Post office oak will become art project

The humongous Garry oak tree at the Oak Harbor Post Office will probably be losing its limbs in the next few weeks, but much of the trunk will stay in place. Hopefully for a long time.

The Oak Harbor City Council decided Tuesday to spend $20,000 on an artwork proposal for the tree, which is on top of $12,800 already budgeted for tree removal and construction of a pocket park at the site. The council members decided to cut down the famous tree because it’s dying from a decay and may pose a safety concern.

The council members went along with the two-part recommendation from the public art advisory committee members, who chose Clinton wood artist Steve Backus to carve the trunk.

In a phone interview, Backus said his design idea is to show the “cycle of life” on Whidbey with eagles at the top; mural-type images of local scenes or an historic event around the middle; and sea life at the base.

Backus, who comes from a family of wood carvers, said he uses a technique of “burning and sanding” to get a deep-relief, shadowing effect. Since he’ll be working on the trunk in place, residents will get the chance to watch him work this winter or spring.

“It’s a combination of public art and performance art,” he said. His most well-known projects on the island include the “Welcome to Whidbey Island” sign near the Clinton ferry dock and a tree stump carved into a sea captain on pilings in Mariner’s Cove.

The oak project may even end up on TV. Backus said there’s a good chance that a PBS associate of his will film the project for a documentary.

The second part of the committee’s recommendation is for the large branches of the oak be cut into panels, milled, dried and donated to the Harbor Pride group. The city-booster group plans to work with wood carver B.J Daniells to create a series of six to eight story-board murals with relief carvings of historic images and events. The panels would be displayed around the city.

But first, Harbor Pride has to raise the estimated $31,500 for the project.

Tuesday, committee member Howard Thomas urged the council members to authorize the expenditure, calling the proposal an opportunity to “preserve in art the beauty and importance of the oak tree to our community.” He added that the carving will create a new landmark at the tree site.

The council’s decision to invest the money into the art projects didn’t go without any hitches. Councilman Paul Brewer balked at the cost of the project and argued that the city should attempt to find other funding, such as donations or lodging taxes. He noted that the money for the project will come from the city’s reserve fund.

“I don’t want to say ‘yes’ and take our reserve monies, especially with the new Tim Eyman proposal...” he said. “I would like to get the community to buy in. ... I’m very concerned about the way we keep taking from the reserve fund.”

Yet Councilman Richard Davis argued against delaying the project any further, pointing out that the process of developing the tree proposal “has been in the works for a year or so.” He said a delay would probably kill the project altogether.

Councilwoman Sue Karahalios said that the city is always open to receiving donations for such projects, so anyone can come forward and defray the costs.

In the end, the council unanimously voted to move forward with the recommendation, but continue to look for sponsorship ideas.

The next step is for the city to cut down the 150-year-old tree, leaving the trunk in place. City Park Director Hank Nydam said Backus will work with crews to make sure the tree is chopped in a way that preserves the most wood for the panels. He said the axing will probably take place at the end of this month or in the beginning of February.

Backus said he’s ready to get to work. While the hardness of oak makes it a “miserable wood” for carvers to work with, he predicts that it will make a very impressive carving that will draw people.

“It’s a pretty sturdy wood,” he said. “With the proper finish and maintenance program, it could last a long, long time. Hundreds of years.”

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

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