The residents of Kenilworth Subdivision probably noticed it first.
Two oak trees in Betty Johnson’s front yard lost their tops about roof height, and slowly, in the days after, a wooden eagle had been carved at the top of one tree, and an pelican at the top of the other.
In the last couple of weeks, more animal figures emerged underneath the bird tops, as if uncovered by wind, coaxed out by the surprisingly gentle manipulation of wood carver Burt Fleming’s chainsaws.
“If you can carve it with a knife, you can carve it with a chainsaw,” said Fleming, who was covered from head to toe with oak dust. Fleming and Johnson sipped from glasses of ice water as they chatted while Fleming took a midmorning break from the heat and the chainsaw wielding.
“It does get hard on your arms after a while,” he said.
Johnson has watched much of the transformation from a lawn chair in front of her Kenilworth Parkway home, but it is still with mixed emotions, even though the trees were leaning precariously over her house.
Before Hurricane Katrina, there were a total of four oak trees in her front yard. Because two were growing toward the sun and away from the canopies of the first two, they grew at an extreme angle.
One of the original oaks came down in Katrina, and the other in Gustav, leaving only the leaning trees. With the front trees gone, the lean became even more noticeable, she said, and she knew she had to do something.
“I would not cut them down,” she said.
So Johnson, who also carves on a small scale — “cypress knees,” she said — did what any good member of the Pelican Wood Carver’s Guild would do.
She drew up a design and hired Fleming, a fellow guild member whose work gravitates toward larger scale sculptures.
The totem that has been emerging from the wood has attracted a large number of passers-by, who do a double-take, loop around and park in her driveway to take a closer look.
“We’ve been talking to people all week,” Johnson said.
In fact, Fleming has stopped to talk to so many people that he has a hard time calculating how many hours he’d worked on the project, but the time is all in the details.
“I can make something as rustic or as detailed as you want,” Fleming said. “I could work on a squirrel all day, or I could do one in 30 minutes.”
Fleming, based in Zachary, earns his living from sculpture carving and works on pieces this large and larger but also works on a smaller sculptures.
He is headed to Michigan to sculpt a commissioned work next. The totems, meant to preserve some part of the beauty of the trees, has become Johnson’s gift to the neighborhood.
The work is on Kenilworth Parkway a few houses away from the subdivision entrance sign closest to Perkins Road, on the same side of the road as the Perkins Road Park.