A dead tree is being given life again through the chisel and paintbrush of artist David Carlson.

Carlson is a Madison-based wood carver who began an art project at the Linda and Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability, 2299 Spring Rose Road, in 2018.

He hopes to transform the dead tree in front of the center and make it come back to life with carvings reflecting the center’s philosophy, Carlson told the Press May 26.

The environmental art project is entitled ‘Rooted in the Land’ and will incorporate bees, native flowers and plants, birds and other animals. They will fit the center’s themes of sustainability, environmentalism, beekeeping and farming, he said.

The project was delayed by the pandemic for a year, but Carlson got back to work on it this spring.

In 2018, Carlson met with Farley Center staff including center director Shedd Farley and the center’s art director Bobbette Rose to plan the project, getting to work in 2019.

After stripping the bark off the ten-foot trunk of a dead oak tree just feet from the center’s meeting rooms and office doorstep, he moved onto carving three belladonna vines into the wood.

Those vine carvings divided the trunk up into what Carlson calls “panels” of various sizes that different artists can adorn in their own style. Artists are invited to contact him to join the project.

While an experienced carver, this project is a little different for Carlson.

“It’s not a piece of wood you buy, it’s a tree in the ground,” he said. “It’s not perfect, it’s softer in some spots, harder in others. But that’s the nature of something like this.”

To be more sustainable, he prefers using hand tools over electric ones. Besides chisels, he has a V-shaped metal tool, which he uses to carve out objects like the vines – forming a layered, three-dimensional relief.

And he has scoop-like tools for gouging, which are numbered indicating the shape or size of the gouge they will make, ranging from a flat gouge to one in a half-circle shape.

Many woodworking materials can be toxic such as inks, stains and dyes, so Carlson has experimented with creating more environmentally-friendly versions, he said.

For a pair of woodpeckers that he carved separately from basswood, but then mounted to the top of the oak trunk, he boiled beets in salt and linseed oil to make a natural paint. The idea came from a Martha Stewart magazine, he said.

Unfortunately, the initially bright red hue has already faded after one year – so now he needs to formulate a new idea for a plant-based stain that will be more durable and weather resistant.

He will also come up with a natural finish to put on the trunk to preserve it, he said. Cloves were used as a preservative in his failed beet ink, for instance.

The pastor at Bethany Evangelical Free Church in Madison since 1994, Carlson said his faith is an important part of his work.

“I believe in the creator,” he said. “This interest gets me out into nature, outside into works of creation. It’s a nice place to be.”

The centerpiece of Carlson’s personal creation will be a bur oak tree, which he is in the process of carving-out now. It’s modeled after a living bur oak that is a common gathering place for programming at the Farley Center, he said.

To create the outline, he must remove a lot of material with his tools, but he has to be careful, he said.

“When dealing with wood materials, you either declare it done, or you wind up with a toothpick,” he said.

Carlson is a member of the Capital Area Carvers of Wisconsin. The president of the group, Kristi Minihan, is among the artists who have spots picked and flagged to create their own panel on the trunk.

Minihan’s idea is a kite flying, which will represent the releasing of one’s spirit, she told the Press May 26.

Some artists connected with Carlson’s church are also among those incorporating their own ideas into the work-in-progress collaborative effort. He said the artists have freedom in developing their ideas, as long as they incorporate the ‘Rooted in the Land’ theme.

“I find this a good fit for my interests in nature and how nature can speak to us,” Carlson said. “I want to encourage people to explore the natural world with any form of art they wish to try – without fear of needing to be competent. The point is to observe.”

Neal Patten can be contacted at neal.patten@wcinet.com.