Sculptor Carves Katrina’s Ruins

American Artisans, On the Road, People
on August 26, 2010
Doug Keese Florida sculptor Marlin Miller shapes hurricane-toppled trees in Biloxi, Miss.

Behind protective goggles, Marlin Miller’s eyes focus on the tip of his chain saw cutting a groove into the trunk of a 500-year-old oak tree in Biloxi, Miss. (pop. 50,644).

The muscles in Miller’s arms bulge from the weight of the roaring saw, which sends wood chips flying and sawdust blossoming into fine clouds, covering the sculptor from head to toe and even dusting the teeth behind his smiling face.

Despite the strain of his task and the concentration required, a smile is never far from Miller’s lips, especially when the woodcarver is shaping the battered trees along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast into lasting works of art.

Ravaged in August 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, the coastline is dotted with fallen trees that once were towering cedars and centuries-old live oaks. The stark trunks that remain are grim reminders of Katrina’s wrath, but to Miller, 49, they are blank canvases. Since 2007, he has transformed nearly 50 tree trunks into dramatic carvings of coastal marine life and, in the process, transformed the spirits of Mississippians.

“What I have gotten out of this ride has just been incredible,” says Miller, who donated his time and talents to create an outdoor gallery along a 25-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 90. “It hasn’t been about money.”

Rebuilding spirits
While he works, Miller frequently is approached by coastal residents who offer their thanks on behalf of their communities. Their words often dissolve into tears, however, while trying to describe what the sculptures represent to a region working to rebuild. “The emotion, it’s still so strong here, and then I get all emotional, too,” Miller confides.

Some strangers try to give him money to help pay his expenses, but when Miller refuses to accept cash, he ends up with gifts of homemade jellies, ceramics, Christmas cards and even a prayer shawl.  “I do all this for free,” he says. “I don’t want to mess with the integrity of this project.”

The project’s purpose, he says, is to give back to the people of Mississippi during a time of need, just as they were present for his hometown of Fort Walton Beach (pop. 19,973) when Hurricane Ivan pounded the Florida Panhandle in 2004.

“Most generations in Mississippi go eight or nine generations deep,” he explains. “When these people lost a giant tree, it wasn’t just theirs. It was something that their great-great-great grandparents played under as children. This token gesture from me represents a rebuilding of the spirit.”

Love of the sea
Raised on a family farm in Manson, Iowa (pop. 1,893), Miller is a fourth-generation artist. His grandfather painted wildlife scenes, as well as most of the business signs in their county. Miller was introduced to the Gulf Coast while stationed in the early 1980s at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi. There, he developed his love of the sea and, after military service that took him to Hawaii, Europe and the Middle East, settled in Fort Walton Beach. The artist and his wife, Rene, have five children and two grandchildren.

Miller’s carvings capture his love of marine life, and his works are on display in galleries, restaurants and the homes of private collectors around the world. In recent years, however, his passion has been to salvage hurricane-whipped trees tagged for removal. Nearly every week, Miller and his truck, loaded with chain saws, grinders, chisels and wooden mallets, have made the three-hour drive from his home to Biloxi to carve for a few days. Occasionally, the truck tows a hydraulic lift to hoist Miller to the top of the trunks, some of which tower three stories high.

A surprising journey
In late April, Miller put the finishing touches on the last Katrina carving—a sprawling sculpture of dolphin fish, a marlin, turtle and crab, fashioned from a live-oak trunk on Biloxi’s Town Green.

“What Marlin has done for this community is just a godsend,” says city spokesman Vincent Creel, 49. “It’s a gift that’s going to give for generations.”

Visitors to Biloxi rank Miller’s sculptures as the city’s top tourist attraction. “When we told friends we were coming to Biloxi, everyone said not to miss these carvings,” says Holly Orgeron, 28, of Crown Point, La., during her family’s visit.

While each carving has meaning, one is a source of special pride for the artist. Miller’s rendering of a 17-foot eagle was dedicated last spring at Keesler Air Force Base, fashioned from a large oak trunk. The sculpture adorns the entrance of the base’s new commissary, where Brig. Gen. Ian Dickinson lauds Miller’s work as a method of conservation.

“We recover, we replant, and we renew, but not everything that passed out of life should be cut down and moved on,” Dickinson says. “Let’s celebrate what’s been left inside those majestic trees that have been here for so very long.”

For Miller, his Katrina tree project has been a surprising journey that began with a single carving in Biloxi and kept drawing him back. “I’m along for the ride,” says the artist, his eyes welling with tears. “I have been driven by something much bigger than me.”