Memorial tree gets new life as bear sculpture

Iowa artist Gary Keenan gave one memorial tree in front of Wingo Hall a transformation this week when he carved it into a life-sized bear representing UCA’s mascot.

Work began Monday on the project. After days of sawdust, final touches were completed Thursday with detail work on the mouth, claws and overall appearance. Keenan said that initially the structure was too tall and he spent time getting the height and width of the bear in realistic proportion.

Courtesy of the University of Central Arkansas

Keenan speaks about carving to Carl Stuart Middle School students Thursday. Courtesy of the University of Central Arkansas

The tree was planted as part of a living memorial to World War II victims. In an archive document explaining the memorial, UCA Archives Director Jimmy Bryant said 46 oak trees were planted to remember UCA alumni who died in the war.

Memorial trees line Donaghey Avenue, stand in front of Wingo, McCastlain and Bernard halls and in front of the Student Center. A plaque was created in 2003 and placed in front of McAlister Hall that lists the names of fallen veterans memorialized.

When university officials knew the tree was not capable of surviving disease, they decided to give it a new identity in a way that would preserve its importance.

Art professor Bryan Massey will use a portion of the tree not used during the carving process to create a memorial bench in honor of World War II veterans.

Keenan said he hopes the bear sculpture project will be a new symbol of school spirit. The placement of the bear allows for different, interesting perspectives depending on where a person views the sculpture, he said.

The UCA sculpture wasn’t Keenan’s first foray into chainsaw carving on campuses. Four of his works have been at higher education institutions. He was invited as the only American of 12 wood sculptors to attend the England “Sculptree”/Westonbirt Festival of the Tree in 2007, according to his website.

Housing Director Stephanie McBrayer said she was proud to be on the committee that selected Keenan as the project’s sculptor after evaluating project bids.

“[The bear sculpture] is a place where people can come take pictures,” she said.

Fredericka Sharkey, associate director of media relations, said UCA paid Keenan $4,000 to carve the sculpture.

Faculty, staff, students and local residents watched throughout the week as Keenan carved the bear sculpture. He treated Carl Stuart Middle School students to a sculpture lesson Thursday, carving frogs and a small bear to illustrate his work. The fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade students were separated into four groups, totaling about 125 students.

“[There were] far more students than I expected,” Keenan said. “All had good questions.”

Ericka Ruble, public information specialist, said the groups arrived at 8 a.m. and left at 2 p.m. Thursday. Despite taking time away from Keenan’s work, she said he was gracious to students.

“We’re lucky to have found him,” she said.

Conway resident Sarah McMillen brought her 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter Wednesday and Thursday to view the project as it unfolded.

“I’m impressed that he made something remarkable out of something so simple,” she said.

Keenan said he was grateful for the opportunity to carve the sculpture. His next project will be at a city park in Iowa, where he will carve a sculpture symbolizing the classic “Three Little Pigs” tale.

To learn more about Keenan’s work, visit his website at carvingbykeenan.com and view the university Flickr photostream for a complete gallery of images taken during the UCA project.

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