Eagle carving takes flight

Dong Thi carved this eagle sculpture from an oak tree stump in his front yard and takes care of his granddaughter Thao when she is home from school. Photo by Dorri Partain

As you drive along where Ewing Avenue intersects with East 17th Street, you may do a double take – is that an eagle battling with a cobra?

As it took shape earlier this year, Luu Van Tran carved the remainder of a dead tree trunk into a larger-than-life carving of an eagle, wings raised, ready to strike a cobra.

Intrigued by this new, highly detailed work of art, I stopped to speak with the property owner about the carving, his inspiration, and what other carvings he had possibly done. Thi answered the door but after a minute he indicated he didn’t speak English very well and didn’t understand my questions.

His young granddaughter was home from school for winter break and joined her grandfather at the door. I asked her if she was able to translate for us, but after speaking to him in Vietnamese she just shook her head like she was too shy.

It seemed the interview was at a standstill until Tran saw my reporter’s notebook in my hand and indicated that if I could write my questions he could write his answers. So I was invited inside as I handed him my notepad and his granddaughter scampered under the dining table into the pillow fort she had created there.

After a few minutes we had devised a communication system where I would write additional questions and use hand gestures with simple phrases.

“Why an eagle?” I asked. “I like,” he replied.

“What tools? Any special tools?” I asked. No, just a saw and hand tools he had, he replied.

“Have you carved anything before?”

“No, first time,” he responded.

“What type of tree was it?” Oak, about 50 feet tall. Tree trimmers cut it down.

As our conversation continued I learned that Tran had moved to America 11 years ago to be closer to a daughter that had already immigrated from Vietnam. Now retired, in his homeland he was a farmer.  

When asked if he had used a picture to help him carve the eagle, he pointed to his head. No picture, just his memory of what an eagle should look like. 10 feet tall, he said using his hands, clearly very proud of his creation.

When I asked if he could stand next to his art for a photo, his young granddaughter lost her shyness and asked if she could be in the photo too. Absolutely, I replied, but only if she told me her name and wrote it down on my notepad so I knew how to spell it right.

Then Thao, her grandfather and I went outside for the photo. I showed him the photo and thanked him for his time before leaving and waving goodbye. It wasn’t the detailed interview I was hoping for but it was an interesting experience and made me realize that art needs no translation to be enjoyed.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect a name correction. Due to a miscommunication, Tran’s wife’s name was used in the original story.

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