There is an apocryphal story that Michelangelo compared sculpting in marble to draining a bathtub: He merely released forms that God had already created, as if they had simply been immersed in water. Divine inspiration is not so accessible to most artists, but every sculptor of stone or wood who executes his own works has a share of Michelangelo's vision and optimism. Sculptor Steven Weitzman, a 33-year-old Los Angeles native, has been "draining the bath water" from a 6 1/2-foot-wide, 12-foot-tall elm tree trunk from Rockville with chain saws, drills and chisels for the past three months in Montgomery County's Seneca Creek Park.

The monumental wood sculpture of three youths planting a tree left the park's maintenance area yesterday to spend a month at the United Nations Plaza for the U.N.'s 40th anniversary festivities, which also will mark International Youth Year. Like the scores of visitors to the park site, where I was an apprentice for two weeks, New Yorkers will be able to watch and lend a hand as Weitzman completes the work.

Weitzman's dream began two years ago. He had been carving wood for eight years and decided that he wanted to create a message of peace and cooperation that would coincide with International Youth Year: a group of figures, male and female, and of different races, working together. He gained permission to finish and display the work temporarily at the U.N. He was unable, however, to find a buyer and so mortgaged his house to put $17,000 into the project. The sculpture's final destination remains uncertain.

But Weitzman is optimistic, both in planning and executing his sculpture. "I don't believe in mistakes," he declared recently, after I had helped him cut a hole through the trunk and the tip of the huge chain saw had emerged five inches to the left of its intended destination. "When I began carving this tree I discovered rotten areas inside which partially dictated how my design would look. I worked around the holes, rearranging the figures according to the structure of the material at hand," Weitzman continued, pointing out the spaces between the figures' limbs. A girl pours water on the roots while a boy digs with a shovel. Another boy reaches out to a dove in the branches. "So now we have this hole over here from the saw," he said. "That's no different than if the hole had always been there. We'll make the best of it. It's going to be terrific!" Weitzman pronounced, flashing a big grin. "Sculpting is kind of like life, isn't it?" He laughed.

If Michelangelo freed divine forms from stone, Weitzman unlocks an entire process of learning for himself and for the many people he welcomes as participants in his odyssey. During my two weeks on the project, Weitzman focused on the three figures and allowed me, along with several other assistants, to carve the clusters of leaves on the tree within the tree. He taught us how to use and sharpen all of his tools. Over bag lunches he criticized our portfolios and advised us on beginning our careers in sculpture. Weitzman also invited casual visitors to pick up a mallet and gouge. "This project is one man and his dream," Weitzman said. "But if someone who has never sculpted before can come here and pick up the tools, they may get a feeling that their own goals are not impossible."

When the conversation settles on the financial uncertainty that still looms over the project, Weitzman remains buoyant. "I am an optimistic person by nature. Whatever force is guiding me in this endeavor makes me feel that everything will work out." And it probably will: Weitzman's optimism is matched only by his vivacious charm and his business sense. As the sculpture neared completion, potential buyers watched slide presentations of Weitzman's previous work and took guided tours around the one in progress.

Ultimately, Weitzman's willingness to make his personal dream a cooperative effort speaks for the sincerity of his sculpted message. Last Thursday a small group from the Montgomery County Youth Conservation Corps arrived to help with the sculpture. Weitzman described what needed to be done and let them decide how they would divide up the chores: carving, filling cracks, modeling for him. I stood back and watched them set to work. For a moment art and life stood intertwined. The sculpture, through its birth, had fulfilled its own prophecy.