Real Estate

Carving life from a dead tree

Palo Alto couple's hazardous acacia turns into beautiful yard art

Last fall, Palo Alto resident Michele Gibson was biking down Arastradero Road when she passed by S.P. McClenahan tree service's offices. She stopped and went in to inquire about a black acacia tree in her backyard, just outside of her kitchen window, that needed to be cut down before stormy weather approached.

Gibson and her husband knew the tree needed to be cut down for safety reasons — it could fall on the house or nearby wires — and they wanted to see what their options were.

When an arborist suggested saving part of the tree and keeping it in their yard, Gibson contacted local woodcarver Tualau Tauheluhelu, who was excited to carve something beautiful out of the Gibson's tree trunk.

"It was happenstance or fate, and it just seemed like the right thing to do," Gibson said.

The Gibsons spent time talking to Tauheluhelu, who has been carving for 44 years. Tauheluhelu told the Voice's sister paper, the Palo Alto Weekly, he was inspired by the fact that the couple are both scuba divers and enjoy the ocean. He let the sea inspire him for this piece, carving turtles, whales, dolphins, and birds into the trunk.

In a 2012 Weekly feature, Tauheluhelu (pronounced Tow-hay-loo-hay-loo) modestly did not call himself a master, but his accomplishments are many. He has done custom carving throughout the world, including stints in Rome and Florida. He carved 27 sculptures for Trader Vic's restaurants, and his carvings are at Disney World in Florida. He said he will carve anything and will go anywhere to carve. Among his repertoire are bears, land tortoises and birds. "I do big fish— big marlins. I've carved a lot of dolphins and pelicans."

For the Gibson's black acacia project, he began by looking at the grain of the wood — the colors and the way the tree is shaped. Tauheluhelu said black acacia wood is his favorite because it is similar to the rosewood that is found in Hawaii. The grain of the wood is the most important part and is particularly beautiful in black acacia.

"The longer you keep something from an acacia, the better it looks. A piece like this is out of this world, with the grains and everything. When it's done it looks a lot better than any wood that I know," he said.

From a distance, Tauheluhelu's tools could be heard as he chipped away at each piece of wood to make the scales, fins and feathers of each animal in the carving.

He uses large and small tools to make the sculptures he envisions in the wood. To start the Gibson's carving, he took larger pieces of wood away with a chainsaw, and then carved the animals out with a set of chisels. He finished the piece by using a power grinder and sander.

When Tauheluhelu first saw the trunk, he could see that it was mostly rotten inside. So, with the inside of the sculpture hollowed out and the rotting part removed, he used the outer part as a platform to work with. The carvings dance around the outside of the trunk, adding difficulty that only a seasoned woodcarver would be able to handle.

Tauheluhelu, who finished the piece in June, worked on it two days a week for eight months, only interrupted by rainy weather.

Originally from Tonga, where he learned to carve, Tauheluhelu moved to Hawaii and carved there for 17 years before moving to the Bay Area two decades ago and carves often as he can, about five hours a day, six days a week.

He said that art such as this can cost upwards of $50,000 to $60,000. "I want to do the best I can and make it neat; the money isn't what I'm after," Tauheluhelu said.

"This is really unusual for us; my car is less expensive than this," Gibson said.

Sarah Mason is a former intern at the Palo Alto Weekly.

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