee’s recommendation is to provide the local community-improvement group Harbor Pride with panels cut from the branches of the tree. For $3,000, the wood could be milled and dried for the group.

Harbor Pride plans to work with artist B.J. Daniells to create “Then and Now,” a series of six to eight storyboard mural panels with relief carvings of historical images.

“The committee felt that working with Harbor Pride was a way to give a valuable community group sort of a leg up in achieving their goals,” Voigt said.

There’s no date yet for the felling of the oak tree. It has to be done before the growing season starts again — and sap begins running — but Voigt said it depends on whether the council members go along with the recommendation. The chosen artist will be involved in the cutting process to make sure the lumber is used wisely.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at or call 675-6611.

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