VENUS UNDRAPED : Lakewood Homeowner Turns Tree Stump Into a Work of Art

Times Staff Writer

For several months Norman McComb sat on the porch of his Lakewood home, staring at the enormous tree stump protruding from his front lawn.

What he saw inside, he said later, was Venus de Milo, a classic Greek sculpture dating from about a century before Christ.

So McComb, a 47-year-old maintenance mechanic and amateur woodcarver, got out his chain saw and chisel. Working evenings and weekends, he began shaping the wood. The result is a half-finished 7-foot semi-nude carving that has become a major focus of attention in this otherwise placid middle-class neighborhood.

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Pat Winters, who lives down the street. “It evokes a love and appreciation for art that I think most people have lost. The man’s a genius.”


Said another neighbor who spoke only on the condition that her name not be used: “I really don’t care for it. We’re not Hollywood, we’re Lakewood. Even though it’s Venus de Milo, it’s still a nude and I don’t approve.”

While the city did receive one complaint from a resident claiming that the statue is inappropriate, said Mike Stover, assistant city administrator, an investigation into the matter determined that there is no need for the city to get involved.

“It will not necessarily be placed on the Chamber of Commerce’s maps of milestones of Lakewood,” Stover said. “On the other hand, who knows? Its reputation may grow.”

The saga of the nearly naked Venus began when McComb cut down a overgrown 78-year-old noble fir that towered over his house. For a year, he said, the remaining stump just stood there, an object of his artistic fantasies. Then his wife began complaining, spurring McComb to action.


Previously, McComb’s only artistic background consisted of a few painting courses taken 10 years ago and a handful of tiny wood carvings made recently for himself and family members. While he said he has always enjoyed viewing sculptures, his only direct encounter with Venus de Milo--an elegant, albeit armless, female nude draped from the waist down--came in 1963 during a visit to the Louvre, the French national museum of art in Paris.

Working about 15 hours a week with the aid of a small plaster copy, McComb began fashioning his own larger-than-life front-yard reproduction of the masterpiece, which he hopes to finish by mid-October.

Dramatic Reaction

The reaction has been dramatic.

Crowds of neighbors gather to watch him work on weekends. A steady stream of cars--including at least one tour bus and a church van--have made U-turns off nearby Lakewood Boulevard to pass his house and gawk. McComb said he’s been contacted by an art class and the local woodcarvers guild. And neighbors recently reported seeing a group of teen-age boys fondling the statue in fascination.

The work’s nudity, in fact, initially had more than a few residents worried.

“Originally I wasn’t real thrilled about it,” said Becky Freyermuth, who lives across the street. “The first image was of a chest on one side and a rear end on the other. It was a bit intimidating.”

But as the statue improved, she said, so did most neighbors’ opinion of it. “It’s fairly tastefully done,” Freyermuth said. “The fact that it’s a copy of a piece of art makes it OK. If it were just a big nude, it might be more offensive.”


Distinctive Presence

Some residents even say the work has contributed to a growing sense of neighborhood pride. “I think we’re the only street that’s ever had its own Venus de Milo,” Winters observed.

McComb, for his part, said he’s as surprised as anyone at all the fuss. And despite the fact that passers-by have offered him as much as $2,000 for his work-in-progress and more money for new projects, he said he is not planning to embark on a new artistic career.