SEBRING – Monday morning, it wasn’t much more than a 18-foot stump with bumps and grooves seemingly cut haphazard into aged cedar wood.
But sometime after 5 p.m. Thursday, that stump will become a standing Choctaw Indian chief keeping guard over the home of Gary and Doris Lucas and the neighborhood surrounding them.
As wood chips scattered from the whir of a screeching chainsaw, woodcarver and woodcutting artist Frankie Flowers spent about eight hours Monday using gas-powered, 10- to 42-inch chainsaws as his woodcarving knives to make dead wood figuratively transform back to life.
From a scaffold surrounding a dead cedar tree trunk at 2613 N. County Road 17, which Flowers estimated to be around 130 years old, the artist meticulously chipped and sawed away at sections of wood, carefully monitoring his angles, eyeing lines. Little by little, random tree knobs, growths, barks and bumps became focused form, leaving the crude outline of what would eventually become the chief’s face and arms.
After climbing down and taking a break, Flowers, 31, a native of Avon Park, wiped some sweat and looked up at his recent cuts. He said over the past five years since he began sculpting wood and trees, he’s done about 15 large-scale projects with more scheduled.
In addition, Flowers said he has finished more than 30 sculptures with his grandfather, Dan “Mountain Dan” Smathers, who spent a career as a “tree faller” -- tree cutter -- and wood sculptor in Washington state and his hometown of Hendersonville, N.C.
Flowers said several years before his grandfather died at 71 in 2011, he spent time in North Carolina, learning the art step by step.
He said he is the sixth generation of tree fallers in his family, and the art of wood sculpting came pretty naturally to him.
He said he has a good creative eye and pictures his work in his mind before beginning. Sometimes, he’ll have a picture or photograph to use.
“I research the subject and look at pictures. I look at them until I get it stuck in my head. I back up and get out of the way to visualize what’s in the wood. Then, I take away what isn’t part of the wood,” he said, as he wiped his hands along leather chaps covering torn blue jeans. “A lot of it just comes from the visions in my head.”
At the Lucas home, Flowers said the sculpture is based on the story of country singer Hank Williams’ song, “Kaw-Liga,” about a wooden Indian who falls in love with a wooden Indian maid in an antique store. The plan, he said, is to eventually add the remaining characters in the song to the sculpture.
Over the past half-decade, Flowers has sculpted projects ranging from the Lucas’ Indian, to other large figures such as a panther and eagle on the 18th hole of the Highlands Ridge Golf Club South Course in Avon Park. Friday, he said he’ll begin work on a tropical-themed work at Lake Blue in Lake Placid.
About five of Flowers’ small pieces are on display in Tony Tapias’ Lucid Heart Gallery, 131 N. Ridgewood Drive.
Tapias, who owned galleries for 20 years in Los Angeles and is also a painter, sculptor and jewelry maker, said Flowers’ works are regularly discussed by patrons and has inspired him to give woodcarving a shot.
Flowers has also shown his work in juried art shows in Pontiac, Ill. and Asheville, N.C.
“He’s very skilled and has done some really great work. People ask about him and how to reach him,” Tapias said.
To get their Native American chief permanently guarding their homestead, the Lucases are having Flowers sculpt the project in phases. For the first “Indian” part, Flowers is charging $2,200 and by the time the subsequent sculpting of the Indian maiden and other factions of the storyline are finished, the entire project is expected to be about $6,000. Flowers said his smaller works, such as foot-high bears and parrots, cost $75 to $100 each.
The monetary investment is worth it to liven up the yard and add some novelty appeal to the neighborhood, said Doris Lucas.
She and her husband moved into the 93-year-old home in April and noticed the dead tree needed to be removed. Flowers was in the area and told them about his art and his idea for the tree, and Doris said her husband said, “Really?’
“I thought it would be so neat. It will eventually tell the whole (Kaw-Liga) story. People have been stopping left and right to look at it. It will be fun. We’re getting a lot of compliments and that and what we’ve done with the home,” she said.
The Lucases’ house used to belong to the a relative of next-door-neighbor Greg Griffin. He said he had no problem with the soon-to-be new wooden neighbor. He said it would make the area “interesting” and cars are already slowing down so drivers and passengers can watch the figure being created.
“It will definitely liven up the neighborhood. I think it will really be neat,” he said.
On the scaffolding, Flowers continued eyeing the trunk and maneuvering the Stihl chainsaw. He said he goes through about three modified chainsaws per year and each one costs between $350 and $550, depending on the size. As he dug the blade into the side of the trunk, a chunk of wood dropped rapidly to the ground and he climbed down the scaffold to put it in a pile and for a break -- he said he spends up to eight hours a day on the platform when working.
Within 10 minutes, two to three cars had slowed down to honk and wave as the artist worked.
“I love this so much and want to make it a full-time job. That’s what I really like about being out here. The public stops and supports me and my art. It shows it’s making someone happy,” he said. “And because of that, I’m going to do this the rest of my life.”
According to Joe Romanik, code enforcement officer with the City of Sebring, there are no ordinances against tree sculptures on private property.