The Woodsmen


Tim (left) and Andy (right)

Tim (left) and Andy (right)

Tim Tingle and Andy Cummings see the life in dying trees.

Written by Gabby Bates  

Photographed by Liesa Cole

 

You enter Orr Park by footbridge, passing over creek water as clear as pale green glass, approaching what appears to be a modest expanse of perfectly normal trees. But somewhere along the way—if you’re lucky—you notice something peculiar: a face, staring at you from the other side.

From the trunk of a leaning cedar, he gapes, mouth open, as if there’s something important he needs to tell you. You pause for a moment, delighted by the anomaly, before going on your way. But as you continue to walk through the park, you find them everywhere. Faces, yes, but also lions, gnomes, llamas, and wizards. Sometimes small and low, sometimes taking up the entire façade of a large trunk, you stumble upon them around every turn, and soon these discoveries become the sole purpose of your meandering.

You stop in front of a dragon. Touching the scales on his body, each one chiseled into a pointed tip, you can’t help but marvel. Who did this?

“For two years I had people believe it was little green elves that did it,” says Tim Tingle, the man behind the faces. “But somewhere along the way, people figured out it was me.”

Tingle has been a coal miner for 35 years. He picked up whittling to pass the copious amounts of downtime he had underground, and before he began carving in Orr Park, that was the only woodcarving experience he’d ever had.

He started Tinglewood almost by accident after the ice storm in 1993. Many of the trees were broken and damaged by the ice, so he came to collect some wood to take home. When the city said he couldn’t do that, he carved a face into one of the dead trees and left. He carved many more, working secretively in the early morning fog, before the city said anything else. What they said was that they were naming a section of the park Tinglewood, for him.

When he’s not down in the mines or carving trees, Tingle pursues his other passions—namely writing, traveling, and Guinness World Record breaking. He has written and published 12 books, traveled to 48 different countries, raised chickens, and carved the longest strand of wooden chain links in the Western hemisphere.

He doesn’t take many interviews.

As we walked through Tinglewood together, he touched his work affectionately with calloused fingers. “I only carve into the dead wood,” he explains, stroking the wizard’s long beard. “See, this right here is live wood. If I carved into it, I’d kill that limb up there. Most people don’t realize that certain parts of the trunk feed certain limbs.”

This news is reassuring to the more environmentally conscious, and it adds an interesting layer to Tingle’s work. Because he only carves into the dead parts of living trees, the character of the wood itself often influences what the tree carving will become. Knots become noses, branches become horns, hollow pockets become whispering mouths. Each face has a distinct personality, and you can’t help but feel like each one has a different story to tell.

And of course, the pieces mean different things to different people. For example, Tingle is not a fan of the horse he carved near the creek edge, but a man once told him it was his favorite. The horse looks like it’s running up out of the ground, all but its straining neck hidden under the dirt. It was the man’s favorite because as a child, he had to ride horses across the river to get to the other half of the family property. He thought the horse looked like it was swimming neck-high in a spring river. And he’s right.

Tingle’s patient chisel and mallet technique allows for the impressive degree of detail in his work. The dragon’s scales, which had so captivated me upon entering the park, took him some 70 hours to complete. It’s the only carving he’s ever timed.

“This used to be a grave right here,” Tingle tells me, gesturing to the ground in front of the dragon’s tree. “Someone buried an iguana at the foot of the great lizard.” A storyteller at heart, Tingle is full of interesting tidbits like this. He delights in the strange histories of the world around him, and you can see the influence of his many travels in his carvings: the head carved like the giant stones of Easter Island; the llamas completed after a trip to his favorite country, Peru. “Everybody needs to go to Machu Picchu at least once in their lives,” he says.

His dry sense of humor is apparent in some of his more whimsical carvings, like the unicorn with a snake in its mouth. “When I was carving this one,” he says, picking an ant off a long, spiraled horn, “a woman told me that unicorns don’t eat rattlesnakes. And I said, ‘How do you know? This one does.’”

Tingle’s last Tinglewood carving was completed two years ago. He just hasn’t had the time to add new ones. During our tour, he appraises how the work is holding up in his absence. He carves primarily into cedars, which are lauded for their longevity, but there is evidence that his legacy is already beginning to crumble. Everywhere we went, he pointed out rotten places: missing snouts, broken teeth, spaces where the squirrel’s hands used to be. I found myself getting sad. There were so many people who should see this work. It was sobering to see evidence of its ephemerality.

But if it saddens him, he didn’t show it. He walked among the trees like one of the few people on this earth who sees and accepts the world exactly as it is. His art relies on death, after all. Perhaps this makes it hard to resent decay.

Some of the wear is the direct result of the role Tingle’s work plays in the community. Children are always crawling on the alligator’s back. People are always reaching their hands into mouths and petting the wooden animals. Not many artists get to see their work so physically loved. Accelerated decline is a natural consequence of this rare privilege.

Tingle’s legacy, while slowly deteriorating, has already inspired other tree carvers in our community. One shining example is Andy Cummings, who is becoming a local celebrity for his larger-than-life animal carvings in the front yards of Birmingham citizens. His rougher, cross-hatch style is distinctive, and it reflects his personality. “I’m not a chiseler,” he says, admiring the fine details of Tingle’s work. “I need instant gratification.” But his technique is no less impressive and his work is no less impactful for it.

His tool of choice? Chainsaw.

A self-described country boy, Cummings is a carpenter by trade. He became an artist in the wake of Hurricane Ivan, when he worked with the Red Cross to help clear debris. One day, he took his chainsaw to a stump.“It was a land turtle, and it was rough,” he says, smiling. That same trip, he carved something that made him feel like he’d found his calling. There was a woman who was devastated by the loss of the tree in her front yard. It had been planted to celebrate the birth of her daughter, who now had cancer. Cummings, working from lunchtime late into the night, split the wood into wings and used his saw to turn the dead tree into an angel. When the woman saw it, she was so touched, he didn’t think she’d ever stop crying.

Since then, Cummings has carved many more sculptures. Usually he starts with an animal in mind and then searches for the right dead tree for the job. One of his most powerful works, however, was requested by an older couple in East Lake.

“It was a huge oak tree. Five feet across the front,” Cummings remembers. “I had to use scaffolding to carve the top.” Lightning had killed it, but the couple didn’t have the money it would take for removal. They were at a loss until one day, while delivering Meals on Wheels to shut-ins, the man saw Cummings’s heron and bear sculpture in Roebuck Springs. He knew that Cummings was the solution to their problem, and his wife quickly agreed. She knew exactly what she wanted, too—a lion and a butterfly, inspired by the biblical story of the lion and the lamb.

“My spirit said, ‘You’re gonna do this, even if you lose money,’ and I did lose money,” says Cummings. But it was worth it. “That tree was at least 150 years old. I felt honored to save what was left of him.” The community got into it as well. People from a local church brought him food. Classes of children came to watch. It is a very special piece, and people still drive out of their ways to see it. “It speaks to the spirit in you,” Cummings says. “That’s what I love about art. That’s what I love about what I do. I can make somebody’s day and not even be there.”

Ever since he completed the lion piece, Cummings has been drawn to the pairing of unlikely animals. He carved a tiger and ferret for a friend’s father, and the project he was working on when I met him was a wolf and dove. Whether you’re religious or not, you can’t help but contemplate the poignancy of such pairings.

He, too, has work in Orr Park—one small, special carving in red cedar. He pointed out the inscription on the front of the soldier’s cross. It reads “Live Free.” Cummings was commissioned to carve this piece, but it has personal significance as well. His whole family, including his son, is involved in the military.

An unanticipated consequence of walking through Orr Park with Cummings and Tingle was that people came out of the woodwork (pun intended) to discuss their own artistic pursuits. Kenny, a house painter in a camo jacket and Alabama cap, approached to praise the wood carvings. “You got a gift, brother,” he compliments. Then he shared that he might enjoy painting for art’s sake, but he was afraid he didn’t have it in him. “You never know until you try,” Cummings encourages him. “I didn’t know until I tried.”

When Kenny left, Cummings said, “I think everybody has an artist in them.” It would appear he is correct. Later, we were approached by an ex-military dog trainer. Scratching the front of his America T-shirt, he told us that when he was in New York, he found a book on how to carve carousel horses from the 1800s; he now carves and paints them in his spare time.

These Deep South country boys are taking the pretension out of art. And they are making it accessible to people in Alabama who are not typically associated with artistic endeavor or appreciation. I won’t attempt to define art. Writers much more famous and talented than I have already floundered on the subject. But I will claim that one value of great art is the way it speaks to us, deeply and individually, and evokes a response.

If I learned anything from my afternoon with Tingle and Cummings, it was that the true joy of their creation is rooted in the redemption it represents. On the small scale, it’s the redemption of a single tree. On the large scale, it’s the redemption of the entire community—beauty that brings and bonds people whose lives might otherwise never intersect. These men were given a gift, and now they’re giving it back.

“I’m like a historian,” Cummings tells me, looking off with a smile to where his soldier’s cross is rooted into the earth. “I bring life to the dead.”

One Response to “The Woodsmen”

  1. Nicole Pinson says:

    I am amazed at the art on these trees! I love them!

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