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Wizard tree conjures up debate over art in Oakland Mills

Faced with a rotting pine tree that needed to be removed from their front yard, Oakland Mills residents Debbie and Roger Matherly decided to commission sculptor Evelyn Mogren to transform the stump into a statue.
Faced with a rotting pine tree that needed to be removed from their front yard, Oakland Mills residents Debbie and Roger Matherly decided to commission sculptor Evelyn Mogren to transform the stump into a statue. (Staff photo by Amanda Yeager)

The wizard of Macomber Lane stands about 8 feet tall.

He towers over a bed of asters, echinacea and other flowers planted to attract butterflies in Debbie and Roger Matherly's front yard in Oakland Mills, clutching a staff nearly as big as himself with an owl perched on his shoulder and a fox standing watch at his foot.

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He used to be a pine tree, but once his rotting branches started to threaten the Matherlys' roof, they knew it was time for a change. Instead of cutting down the pine and carting it off, they chose to take a more creative route.

"What if we have a statue there instead of a stump?" Roger Matherly said.

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So the couple commissioned local carver Evelyn Mogren, who lives just two miles away on Thunder Hill Road, and about a month later, their stump was transformed into a wizard.

He's already cast his spell on the neighbors.

"I think it's awesome," said Kishonna McKenzie, who lives next door.

"It looks like that guy from the Lord of the Rings," her husband, Lamont McKenzie, added.

But the wizard almost couldn't work his magic on Columbia's covenants.

When the Matherlys brought their application to a village committee in charge of approving front-yard structures and other additions to a property, members decided not to give the wizard their blessing – at least not if he stayed in front of the house.

While members of the Residential Architecture Committee suggested that the Matherlys come back with a proposal to move the wizard to their backyard, the couple decided to take their case to the Oakland Mills Village Board, which also sits as the Architectural Review Committee.

The request ended up igniting a debate on neighborhood covenants, fair decision-making and the inherent subjectivity that comes with making judgments about art.

"With works of art, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and what some people find beautiful other people find ugly," explained Bill McCormack, co-chair of the village board.

The neighborhood's guidelines and covenants, he said, "are the yardsticks that we use to analyze and measure proposed changes. ... I didn't want to make a decision not based on some kind of guideline."

McCormack and Jonathan Edelson, another village board member who ultimately decided to vote against the Matherlys' request, said they thought the wizard made a nice addition to the community.

"If I were voting with my heart, I would keep it," Edelson said. "But my head really said, what is the precedent?" He's concerned that letting the wizard stay could open the door to potential unfairness in future committee decisions.

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"I'm not sure we are equipped to determine what art is and what art isn't; what art is tasteful and what art is not," he said. "It could lead us down a slippery slope."

Village board member Tawania Williams struggled with the same conflicting feelings throughout the debate. Until the very end, she was on the fence.

"I wanted to be very respectful of our guidelines, but I also understood where the homeowners and residents were coming from," Williams said.

Ultimately, what swayed her was the thought that "in Oakland Mills, we need something."

"With all of the vacancies of properties out there, we need something to attract people to want to buy in our area," she said. "If the neighbors weren't complaining about it, my thought was, 'Why make these really nice homeowners move it to the back?'"

The Matherlys say they understand the difficulty of making decisions about art. So, in their appeal, they proposed to take the judgment call out of the architecture committee's hands: if seven out of nine of the neighbors closest to a proposed piece of front-yard art approve, homeowners should get the green light to move forward.

Village Board member Kay Wisniewski, who voted to approve the wizard, said she was "impressed" by the suggested guidelines.

"We wouldn't have to make the aesthetic decision; it would be up to the neighbors," she said.

"The recession has really taken a toll on the older villages," Wisniewski added. In her view, Oakland Mills has bigger problems than rogue art.

On the Matherlys' block, a cul-de-sac shaded by mature trees, two houses sit vacant. One, at the corner, has a garage door that's rotting from the bottom up and gutters that are barely hanging on.

"This is a violation of covenants like crazy," Wisniewski said of the state of the vacant house, "but we apparently are helpless to do anything about that. And you continue down the street and you see this lovely statue that this community feels is important to us. This is our spirit, and if there's one thing we need in Oakland Mills, it's more spirit. I'm more concerned about that than an outbreak of front-yard art. So, I gritted my teeth and I said 'yeah, I'm voting for it.'"

McCormack hopes the committee can create a set of guidelines to help guide future decisions on neighborhood art. Wisniewski also said she hoped that conversation would happen soon.

"Back in the 1970s, things were all new. Upkeep wasn't a problem; they were really more worried about pink flamingos," she said.

Now, there might be some room to expand the rules.

"You don't want to undermine the covenants, they're important, but I do think we need to have a town meeting where we discuss how does the community feel about these guidelines, and let's rethink this," McCormack said. "We're trying to reinvent Oakland Mills, and that may mean changing the guidelines or expanding them to include things that were not envisioned."

Debbie Matherly hopes the wizard might inspire others to add a little whimsy to their yards.

"If we can make [Oakland Mills] more inviting, then we can make it into a kind of destination place," she said. "I don't know if that can happen here, but you've got to start somewhere."

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