OWOSSO — For two years, David Vaughn pondered what to do with a 30-foot elm tree stump in his front yard.
Earlier this summer, he realized the answer was looking back at him every day, when he sat at his kitchen table and looked out the back door at sculptures he owns.
Last month, the stump was carved into a sculpture resembling “Sprites” sculptures made famous by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It took six days to complete the work, which was done on commission by Ken Buggia, a woodcarver from Saginaw who is known for using chainsaws in his work.
“It was an interesting job. Nothing in nature is perfect — nobody’s ears are ever exactly lined up evenly, you know? One is always bigger than the other,” Buggia said.
“All you can do is try to make it your own. Frank Lloyd Wright was, in my opinion, an Einstein-level genius. I can’t do exactly what he did, because nobody can. All I can do is try to put my own spin on it and make it something cool that reminds you of the original,” he added.
The elm was once part of a cluster of 14 in Vaughn’s front yard on West Oliver Street, just a stone’s throw away from the Shiawassee River. One by one, the trees died, until the monstrous elm was the only one left.
“It’s been a friend to me through the years,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn doesn’t know how long the trees stood on the lot, they were already planted and fully grown by the time he and his late wife Patricia built their home in 1950. Incidentally, Vaughn’s home was designed by Ann Arbor-based architect George Brigham, who, according to Vaughn, was heavily influenced by the “Prairie style” popularized by Wright.
When the last tree died about two years ago, Vaughn said, he wanted to turn it into some sort of a totem pole. But he didn’t exactly know what to carve. A longtime photographer and art collector, he ended up turning to two statues he keeps in his backyard for inspiration.
The statues are replicas of a series of well-known sculptures by Wright called “Sprites.” They once decorated Midway Gardens, a large outdoor entertainment facility in Chicago, which was very well known in the early-1900s but fell on hard times during the Prohibition era and was demolished in 1929.
According to Vaughn, the original “Sprites” were simply thrown in Lake Michigan — but some were rescued, and one of them is on display at Dow Gardens in Midland.
“It was an interesting sequence of ideas, creating which direction to go,” Vaughn said. “I was just looking outside at this beautiful view of the river, and it hit me. I thought it would be a great way to honor that tree.”
Vaughn turned to Buggia, who said he typically carves animals — rarely people, and almost never fine art like the statutes. Nevertheless, he saw the project as a fun challenge.
“Elm is a heavy, hard wood — it’s difficult to carve and get those fine lines,” Buggia said. “It was hard, but I think this turned out to be one of my best. I was happy when it was done.”
Vaughn was fascinated to watch Buggia, who used three different chainsaws on the project — the largest one for the broadest cuts, and the smallest for fine lines. He started by cutting the stump to 12 feet, and then made the details. In all, the project took six days.
“This was just an enormous round log,” Vaughn said. “All (Buggia) had to do was look at the original statue and he was able to turn it into a work of art. It was phenomenal.”
When it was finished, Buggia coated the carving in an oil finish. It is meant to preserve the stump for some time, but Vaughn knows it won’t last forever.
“It may last 20 years, it may not outlast me,” said Vaughn, 92. “I’m just glad I have something nice to look at again.”
So too do the people in Vaughn’s neighborhood.
“It brings a lot of joy to Dave, a lot of conversation,” said Patty Bixby, Vaughn’s longtime caregiver. “A lot of people walk around this neighborhood, and they stop to check it out and he talks to them. It keeps him young. It’s something you don’t see everyday.”