When the Flowers family owned the land where Portofino now sits, two towering oak trees flanked a building known as “the card house.”
“Where there were friendly games of cards, involving money,” Portofino developer Norwood Thompsaon explained. “It would interesting if those trees could talk. A lot went on between those trees.”
Thompson estimates the two oak trees are at least 150 years old, a good run for anything, even an oak tree. But for one, 2016 was the end of the line. The spot where the card house once entertained a myriad of Johnston County characters is now the site of the Portofino clubhouse, just a few steps along a stone walkway to the development’s pool. The tree between the two died earlier this year, but Thompson wasn’t ready to let go of one of the lingering connections to the property’s past.
That’s where Princeton artist Corey Lancaster comes in. Lancaster tells stories with chainsaws, teasing woodland creatures out of ordinary blocks of wood, using gasoline-powered cuts like a painter’s brushstrokes. He’s responsible for a number of wood carvings around the county, including Clayton’s “Fiddle Frog” and a storybook-themed chair sitting in front of the town’s library. Portofino commissioned Lancaster to turn its dead oak into a piece of art.
“Rather than just cutting the trees down, we want to preserve them,” Thompson said. “It’s better as tree art than making firewood out of it.”
The dead tree was cut down to about a 20 foot stump, and Lancaster went to work last week. Starting from the top down, he carved a whimsical tree filled with wildlife – a squirrel on one branch, a woodpecker burrowing into the trunk, a raccoon peeking out of a hole and a six-foot-tall black bear keeping watch down below. Lancaster said he’s completed works nearly as tall but never as detailed or that took three levels of scaffolding.
“This is a monster tree,” Lancaster said. “We essentially talked about including as much of the local wildlife as possible in the piece. This will hopefully become a landmark piece out here for residents.”
Lancaster said the hardest part of carving a 20-foot-tall sculpture out of a tree was making sure it still looked like a tree at the end.
“You’re starting with a three-foot-wide trunk and have to make room for a six-foot-tall bear and still have it look like a tree,” he said.
Thompson seemed pleased with his investment, saying a bench will eventually go at the bottom of the sculpture and that two flat, empty sections will one day memorialize notable residents on one plaque and possibly pets and horses on another.
“It’ll hopefully be preserved for a long time,” Thompson said. “It’s somewhat unique, looks great and I think people will appreciate it.”
All of the animals depicted on the tree are indigenous to the Portofino grounds, but some are more lifelike than others. Thompson pointed out the likeness of a famous neighborhood bear that sits on one of the branches.
“One of the unwritten games of the kids in the neighborhood is this bear that would be hidden,” Thompson said. “If you found the bear, you had to dress him up and hide him again.”