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Artist carves two sculptures from a beloved oak to honour Carleton University

A neighbourhood landmark gets a seond life on campus.

David Fels sits under his sculpture “Sailing Through Time” carved from a centuries-old oak. Photo by Tony Fouhse.
David Fels sits under his sculpture
“Sailing Through Time” carved from
a centuries-old oak. Photo by Tony Fouhse.

Passersby on Carleton University’s campus this past summer were treated to the site of a chainsaw-wielding sculptor fashioning his latest work of art from a centuries-old oak tree. It was the second sculpture made by Ottawa’s David Fels for the university from the much-loved tree, known locally as the Brighton Beach Oak.

Mr. Fels used to live in the neighbourhood near campus where the tree was located. “You could see it had reached its maturity and was on the decline,” he says. “I used to take my children there. We used to play in that park, under the tree, and I’d go, ‘You know what? Someday maybe I’ll carve that tree.’”

In August 2011, the City of Ottawa decided the tree couldn’t be saved and needed to come down, much to the consternation of locals. Then, a bit of serendipity happened. An acquaintance of Mr. Fels, Larry McCloskey of Carleton University, approached him with a proposal: Could he carve a sculpture from the tree?

“The community was really disheartened to hear the tree had died,” says Mr. Fels. “So when [the city] had to cut it down, the community was kind enough to say, if something could be done with the tree, great.” “It was giving a new life to the tree,” says Dr. McCloskey, who is the director of the Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities at Carleton.

The first sculpture, “Sailing Through Time,” was completed in October 2011 and now stands in the lobby of the university’s River Building. Its theme was accessibility, to honour the university’s then recently launched READ (Research, Education, Accessibility and Design) initiative, as well as to pay tribute to the 25th anniversary of Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion World Tour.

“Inclusivity is something that’s really dear to my heart,” says Mr. Fels. “If we’re inclusive, than accessibility is the natural outcome of being inclusive.”

But that first sculpture used only the bottom portion of the huge oak. The upper portion was put in storage – until this past August. Again in collaboration with Dr. McCloskey, Mr. Fels began a second sculpture in a sheltered spot outside on campus. Mr. Fels carves with a chainsaw and then uses hand tools for the finishing touches. He says “a bit of a crowd” would gather from time to time to observe his work.

The theme for the sculpture again is accessibility. “Because of the university embracing this accessibility issue, we’re doing a world summit on accessibility in July 2014,” explains Dr. McCloskey, “so David and I talked about doing a second sculpture to commemorate this conference. The logo for the conference is based on the sketch of the sculpture.”

Mr. Fels finished the sculpture in September. Plans are to have it moved shortly to the Ottawa Congress Centre, where the 2014 summit will take place. No decision has yet been made as to where the sculpture will permanently reside after the conference.

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