Dead trees in Druid Hill Park are carved into sculptures

He has used a chain saw to carve intricate wooden sculptures for years, but when Mark Acton won a commission to hew two big new statues by the reservoir in Druid Hill Park, he wasn't sure he could pull it off.

His material would be two tree stumps, each more than 12 feet tall and 20 feet around. Both were red oaks, which have especially tough wood. And when he first inspected them, he saw that each had lots of termite damage — the reason the city had cut them down.

"'I thought, 'What in the world have I gotten myself into?' " said Acton, a Severna Park resident who has plied his sawdust-spewing trade since 2006.

Baltimoreans can get an answer Friday night when the city dedicates the towering end results as part of the second annual Solstice Celebration put on by the Friends of Druid Hill Park.

Visitors will encounter The Druid, a 10-foot-tall bust of a bearded man with a mythical air, and The Green Man, a grizzled gent who seems to be emerging from a bed of vines and leaves.

The Druid looks down from a hill north of the reservoir. The Green Man guards the water's western end.

As Acton added final touches with a power sander one recent morning, joggers shouted approval, drivers rolled down their windows to give a thumbs-up and passersby stopped to take pictures.

"I can't say I mind being paid for this work," the artist said, pausing to remove his safety goggles, "but what I really enjoy is seeing the looks on people's faces. In that way, this has been a success so far."

Acton, 51, got the job last year after officials at the Baltimore Recreation and Parks Department decided to repurpose the stumps in a creative way.

"They said, 'Wouldn't it be cool to find someone who could make art out of them, rather than just throw them away?' " said Tom Orth, a member of Friends of Druid Hill Park, a nonprofit that helps the city preserve and promote the 745-acre site.

Baltimore's Office of Promotions & the Arts sent out a call for applications. Acton sent in drawings of woodland faces that "captured the soul of the tree," Orth says, and a panel of judges approved. Orth's group raised a $2,000 artist fee.

A printing-company salesman by day, Acton was already finding his groove as a power-saw Degas.

His sideline began six years ago, when his daughter was about to graduate from high school. She wanted to throw a backyard party with a Polynesian theme.

Acton, an amateur cartoonist, decided to order some tiki sculptures, but they were so expensive he decided to try making one himself. He got a chunk of free wood, bought his first chain saw and fired it up.

"I found that if you have any artistic ability at all, it's easier than it looks," he said. "But the sculptures were a big hit. Daddy was pretty cool that week."

It all grew with surprising speed. Friends bought a few of the sculptures. Others stopped by to request more. Next thing he knew, he was carving tiki men for bar owners, pirate heads for restaurants, cats swatting at birdhouses in private yards and more.

He has made 350 sculptures, each at least 3 feet high. Six gardening centers now sell his work. And over the years, he has learned a few things: how wood type matters (he prefers the relatively soft poplar and white pine); how grain and cracking patterns can force changes in plan; and how saws with narrower tips can be used for sharper detail.

"I look back at those first pieces and can't believe I thought they were as good as I did," he said.

Sawdust flew as he took a circular sander to The Druid, softening rough edges and smoothing cheeks. The wizened face grew sharper. As he worked, Acton recalled how he brought the pieces to life.

He started out, he said, with two drawings. One was of a full-size gnome holding a sign reading "Welcome to Druid Hill Park." The other was of The Green Man, an iconic figure from pagan lore whose face is made of leaves, twigs and vines.

Things changed as he went. Termite damage forced him to hollow out both stumps. That meant using shallower cuts. He scrapped the head-to-toe gnome idea, opting instead for the bust.

Working from a scaffold, he carved freehand, cross-stitching The Druid's hat, etching his nostrils, shaping the foliage in The Green Man's hair.

"I see a face coming into focus as I go, and I cut out what doesn't belong," he said.

The tough red oak ate up six chains, leaving Acton weary. But the wooded setting proved inspiring, and so did the fact he drew crowds.

"I think Mark enjoyed being our park celebrity for a couple of weekends," Orth said.

The artist even signed a few autographs.

A few fans made helpful comments. Acton was still thinking of the hillside man as a generic gnome when someone shouted, "Nice druid!" Research told Acton that a druid is a figure from ancient Celtic lore.

"A druid in Druid Hill Park — I thought that was perfect," he said. He worked in four-hour chunks over several weekend days, finishing after eight to 10 hours' labor each day.

The next step for the sculptures: The city will have them fumigated, then add coats of outdoor ethylene every few months as long as funds are available. If the applications are done annually, the work could last 30 or 40 years, Acton said.

Orth believes the city got a bargain, as Acton generally asks up to $2,500 per piece. But the artist said he, too, got a good deal.

It's his first crack at public art, after all, and it has been spreading cheer. The Druid seems to be telling visitors the park is in safe hands. And the pieces serve as showcases for chain saw art.

"If you have an old stump, it's going to cost you as much to have it taken out as to do something like this," Acton said. "Why not turn it into something beautiful?"

Friday's fete at the park is scheduled between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. near Parkie Pavilion and will include a bonfire, hayrides and music and an opportunity for guests to write down unwanted thoughts from 2012, then burn the notes in holly leaves — a variation on an old solstice ritual meant to dispel the past.

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