I came across an item that caught my eye on the blog of Candler Arts, a great folk art site that I check out on a regular basis. It was a page from a book with an old photo of a man standing next to a dead tree that had been carved with all sorts of figures. Alligators, monkeys, lions, Indian heads and bunnies adorned the tree. What caught my eye was that it said he was from an area not too far from here, just below Auburn in the Finger Lakes region of NY.
His name was George Carr. According to his obituary (Totem Tree Man Dies at Age of 86) in the Auburn newspaper that appeared in 1926 after his death , he was a veteran of the Civil War, serving as a musician in both the army and navy during the war. It also said that his carved tree was a big tourist attraction in the Finger Lakes, drawing thousands of visitors from all over the country over the years and giving Mr. Carr nationwide celebrity as the story of his tree went out in the press. Unfortunately, it also points out that the tree was destroyed in a cyclone that struck in the previous year, bringing to an end the attraction for tourists.
I had never heard of George Carr or his totem tree nor have I been able to find much beyond a few photos, postcards and a thin but very collectible book on Ebay, George Carr’s Totem Tree and Other Curious Things. This lack of available info and the obvious fact that the tree and any other carvings from his home no longer exist brings me pause. As an artist, I always consider the possibility that my work may or may not live on beyond my own short lifespan, hoping that it does find a way to continue on its own, of course. But the thought that it might someday fade completely away but for a few images caught in photos or a few words in an old newspaper is sobering.
Art is life and life is ephemeral. Some fortunate art will always live on, carried by a life force that is continually replenished by those who see and love it. Some art is less fortunate and is forever lost to new eyes and new energy that could carry it forward through time. The same things could be said for any of us.
Maybe by writing about George Carr and his Totem Tree, I am actually hoping that someday someone in the distant future will do the same for one of my paintings and help revive it in some way, even if only a memory.