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When a 200-year-old oak tree died in Whitefish Bay, this family hired a local sculptor to turn it into art

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When a Whitefish Bay family’s 200-year-old oak tree died, they hired a local sculptor who carved the tree’s decaying trunk into a piece of art.

“Because it was so big and it was so central in our backyard, my wife began to be uncomfortable with all the branches, and the fact that they could break off and hurt somebody,” said homeowner Morgan White. 

White and his wife, Ann, searched for sculpture ideas online and in magazines. They settled on a depiction of a castle-like village surrounded by a snaking staircase. 

White called his friend and art gallery owner Frank Sadler, who showcases Jeremy Wolf's art at Sadler Gallery in the Third Ward’s Marshall Building, 207 E. Buffalo St.

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Artist Jeremy Wolf stands with the castle-like village he carved from a 200-year-old oak tree in the backyard of Ann and Morgan White's home in Whitefish Bay. Visit jeremywolf.com to view more of Jeremy's work. (Photo: Scott Ash/Now News Group)

For Wolf, a Hartford-raised and Washington Heights-based artist, it was an opportunity for him to expand his skill set. 

“Animals have been my trademark ever since I started doing art, so this one was out of left field because it’s architectural,” said Wolf. “I’m used to doing stuff that’s much more organic and nuanced.”

Wolf, 42, used a 16-inch bar chainsaw for most of his work on the project, which has taken about 150 hours of work since early June. He started the project by sculpting a small model of it. Wolf said he carefully used the model to make exact measurements on the tree for each cut.

“Once you remove the wood, it’s gone,” he said. “You can’t put it back anymore, so you actually have to be fairly mathematical about your approach.”

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After a 200-year-old oak tree died in the backyard of Ann and Morgan White's home in Whitefish Bay, they hired an artist to carve a sculpture from it. (Photo: Scott Ash/Now News Group)

The project was also the largest he’s worked on. His canvas â€" the tree’s remains â€" stands about 10 feet tall.

After this 200-year-old oak tree died in the backyard of Ann and Morgan White's home in Whitefish Bay, they decided to hire an artist to carve a sculpture from the trunk. (Photo: Submitted)

The tree fell victim to bur oak blight; a disease caused by a fungal pathogen that slowly kills its host. 

The nearly 90-foot-tall tree started fading last fall. The tree's leaves fell off when it began to bloom this year. 

“With the pandemic and all this other stuff going on, it just seemed like the right time to clear the decks,” said White. “With so many people not working, we were of the opinion that it would be nice to give somebody some work and end up with a beautiful piece of art in our yard rather than just a stump or a hole in the ground.”

Over the Fourth of July weekend, White said, friends and neighbors stopped by and expressed interest in putting art in their own yards.

“Everyone’s like ‘I can’t wait until one of my trees dies,’” he said. “People are just dumbfounded by it.” 

Although White has fond memories of the tree over his 20 years living there, he won't miss picking up acorns and leaves every year, he said.

“It covered most of the yard like a huge umbrella. It was kind of a love-hate thing,” he said.

White said the project has been the focal point of the family’s day since Wolf started carving.

Eddie Morales can be reached at 414-223-5366 or eddie.morales@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @emoralesnews.

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