On the edge of Jackson Park, a green woman basks in the sun. Obscured by a stretch of trees at the corner of 59th Street and Stony Island Boulevard, she stands tall with arms raised, a piece of public art celebrating the union of human craft and nature.
Transformation, a fifteen-and-a-half-foot-tall statue carved out of a dead ash tree, was created by Iowa-based chainsaw carver Gary Keenan in 2020.
Also dubbed the “Green Lady” by Keenan, the statue is a part of the Chicago Tree Project, a collaboration between the Chicago Park District and Chicago Sculpture International. As the emerald ash borer, an invasive species of beetle encouraged by climate change, infects trees across North America, artists give trunks new life through carving, painting, and installing art onto sick and dying trees.
The emerald ash beetle has been called the “most destructive forest pest ever seen in North America” by the Park District, and threatens to chew through all ash trees in Chicago within the next decade. Given that about ten percent of trees in city parks are ash trees, the Park District has been rapidly planting non-ash trees to account for the projected loss of greenery. Meanwhile, to make the most of the damage already inflicted by the beetle, they have commissioned more than fifty unique ash tree sculptures since 2014, several which are in Hyde Park.
Keenan’s process is poetic, using loud, aggressive machines like chainsaws and power tools to carve a sculpture full of hope. Debuting in the early days of the pandemic, the “Green Lady”embodies resilience against brutal biological forces: viruses and invasive species.
While the lower portion of the trunk was left unpainted—a visual that likens the piece to nearby trees—the rest of the sculpture is painted in various shades of green, emphasizing the textured overlapping vines and leaves which climb up her thighs and sprout from her arms. As weeds overtake the sculpture’s base, it’s as if the woman herself has grown out of the earth. The sculpture is striking; her pose is unwaveringly powerful. In a 2020 interview with WTTW, Keenan recalled a passerby that stopped to mimic the “Green Lady” pose, taking pictures with her arms raised and face turned to the sun.
Transformation, S. 59th St. and S. Stony Island Blvd. chicagotreeproject.org/trees-2/gary-keenan/