Lighting-struck oak carved into archangel

A 20-foot tall guardian sculpture stands at Wegner Salt Mines. Newly-carved from the trunk of a beautiful 150-year-old, 75-foot tall white oak tree, the carving of the angel that now watches the land was a way to preserve the old oak after a lighting bolt struck it earlier this year. Business owner Richard Wegner said he and his team tried to save the tree after the lightening strike, but it was too damaged.

"We didn't just want to turn it into firewood," he said. "This tree has been our guardian. It took the lighting bolt and saved our business which is adjacent to it. I thought we needed to honor that." Wegner Salt Mines, located just east of Polk County is a popular tourist and school field trip spot, according to Wegner, who said his visitors will be shocked to see the tree is gone. "It's like a monument to an old friend," Wegner said.

"We also wanted to bring something positive to the community." They brought out Gary Keenan, a wood artist from Iowa, to carve the giant oak in November. Wegner said he came up with the idea to carve the tree into an angel, specifically the Archangel Michael, since he sees it as a guardian for his business. "It's going to incorporate all the animals that used to visit the tree at the base, looking up toward the angel," Wegner said. "We're grateful to have the opportunity to help and make the emotional hurt of the loss of this tree go away." Keenan said the project took him about a week and was difficult work. "A human form is challenging and time-consuming," he said. "The animals at the base are easier."

He said he works with the shape of the tree and tries not to add pieces on to preserve the integrity of the sculpture. He said the wood will last at least 15 years with good care, but won't last forever. "Organic material simply won't last forever outdoors," he said. "I think that's also part of its beauty -- it was a growing thing. Woodgrain has a lot of natural beauty." Keenan said after doing the main carving, he does a course sanding to bring out the grain and give it a smother surface.

"It sheds water better, which is important for an outdoor piece," he said. "Then I'll use an oxyacetylene torch to highlight the crevices. On Michael, I burned part of his wings, skirt, armbands and most of his shield. It brings it to life a little more and adds some dimension." Wegner will seal the piece to protect it from the elements and have the task of resealing it every year to maintain it. "The world needs it," he said. "This is going to be here for all the people who come to our place. We're enjoying bringing a little bit of beauty into the world."

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