Tree Spirit

Jim Calder, at work on his Takoma Park commission, turned to art full time in the '70s after the death of his great-uncle, the renowned sculptor Alexander Calder.
Jim Calder, at work on his Takoma Park commission, turned to art full time in the '70s after the death of his great-uncle, the renowned sculptor Alexander Calder. (Photos By Mary Lou Foy For The Washington Post)
By Joshua Zumbrun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 16, 2007

From the Takoma Metro station, cross Eastern Avenue into Maryland; head 100 paces up Holly Avenue; turn right on Tulip. Here be dragons.

Well, one dragon for now, 16 feet tall and made of solid oak, eyes of ebony, watching those who approach. Two black scars run across the dragon's chest, searing wounds from a now-forgotten lightning strike. Most burbs and boroughs, believe it or not, do not have many dragons these days. But this is not any suburb. This is Takoma Park. Proudly known by many longtime residents by the prefix "The People's Republic of."

"It's going to be a community treasure," says resident Joy Jones, looking up at the dragon as she pauses on a walk with her Shih Tzus CJ and Kizzie on Wednesday as the sculptor of the dragon, Jim Calder (great-nephew of the great sculptor Alexander Calder), and the owner of the dragon, Lew Morris, are busy pumping boric acid into the base of the sculpture to ward off termites. "Very Takoma Park," she adds.

There hasn't always been a dragon on efflorescent Tulip Avenue. But when the oak tree in Morris's yard died, he decided to address that situation: "I started thinking about what to do with it that might be a little more creative than turning it into a few logs. The initial thought was to make it into a totem pole. But that seemed a little out of the ordinary."

A dragon, on the other hand . . .

So Morris went where anyone seeking to turn a dying oak tree into a 16-foot sculpted dragon would go: Google.

"I tried to get five or six people interested, some didn't return calls, some didn't answer my e-mails," Morris says. Then he heard from Jim Calder, a woodcarver who lives in Chesapeake, Va., who was interested in the project. The name Calder sounded familiar (think: the 76-foot mobile that hangs over the central court of the National Gallery of Art's East Building, perhaps Alexander Calder's best-known work).

Morris, a deputy inspector general and chief counsel at the Department of Health and Human Services, declined to say the price of the commission. "Its value is beyond the dollars in it," he says. "How many people can say they have a Calder in their back yard?"

Morris and Calder bandied about dozens of ideas for the tree, eventually settling on a Chinese-inspired dragon, since Morris's wife and children are Chinese. Morris notified his neighbors about the project and they responded with enthusiasm.

"I'm quite sure that there are parts of Chevy Chase and the like that would not want to have wood sculptures in their yards. Takoma Park is different that way," Morris says.

Three weeks ago, Calder arrived to start carving, and the dragon quickly became a community sensation. "He has this little gaggle of moms and kids and hippie guys coming by every day and telling him, 'Right on, man, it's Puff the Magic Dragon, man,' " says Morris.

Allison Leotta and her 7-week-old son, Jack, have come by daily. "It's really neat -- it was just this big dead stump before. Watching this dragon develop has been amazing."

The dragon is only half the attraction. Calder, 58, with the sparkling eyes of a man who loves life, looks like a younger, fitter Santa Claus with forearms like Popeye, thanks to years hoisting a hammer and chisel overhead for hours at a time.

Calder puts down his chisel to talk to anybody with questions. He tells how he shows kids who express interest in his craft how to carve a sweet potato (because when a carved sweet potato is left out at room temperature it will harden in a couple of days into a bricklike substance.)

Woodcarving was the second act for Calder. Although a hobby since age 7, he spent his first career as an engineer for Digital Equipment Corp. But on nights and weekends, he'd whittle away at scraps of wood, making little Christmas presents and knickknacks and, when he only had a few minutes, wine stoppers. When Calder left Digital 28 years ago, he realized he had over 1,000 wine stoppers lying around and had to reduce inventory.

He set up shop at the Maryland Wine Festival, in Carroll County. "I thought if I could sell them for four or five bucks I'd be doing alright. I ended up selling them for $40 apiece," Calder says. He never looked for another engineering job. "This is so much more fulfilling. I carve and the whole world ceases to exist."

So, a couple of years after Alexander Calder died in 1976, another professional artist from the Calder family was taking off. Two years after devoting himself to woodcarving full time, Jim Calder received a $200,000 commission to create a 40-foot totem pole in Ocean City, Md.

"I think I've achieved a level of contentment that he had. I may not have stuff in every gallery in the world, but I'm not doing bad," says Calder.

Tomorrow at 5 p.m., Morris and Calder will hold a naming ceremony for the dragon and then Calder is off for a new project, meeting with a publisher about a book he wrote, "So You Thought You Couldn't Cut It: A Beginner's Guide to Woodcarving." But the Dragon of Takoma Park might not be lonely for long. "Four or five people in the neighborhood have come up to me to talk about their trees," Calder says. "I think I'll be coming back."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company