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Majestic or Monstrous?

Arlington Residents Up in Arms Over Mermaid's Tale

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2004; Page C01

Caprice is not exactly what comes to mind when you think of Arlington County, unless you're a Maryland driver trying to find your way around.

Arlington is the Washington area's serious civil servant, its navy blue suit and sensible shoes. And now, in one couple's front yard, behind a Metrobus stop, it's also the home of an 18-foot-tall carved wooden mermaid with a shapely derriere and bare breasts that must be at least size DD.

New limbs -- and more -- sprout from a venerable white ash given new life as a mermaid by artist Scott Dustin. (Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)

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Whimsy has come to Arlington, and residents don't know how to take her.

"A monstrosity," says a woman in the neighborhood grocery store.

"Can I touch her?" asks a wide-eyed child who, with her mom, has stopped by for a close look.

SUVs and minivans slow down on busy Route 29, their drivers doing a double take. Some of the curious park on the first side street they come to and walk back to make sure they've seen what they think they've seen.

"It's amazing someone would exhibit that taste in this county," says Barbara Favola, who chairs the county board.

"I like it, it's unique," says next-door neighbor Joan Banikas, mother of four. "Now I can give great directions to our house."

The mermaid in question has no name yet, but one could say she's the love child of Nancy and Paul Jackson.

She used to be a white ash tree, more than 100 years old, a grande dame that shaded the Jacksons' graceful, Mediterranean-style house on Lee Highway near the Falls Church line. It took sick, as old trees do, and her grieving owners couldn't bring themselves to chop it down.

Remembering tree carvings they had seen in Lancaster, Pa., they decided to hire a wood sculptor to give it a new life. But what did it want to be?

Nancy thought about her husband's favorite things. "His primary passion is fishing. He also loves women, and I tolerate the fact that he loves women. When I said, 'How about a mermaid?' his eyes lit up and I realized I had tickled all his fancies." Nancy went to the Internet and searched for wood sculpture. In early summer, Scott Dustin, a Frederick artist, arrived with a collection of chain saws.

White ash, an off-white hardwood with a yellowish hue, inspires visions of baseball bats, church pews and bowling alleys. Dustin was working from a different picture. He hired a tree service to help him strip off the branches and bark. Then, starting at the base, he carefully chipped out each scale of the mermaid's tail. A fish and a seahorse emerged. Moving up, he created a graceful rear end, then gave the lady long, manlike arms that reach skyward, releasing a dove. "If there are mermaids, they need powerful arms to get through the water," he says.

Dustin makes a good business from what-ifs in the Washington suburbs. Charging $300 a foot, he has turned dead or dying trees into portraits, benches, thrones, small woodland creatures and even a 13-foot Peter Rabbit. Howard County's planned communities are his biggest customers; the mermaid in Arlington is his largest project.

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