By James Beaty
Those tiny particles whirling through the air Thursday outside a home in North McAlester weren’t snowflakes.
They were tiny bits of sawdust emanating from the remnants of a sweet gum tree as renowned Oklahoma artist Clayton Coss hoisted a chainsaw to create a wooden sculpture of the city’s founder, J.J. McAlester.
The sculpture is in the front yard of the former J.J. McAlester residence on East Smith Avenue in North Town.
Coss, who lives near Tulsa, used three chainsaws on the project, including a large chainsaw to remove the bigger blocks of wood, along with two smaller ones.
“The smaller ones are made for carving,” Coss said.
Parts of the sculpture are remarkably detailed, with the veins on the hands and the wisps of the beard included on the piece.
Coss started carving last Monday and had the sculpture finished by late Thursday afternoon.
Eddie Gray, who’s president of the of the North McAlester Old Town Association, is the current owner of the former J.J. McAlester home.
He said he formed an idea for the wood carving project after the sweet gum tree in the front yard died from the drought last year. That’s when he got the idea of having a sculpture made.
Gray knew McAlester residents Betty and Ron Testa had a wooden sculpture with the likeness of their grandchildren carved onto a tree on their property, so he said he gave Betty Testa a call and found out Coss had done the work.
“They were highly pleased with him,” Gray said, adding that Betty Testa had told him the sculpture Coss created looked exactly like her grandchildren.
Gray said he used the Internet to locate Coss, and then asked Pride in McAlester if the group wanted to become involved.
“We donated that tree to Pride in McAlester,” Gray said. He noted the agreement he made also gave PIM access to the tree.
“They were more than happy to do it,” Gray said. He considers the effort a joint project between himself and Pride In McAlester.
PIM Executive Director Stephanie Giacomo said getting an easement on the tree proved essential in moving the project forward.
“It’s been awhile since we’ve done a beautification project,” Giacomo said. “Since we now control the tree, we were able to do it.”
“Mostly, what we do is on public land,” she said. However, given the historical nature of the project, PIM decided to become involved, according to Giacomo.
The deed is for a “Scenic open preservation and conservation easement,” she said. Referring to the sculpture, she said “It belongs to us.”
Like Gray, she’s pleased with the results.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “I think it will contribute not only to the area, but to the city.”
“I think art and taking pride in our culture lends a lot to the quality of life of our citizens.”
James Jackson McAlester is best-known today as the founder of the city which bears his name. He also served as a U.S. marshal and as a member of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission from statehood in 1907 through 1911, when he won election to the post of Oklahoma lieutenant governor. He died in 1920 at the age of 78, a Civil War veteran who lived past the World War I era.
Coss did some preliminary work before he tried to capture McAlester’s likeness.
“Eddie sent me some pictures,” Coss said. While the photographs showed what J.J. McAlester looked like, Coss could find no photographs showing the city’s founder while standing — which is how J.J. McAlester would be depicted in the tree sculpture.
“He was sitting down” in all of the photographs, said Coss. He used the dimensions in the “sitting” photos to try and determine how J.J. McAlester would look while standing upright.
Gray thinks Coss did a fine job of capturing J.J. McAlester’s stature while standing.
“He’s a robust guy,” Gray said of the city’s founder..
While Coss said he didn’t have a particularly difficult time capturing J.J. McAlester’s likeness in wood, there were some challenges involved.
“The tree itself had some issues, but not anything we couldn’t overcome,” Coss said. One of the problems included a decaying knothole, which Coss filled in and repaired.
Coss said the sculpture of J.J. McAlester will need some maintenance, and he’s left instructions on what to do. Instructions include applying waterproofing sealant annually and sealing any cracks which may appear.
The sculpture of J.J. McAlester is among the approximately 3,000 Coss figures he has completed during his 27-year career, including several in the city.
Jason Barker, who lives across the street from the J.J. McAlester home, has seen the daily progress on the carving.
“It’s something else. That guy’s got some skills,” Barker said.
“When we first seen it, he went from the head to the waist in just two days.”
Mary England stopped to watch Coss for a few minutes from her vehicle before she headed to work.
“That’s incredible — that’s all I can say,” she said.
As for Gray, he’s still getting used to seeing the sculpture.
“I look out every morning and it’s amazing,” Gray said.
“J.J’s moved back here!”
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com.
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