A tree grows on Parsons

Woodworker Brian Scono has been holed up in his South Side shop for months crafting a 12-foot replica of a tree from thousands of Jenga tile-sized pieces of black walnut.
A segment of Brian Scono's tree sculpture photographed at Opus Woodworking.
A segment of Brian Scono's tree sculpture photographed at Opus Woodworking.Brian Scono

A few years ago, a local couple experienced complications related to the delivery of their firstborn, which led to an extended hospital stay for the infant. In those trying times, the pair frequently found comfort in a series of mobiles hanging in the hospital courtyard, which allowed their minds to drift at least temporarily from their worries.

With the child now older and fully recovered, and in the midst of renovating their Delaware home, the couple knew they wanted to incorporate a mobile into their cavernous main living room as a way of honoring those early days, which is how woodworker Brian Scono found himself wrapping a Clintonville tree in a thick layer of aluminum foil last summer.

Scono, founder of Opus Woodworking, located on Parsons Avenue on the South Side of Columbus, is best known for his custom cabinetry – a skillset that allows him to showcase both his artistic leanings (an early love of ceramics nearly led him to attend CCAD) and his more meticulous nature, with Scono describing himself as “super anal-retentive, as far as things go.” 

“I wouldn’t say I’m OCD, but I can really home in and focus,” said Scono, who got his start in custom cabinetry in 2006, landing his first apprenticeship with Michael Matrka following a stretch in which he worked as a hairdresser. “So, this sort of meticulous work is a treat.”

The “meticulous work” to which Scono referred is the ongoing construction of a 12-foot mobile created from the cast of a tree and assembled from thousands of blocks of black walnut roughly the size of Jenga tiles. In dreaming up early ideas for the mobile, Scono and his friend, the interior designer Kate Wannemacher, discarded myriad concepts, including one that would have constituted a thick flock of hand-sculpted birds, before landing on the idea for the tree. “I knew it needed to be something beefy,” Scono said of the mobile, which will hang from the 20-plus-foot ceiling with braided stainless-steel wire.

A segment of Brian Scono's tree sculpture photographed at Opus Woodworking.
A segment of Brian Scono's tree sculpture photographed at Opus Woodworking.Brian Scono

Scono hit on the concept after being introduced to the work of John Grade, and specifically his piece “Middle Fork,” for which the artist recreated a 140-year-old hemlock tree by plaster casting it and then recreating its form using thousands of pieces of reclaimed, old-growth cedar. With an idea in hand, Scono, who lives in Grandview, spent weeks walking the streets of Columbus, trying to locate a tree that was the right size (he knew he wanted it to fall in the 12- to 14-foot range) but also had a high degree of visual interest. “The scale was a part of it, but so was the root flair and the dynamic within that,” said Scono, who then directed my attention toward the bottom of the sculpture, where the trunk stretched outward in rippling waves near the spot where the roots would have then plunged beneath the earth. 

After landing on a tree, located on a strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street near a Clintonville veterinarian’s office, Scono covered it in a thick layer of foil to protect the tree from the plaster gauze and then set about casting – a process that took three or four days. Once the plaster dried, he carefully cut it off in sections and hauled it back to his airy Parsons Avenue shop, where he started the laborious work of recreating the form, setting the black walnut tiles in place and securing them with wood glue and headless pin nails. Scono selected black walnut in discussions with the homeowners, citing everything from its cool finished look and modest heft (hickory, for instance, weighs twice as much) to the ease with which it can be crafted. “It sands really well, cuts really well, and there’s not a lot of heavy grain movement, which can create challenges,” said Scono, who estimated the finished piece will weigh around “300 or 400 pounds.”

Nothing, however, could speed up the process, which has involved slowly ringing the plaster forms with tiny wooden blocks, which are set in place and then buffed down to mirror the tree's natural curves. Scono said he took a first pass with an angle grinder, and he plans to follow with a series of increasingly fine-grained sandpapers, beginning with 120 grit and progressing through three or four rounds of sanding to reach 400 grit, which he said would give the finished piece an “extremely refined” appearance. Even unfinished, though, the section of trunk set in the east side of the shop captured the organic folds, ripples and curves one finds in nature.

At the time of our interview, Scono estimated he had already logged 900 hours on the project, hand-setting somewhere in the range of 20,000 wooden blocks. And with a May deadline looming (pushed back from December), he still had hundreds more hours to invest, noting that the sanding process alone is likely to take somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 hours, give or take. Once completed, he’ll spray the piece with a UV-resistant finish and outfit it with a custom lighting rig, which will give the tree an ethereal glow when switched on.

Moving forward, Scono said he hopes this can be the catalyst to take on more fine arts projects, though he expressed little interest in creating work that can be displayed in a gallery setting. 

“I’ve always liked that personal experience working with the homeowner,” said Scono, who recalled the couple visiting the shop a few months back with their child in tow – the same one whose early hospitalization inspired the project. “I like that it’s a personal piece, and that it’s something sentimental on top of that. The whole thing is very special.”

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