A pair of dead ash trees frozen in the crippling cold a year ago might – under normal circumstances – be destined for the chopping block.
But at the Abilene Zoo, it’s more of a circle-of-life tale.
The zoo chose to make something beautiful, lasting and even educational out of the trees lost in the 2021 storm.
“Instead of cutting them totally down, the Abilene Zoo Society board and I decided to repurpose the trees into works of art and conservation messaging,” said Jesse Pottebaum, the zoo’s director.
The work took four days, starting Feb. 16 and ending Feb. 20.
Carving out conservation
Enter Ray Banfield Jr. of Granbury, along with two fellow artists – Jimmy Hobbs of Grand Saline and Justin Driver of Farmington, Kentucky.
The men were contracted by the zoo to carve the trees into art showcasing Madagascar, its animals and the zoo’s conservation efforts there.
The project is “in the spirit of keeping everything intact with the zoo and just repurposing what we already have, but basically making it an education effort,” said Mandy Ott, in charge of events and development for the zoo.
After a tour of the zoo Feb. 16, the men fired up their chainsaws, chipping away old wood to reveal a menagerie of animals and even a world hidden inside.
One tree, located near the hyena and giraffe exhibits, specifically is devoted to conservation, Banfield said.
“(They) wanted me to make sure Madagascar was up front,” Banfield, taking a pause from carving out continents with a deft flick of his saw.
A map around the trunk shows places the zoo spends some of its dollars for conversation efforts, Ott said.
“We send (money for) conservation efforts over to specific areas that have been affected by wildfire in the Madagascar region,” she said. “So, this is where our actual funds have gone. That’s what he’s showcasing.”
A handcrafted sign, highlighting the Abilene Zoo Conservation Fund, also is part of the design, showcased on Banfield’s Facebook page.
Among other design elements, it features two giraffes entwined to make the “A” in “conservation.”
Just around the way, a second ash tree near the zoo’s lake started taking shape, featuring a fossa, a Madagascar carnivore that resembles a cat, stalking a lemur.
In the cool, midday breeze Feb. 16, the day the project began, an occasional hint of spray stirred up by wind and water baptized the work, while wood chips and sawdust began to cover the ground like new-fallen snow.
Though nascent, one could already see familiar forms emerge from cut tree limbs thanks to the swift work of Driver and Hobbs.
“Basically, we’re trying to utilize every Madagascar animal that they have here at the zoo,” Banfield said.
By Friday, the tree near the lake had blossomed into a zoo of its own, each branch covered in intricate work transforming them in to perches for birds and animals, the trunk done in a relief style.
By the end of the project, what had once been dead wood had been transformed into a riot of raptors, reptiles, amphibians and even insects.
Animals on the conservation tree include the lesser hedgehog tenrec, the panther chameleon and the Madagascan tree boa.
Animals on the second tree, called in its final form the “seek and find” tree, include the ring-tailed lemur, the black and white ruffed lemur, the fossa, the Madagascan heron, the Madagascan barn owl, the blue coua, the Madagascar sea eagle, the sickle-billed vanga, the Malagasy leaf-nosed snake, the radiated tortoise, the satanic leaf-tailed gecko, the giant day gecko, the Madagascar hissing cockroach and the comet moth.
Finding a passion
Banfield, who owns Rayzor Sharp Chainsaw Art, was introduced to carving in 2016, when he and his wife traveled to Vancouver and visited Grouse Mountain, a 4,100-foot-tall peak that features aerial tramways, hiking and skiing.
A series of wood carvings in the area were “inspirational” to him.
“I was already in the firewood business and already familiar with chainsaws,” he said. “I did some research and started playing in the backyard.”
Four years in, Banfield’s art is now far more than mere play.
Two of his pieces are publicly exhibited in Granbury, while much of his other work in private hands, he said.
When he’s not shaping wood, he works at Lockheed Martin, building ejection seats.
He does not get to test them, he said, and there’s admittedly not much that directly translates over to woodcarving.
“Aircraft, you build by a plan, a book,” he said.
That said, it is important to come prepared a plan, he said, when shaping wood into something speculative or spectacular.
In the flow
Asked what he loves about carving, Banfield compared it to a mindfulness practice, such as yoga.
“You put your headphones on and you’re in your own little world,” he said. “You forget about everybody watching you.”
If there is a concern, he said, “you just hope when you’re done that everybody loves it.”
Driver said he started carving simply because he was “bored one day.”
Now, it’s his full-time job.
Tree-carving is something you learn by doing, he said.
“At first you’re just kind of winging it,” he said. “What the heck is going to happen with this?”
Once you pass a certain point, the tree “kind of talks to you,” he said.
“It tells you, ‘You can put this ear here and this arm here,'” he said. “You learn how to flow with that tree.”
A matter of time
Hobbs’ experience is similar, and he said it just takes “time” to learn how to turn a tree branch into, say, a creeping fossa.
But Hobbs has 10 years of carving practice and on top of that, he’s owned his own tree service for 20 years and been a tree-climber for 30.
So, it’s safe to say he knows his way around lopping limbs. But turning those limbs into zoological fantasies?
Now, that’s a different animal.
“You can see something in your head or in the piece of wood, and it just takes time to learn how to do that,” he said.
When you’re in that zone, “you kind of get lost in it,” he said, similar to the meditation-like experience his fellow carvers described.
“When you start, you just kind of forget what you’re doing,” he said. “You’re into that piece of wood and you’re thinking about what’s going to happen.”
A ‘landmark’ experience
Banfield admitted he wasn’t familiar with Abilene’s zoo until he was contacted about the carving project.
But his tour impressed him.
“It’s a definite landmark for your city,” he said.
With a few shares to social media, he already planned had attracted two people from Fort Worth, as well as family members from Breckenridge, who told him they to come check out his work and the animals.
Ott said Abilene’s zoo has about 250,000 visitors every year.
Almost half of its yearly visitors, 48%, are not from Taylor County. About a quarter of the tally from out of state, she said.
The ash trees, which were at the zoo when it opened in 1966, were an important part of the landscape, Ott said, providing shade for animals and people, while beautifying the area.
Though the cold cut their lives short, the hope is that they will continue to delight and educate visitors in their new, reimagined forms.
And if nothing else, Banfield, Driver and Hobbs’ work just proves there’s a little bit of the wild in all of us — even if it might take some work, and possibly, a chain saw, to bring it out.
More:Abilene’s ‘Zoo Lake No.’ 1′ renamed to honor Jimmy Tittle, architect of the water feature
Brian Bethel covers city and county government and general news for the Abilene Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local teams with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.
Where to see more
Ray Banfield’s Facebook page for Rayzor Sharp Chainsaw Art is full of whimsical and poignant designs. You can find it by searching for the name.
►A bare-bottomed, bouquet-holding sasquatch.
►A small, white dog to guard a beloved pet’s ashes.
►A chorus of wise, old faces.
►A whole jamboree of bears.
►A bevy of birds, including a particularly animated coyote-chasing roadrunner.
►Holiday decorations, such as a grinning Jack-o-Lantern.
►And finally, a 7-foot shark. (We’re going to need a bigger boat.)
In addition to his Facebook page, Banfield has an Instagram account that highlights his work at @ray_banfield_jr.