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Turning dead wood into sculpture along the Gulf

  • Story Highlights
  • Live oaks lined scenic U.S. 90 before Hurricane Katrina destroyed them
  • Florida wood sculptor Marlin Miller has been turning the tree trunks into carvings
  • Miller's sculptures range from eagles and herons to seahorses and dolphins
  • One of his sculptures will be dedicated on the Biloxi Town Green on Saturday
By April Williams
CNN Radio
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(CNN) -- The wooden sculptures lining the median of U.S. 90 are among the top tourist attractions on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Miller carved a 25-foot-high eagle, dedicated to one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, at Pass Christian.

Marlin Miller's live oak sculpture in Biloxi's Town Green will be dedicated Saturday.

They are also a creative tribute to the live oaks that lined the scenic highway before the saltwater surge of Hurricane Katrina killed them at their very roots.

After the storm, the Mississippi Department of Transportation began bulldozing the dead trees, much to the chagrin of area residents.

Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway, one of the coast's longtime civic leaders, intervened. He contracted to have some of the live oak trunks turned into sculptures. But it would have proved to be a costly venture.

Enter Marlin Miller, a wood sculptor from Fort Walton Beach, Florida, who volunteered to create a few live oak sculptures for free -- in part to leave his artistic mark on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but also as a service to the community.

A tree sculpture begins with the transportation department removing all the branches, leaving just the core of the tree.

"I get an idea of what that carving is going to look like, and I go after it with a wide variety of steel chain saws." Miller said.

He works his way down to high speed grinders, sanders and chisels to add the final detail work.

"They're live oaks, so it's like carving stone. Sparks fly off my chain saw blades when I go after one of the trees," Miller said.

Some of the trees, which are as much a part of south Mississippi's heritage as the antebellum homes scattered along the coastline, are estimated to be as much as 500 or 600 years old.

Miller's sculptures along U.S. 90 range from eagles and herons to seahorses and dolphins. He said local governments have never dictated how his carvings should look.

In Pass Christian, Miller created what he believes to be the world's largest eagle wood carving, at 25 feet tall.

"That sculpture is dedicated to Col. Lawrence Roberts, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen," he said.

A recent survey of area tourist attractions by the Harrison County Tourism Commission listed the beaches as the third-most popular attraction and the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino second. Miller's tree sculptures are first.

"We've had a lot of traffic diverting off of Interstate 10, down to U.S. 90 just to see these carvings," Miller said.

On Saturday, one of Miller's sculptures will be dedicated on the Biloxi Town Green: a 24-foot-tall marlin flying into the sky, three mahi fish jumping to the left, and a sea turtle and a blue crab at the base. It is the only painted tree sculpture of all those lining U.S. 90.

Next on Marlin's to-do list: an oak tree in the center of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and one in Gulfport, Mississippi. He also plans to expand the project to downtown New Orleans and parts of North Carolina.

"Instead of just cutting these trees down," Marlin said, "we're going to put new life into them by adding a sculpture."

All About MississippiHurricane Katrina

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