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A small cottage atop the trunk of a beloved maple is the showpiece to Mari Mahler’s front yard in Davenport. 

But this house isn’t for birds, squirrels or even fairies, as some people make homes for. This miniature cabin houses the memory of Mahler’s favorite tree and honors her late husband. She lost both in 2020.

The couple were lifelong artists. Mahler’s husband, Gunter, died on March 25, his 82nd birthday. The old maple came down in the derecho that August.

Despite these miseries, Mahler is finding joy in the memory of her husband and the tree through a new sculpture from Quad-Cities artist Thom Gleich, whose works can be found in Vander Veer Botanical Park, Credit Island and beyond, from cranes to tigers to a 10-statue setting inspired by “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”

Mahler’s cottage is inspired by a smaller piece Gunter carved from a chunk of cottonwood. The whimsical little house has some oddly shaped windows, a curving roof and a bloated chimney, darkened with age. 

“Even though I lost the tree,” Mahler said, “I still have something special there.” 

Their love story began in an art class at Muscatine Community College. They married and settled into their Davenport home in 1966. The yard already held a few trees, one a sprawling maple that burst into a golden-yellow blaze every fall. Together there, over 55 years, they created two lifetimes of art and raised a family. He loved oil and watercolor painting, while Mari found joy in clay. He took up wood-carving later in life. She experimented in sugar art. 

“I wanted to do something special with [the tree], and I thought, ‘Why not try to reproduce a little bit of his house?'” Mahler said. 

Mahler especially admired Gleich’s crane carving he created that sits in Vander Veer Park, so she reached out to see if the carver would be able to fit her into his schedule. He got to work. 

A tree with tricks up its sleeve

Gleich almost didn’t believe Mahler when she said her tree was a maple. Photos and the trunk indicated that the tree was gigantic for its species, and had lived longer than other maples he’d seen. 

Before carving in, Gleich knew from Mahler that there was a cable somewhere in the tree. Cabling trees keeps their branches from splaying out too much, lowering the risk of breakage. 

However, there was no way to pinpoint where the cable was in the trunk, and he didn’t know if there were any other saw-breaking surprises hiding underneath its bark.

“You just kind of have to feel your way, so to speak,” he said. 

Gleich actually found three cables that had been wrapped around different limbs, but he couldn’t find the hook where they were anchored. Until the saw hit metal. 

Once a saw chain is dulled by metal or other materials, it will cut unevenly. In a medium such as wood carving, where one can’t just paint over mistakes or add more clay to start over, an uneven cut could irreparably ruin a statue. 

In an effort to save his saw, Gleich used a hatchet and sledge to pound into the tree and cut out the hook. After that ordeal, the carver began to think about what else he might find in the old maple. 

He was right to worry. As he continued to carve into the tree, Gleich noticed his saw wasn’t cutting, but he couldn’t feel metal. After a third dulled saw, he once again pulled out his hatchet and sledge to reveal and pick out the object piece-by-piece: a chunk of concrete someone had once poured into a whole 16 feet up in the tree.

All the obstacles added an additional 10 hours to the total 55 hours of work he put in, and by the time he was done carving, Gleich had dulled seven chains. But he finished with something he was proud of. He completed the carving Oct. 30. 

“I wasn’t going to let the tree win,” he said. “I knew how much Mari wanted this project to come to fruition.”

Mahler was very supportive through the whole process, he said, and kept his spirits up with baked goods. After asking the carver about his favorite dessert, Mahler made him a pecan pie from scratch. A few days later she made a cherry pie, then a peach pie before circling back to cherry.

He polished off his last piece of cherry pie as he spoke.

While Mahler didn’t mention the treats, she said she encouraged Gleich to keep trying when he ran into issues, confident in the fact that he would figure the carving out. 

It wasn’t until he had finished that she saw just how hard he tried to keep to the design her husband originally created. 

“I had no idea that he was going to try and duplicate the actual carving, and that’s so close to what my husband carved,” Mahler said. “He did get it done, and I’m happy about it.” 

Giving the tree new life

Despite the issues he ran into, Gleich said he overall had a good time carving out the hobbit house. He knew the piece was important to Mahler from the first time they met, which made it special. 

Carving for people with personal ties to the piece is different than when making art for parks or other spaces, he said, because he can see the glint in the person’s eye grow as the work comes together. 

“I enjoyed it even more than I normally do, because it was important to her,” he said. 

One of the best parts of wood carving is that the end piece of art multiplies itself, Gleich said. He’ll like it, and the customer will like it. Then they’ll display it, where passerby will take notice and enjoy it, and maybe stop to ask after its story. The hobbit house certainly has an interesting story for those who want to learn it. 

Before this fall, Mahler would walk outside to see the broken trunk of a once beautiful tree. Now, every time Mahler steps outside her door, she can look up and see a monument honoring both the man she loved and the maple she adored. She’s able to feel like it’s still a part of the household.

“It’s been given a whole new life,” she said.

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