He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.
– Saint Francis of Assisi
I’m sure you’re wondering what exactly the 13th-century Italian Catholic monk Saint Francis of Assisi, Bienville Square and a bunch of oak trees all have in common.
It’s simple. Assisi might as well have been describing the creative individuals who have fashioned stunning works of art, furniture, musical instruments and more from some of Mobile’s most hallowed trees. After Hurricane Sally wreaked havoc upon the beloved Bienville Square oaks in September of 2020, city officials deemed several of them to be a risk to public safety. Teams of arborists and other cultivation management experts from seven different states arrived in our beloved port city to assess the tragic situation. In all, 12 trees were either uprooted during the storm or damaged beyond saving; it didn’t take long before people began wondering what would be done with the wood.
“After Sally hit, there was a lot of outreach from creative people in the area,” says Lucy Gafford, executive director at the Mobile Arts Council. “The Arts Council became the organizing force for getting the pieces of wood into the hands of artists. We had a simple application process. You just had to fill out your info, descriptions of your artwork and whether you’d be willing to have your work in our exhibition. It was open to anyone, and a lot of people accepted the offer. The Urban Forestry Division of the City of Mobile relocated all the salvageable tree trunks and put them in a warehouse to cure for a few months before we were able to start disseminating them. We had about 40 artists who made off with a chunk of Mobile history.”
Arts Council Development Director Angela Montgomery says she was surprised by the outpour of interest from these local artists — a development that she found incredibly encouraging.
“Mobile is a thriving arts community,” Montgomery says. “The fact that so many reached out to us was heartwarming. At first, there had been this outrage over the trees being cut down, and it all seemed like a waste, but now it’s really grown into this idea of supporting the project as art patrons.” The pieces were displayed in March at a special Mobile Arts Council exhibition.
MB recently sat down to shoot the breeze with four representative artists who told us how they came to acquire the wood, what they made and continue to make with it and how they’ll give back to the communities they’ve come to love so deeply. We think you’ll find their stories just as fascinating and inspiring as we did.
For Chris Fayland, the possibility of scoring a piece of Bienville oak meant much more than just a chance to have some spare wood lying in the corner of his workshop. The Fairhope-based custom guitar builder says the wood represents a deep-rooted family connection and a truckload of fond memories.
“I think everyone from this area has a memory of Bienville Square,” he says. “I have lots of childhood memories that happened there, so the trees have sentimental value. As a kid, I went to Craft Day. My grandma took me.”
“And the second time his grandma and grandpa ever saw each other was at Bienville Square!” chimes in Chris’ wife Amy. “The first time was at a drive-in restaurant in Mobile. But the second time was at Mardi Gras at Bienville Square. She told us, ‘There he was. And that’s when I just knew. And we went on our date and from there, the rest is history.’”
“We had no idea about that story until she told us,” Chris says. “So if you think about it, I wouldn’t even be here without Bienville Square. When we first went to pick out our piece of wood, it was in the shape of a heart. Something pulled us toward that piece; we didn’t even know that story with my grandma at the time. I initially thought I would build an end table, but one thing led to another, and it ended up being a guitar.”
When the story of the Bienville oaks first hit local news, Mobile City Councilman Ben Reynolds just knew he had to lasso at least a fragment of the wood.
“I think I actually got one of the biggest logs,” Reynolds says. “It was about 3 feet in diameter; maybe 5 or 6 feet long. I took it out to a sawmill and had it cut into slabs along the grain as a furniture maker would. The most trying thing about the whole process was that it was full of nails and other metal,” from decades of advertisements nailed to the tree. “I think they actually broke a bunch of blades. But it does give the wood some character.”
Speaking of character, the local businessman, husband and father says the things that he’s creating will not only be practical but will go right back into the community.
“These oaks belong to the people of this city, and I want to make something that will continue to belong to them but that will also be utilized by the community beyond art. Drew Ramsey is the owner of Azalea Home and Custom Furniture here in town, and we want to do a project together. We’re turning out some really nice pens at the moment. He will sell those pens, but there won’t be a whole lot of profit in it. The bigger project is to make a pair of sitting chairs. They’ll likely have leather or some sort of covering on them, and they’ll be nice and sturdy. It would be cool to have them in City Hall as a good way to ensure that the Bienville oak remains in the city. That’s just one idea. We’re certainly open to other ideas and other places where they would be accessible.”
The destruction of the Bienville oaks wasn’t just a tragedy for Fairhope resident Brandon Fischer. It was an opportunity.
“I’m a big fan of preserving historical trees, even though — as a woodworker — I do like to have the wood to use. It was utterly heartbreaking to hear that the trees had been damaged. The city as a whole really lost something that can’t be easily replaced. Sure, you can plant new ones, but they won’t be the same ones even 200 or 300 years later.”
Fischer made some unique items for the Mobile Art Council’s exhibition event.
“The wood had a lot of cracks in it from being stored and dried, so I kind of had to work around that,” he says. “I immediately made two bowls — I filled some of the cracks in one bowl with epoxy, and then I left the other bowl natural. I’ve been working on a wooden mallet as well. I’m going to make a couple of those.”
But it’s the local, cultural and historic significance that genuinely excites this woodworking enthusiast.
“I think it’s really cool to have that sort of deep connection to a place and time, and I plan on donating all of my artwork to the Arts Council to have or to sell for whatever grants and projects they have going on.”
As a lifelong Mobilian who loves the people of his city, 67-year-old Fred Rettig wanted his work to leave behind memories and impressions that would last forever.
“Although I wasn’t initially paying close attention to the Bienville story when it happened, I did hear that the trees were going to be trimmed, and I thought it would be nice to get a piece of the wood and do something with it. I wasn’t actually even aware of just how much damage had happened there.”
“Once I found out that they were going to give the wood away and that the city was going to help, I reached out to Lucy Gafford and asked her to get us on the list.”
Rettig was overwhelmed by the historic significance of the trees.
“If only these trees could talk and tell stories about all they’ve seen and heard in their lifespan: World War I and II, the Great Depression, a speech by Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900s. These trees might not be able to speak for themselves, but woodworkers can give them a voice.”
And that’s exactly what Rettig plans to do.
“You know, every woodworker has their own thing that they love to do with wood. And now we’re able to take a part in Mobile’s history and bring it into visual imagery. We can literally take some history of the city and make something visual and community-oriented out of it. We can take a part of Mobile’s seemingly tragic history and make it beautiful. We’re using our hands to create something wonderful, using something that grew in Mobile to create new memories. I’ve made wooden bowls and have done some arts shows. I call mine “Broken Bowls” because most of the pieces I displayed have cracks, just like people do. I’m also making a vase, as well as a vessel that will mimic the Bienville Square fountain.”
Bienville Square may be a different place since 2020. But if you walk the grounds there, stop and listen closely. You can almost hear the trees thanking the artists for preserving their legendary history as they all breathe a collective sigh of relief.