Jennifer L. Grubbs: Plentiful tree sculptures
September 2, 2008
One of the oddest things for me in moving to Craig was seeing all of the tree sculptures across town.
But the sculptures themselves weren’t odd; it was that they were in Craig and so plentiful that was strange.
You see, Sterling, my former home, had long been known as the “City of the Living Tree Sculptures.”
Local artist Bradford Rhea began carving up the trees around town many, many years ago, and there were sculptures all over: at Burger King, at the junior college, at the high school, at the public library, at local hotels, in the parks – all over.
The most famous of these was called “Skygrazers.” It was a tall, many-branched tree that Rhea turned into a stand of carved giraffes, reaching into the sky. After many years of standing in one of the local parks, it had started to deteriorate. Through donations and a newly formed “Save the Trees” committee, the sculpture was removed from its original, still-attached-to-the-ground stump and cast in bronze. That bronze sculpture was then placed back in the park so that future generations could enjoy the “Skygrazers.”
The second-most famous of Rhea’s sculptures is a cane that he carved for the late Pope John Paul II when the pope visited Denver in 1993. JPII came to Colorado for World Youth Day, a large gathering of Catholic youth, that year, and I was able to go see JPII say the huge mass at Cherry Creek State Park and see him use the cane that Rhea made for him.
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However, these are memories from my childhood, from 15 and 20 years ago.
Since then, the tree sculptures have fallen out of vogue, with the “Save the Trees” committee dying out, fewer townsfolk considering them a major draw to Sterling, and the Tourist Information Center no longer distributing tree-sculpture-tour pamphlets to visitors.
Many of the tree sculptures are now in storage, where they are waiting for funds to allow people to preserve them, or for more permanent display options.
And artist Rhea has moved toward other media, creating several of his recent sculptures out of marble.
The city had lost its pride in the art and expression found in the tree sculptures.
That’s why when I first came to Craig, I was amazed by the quantity and variety of the sculptures. It was thrilling to find a city that had the passion that had seemed lost.
I can’t say for certain that Sterling’s tree sculptures had anything to do with Craig’s annual celebration of wood and chainsaws, but it certainly made me feel more at home here once I moved.
One of the things I’ve been doing since I moved is just taking time to drive around and get to know where things are and familiarize myself with my surroundings. It’s been so much fun to discover the different sculptures across town.
While I missed this year’s “Whittle the Wood” competition, I know that’s an event that I will look forward to all year.