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Carvers create gifts from fallen strangler fig
January 2, 2019

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A group of local carvers have turned a fallen tree into a fundraising opportunity.

"We earned $750 for the Mound House. It worked out really well," said John Franz, president of the Caloosa Carvers.

On the first and third Tuesday of the month, Franz can be found behind the museum with a few fellow carvers, working on his signature geckos.

The small pieces are carved from a chunk of the 100-year-old strangler fig in the museum's yard.

The tree was damaged during Hurricane Irma, but rather than dispose of the fallen limb, the Caloosa Carvers decided to make it into art.

Along with Franz's geckos, which he said can take 30 hours to make, they've carved small "comfort birds" from the wood.

These simple, smooth carvings were originally created in 1982 by woodcarver Frank Faust to provide consolation to those in need.

"It was given to people who were sick or who were nervous, and if you hold it in the palm of your hands, it supposedly would calm you down and make you feel better," said Franz.

The carvers thought they would make great souvenirs, too, so they donated them to the Mound House for sale in the gift shop.

At the museum's Christmas Market in December, Franz said they sold 22 comfort birds at $40 each and three of his geckos at $75 each.

"We're going to continue to carve until we run out of the (strangler fig) wood," he said.

The group has been working with the museum since its beginnings, when they were asked to help create replicas of Calusa masks.

They meet every Wednesday morning at the Araba Shriners Center in Fort Myers, and are always accepting new members.

Franz, who is a master-level carver, said he's taught many different people how to carve.

"Most people don't understand that it's a learnable skill," he said. "But you can learn to carve pieces that you'd be very happy and proud to show people."

The group has around 75 members during season, according to Franz.

Though they carve all over the area, the Mound House's back porch is a favorite spot for its view of the back bay and peaceful atmosphere.

"We love coming here to work," said Marge Robinson, marveling at the colors in the strangler fig's wood grain as she sanded a small dish.

This is a hobby for her, but it's also an important legacy.

"These are crafts that will be lost if they don't get passed down to the next generations," she said.

The craft, like the heritage of the Calusa, is something the carvers want to preserve.

Henry, Marge's husband, displays his work on a table in front of him: a miniature canoe with a Calusa man at the helm, a painted deer head, and an alligator whose mouth opens to reveal a full set of wooden teeth.

"The Calusas liked to make replicas of animals they saw," Robinson explained.

Looking out over the bay, she described a dream for the carvers: a full-sized, handmade canoe in the style of the Calusa.

If only they could find a big enough piece of wood.

"There's only certain woods that you can use that would have been available at the time of the Calusa indians, so that's another logistical problem, but hopefully someday we'll be able to do that," said Franz.

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