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Tree tragedy gives wings to an angelic solution

Jack Morgan
The Lambermont Events Center with the Angel in the foreground

As Beatle George Harrison said five decades ago, “All Things Must Pass.” But when it’s time for a massive tree to pass, some folks can’t quite let go.

The story of one such reluctant homeowner — and an artist whose efforts lent a divinely inspired solution — starts with Dona Liston and her incredible home.

“It is. Built in 1894 by Alfred Giles for Edwin Terrell. He was the U.S. ambassador prior to building this house,” Liston said.

the mansion probably in the 19-teens. Tree that would become the Angel at center right.
Dona Liston
the mansion probably in the 19-teens. Tree that would become the Angel at center right.

She owns and lives in the massive Lambermont Events Center on East Grayson Street.

Ft. Sam Houston is right across from the road from the stone fence of the four-story plus basement limestone mansion. That limestone was quarried a little more than a mile away, at the quarry that was then turned into the San Antonio Zoo.

“The craftsmen that it took to put this house together back in 1894, is just amazing,” she said.

As most homeowners do, the first ones planted trees.

“I have pictures of the original house with the very first tree that went up. So, 129 years ago,” Liston said.

Over time those two trees grew to be huge — about 70 feet tall, branches meeting in the center above the sidewalk. But then in early September of last year, one of the trees collapsed.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Arts & Culture News Desk including The Guillermo Nicolas & Jim Foster Art Fund, Patricia Pratchett, and the V.H. McNutt Memorial Foundation.

Dona Liston with her Angel
Jack Morgan
Dona Liston with her Angel

“It just completely split in half and fell. Covered my sidewalk. Covered my driveway. A massive, massive tree,” Liston said.

And the news got worse. A subsequent visit by City Arborist Mark Bird confirmed the still standing tree had a fungus and its days were numbered. While it grew about 40 feet from the house, if it fell in that direction, it could’ve damaged Liston’s home and business significantly.

“We had some tree guys come in and cut all the branches down,” she said.

“And they have to start from the top, work their way down and as they were doing that, they got to the point of ‘Now we've got this trunk and we've got to dig it up.’ And I just…” Liston said, recalling what she said. “‘You know what? Just leave it.’”

That emotional bond with her dead tree didn’t allow her to let it go. And the way the remaining limb stumps flared out, she began to see something.

“I just kept seeing these angel wings. And I love angels. I've collected angels for years,” Liston said.

She Googled angels and tree stumps and found some inspiring examples, but who could take a chainsaw and turn her dead stump into an angel? Enter Andy Hancock.

Andy Hancock on scaffolding, carving the Angel
Dona Liston
Andy Hancock on scaffolding, carving the Angel

“Ah yes! Now there’s a story,” he said.

Hancock lives on South Padre Island, but he’s not from there.

“Born in Melbourne, Australia. Long time ago and then moved to Britain when I was young,” Hancock said.

“I spent a long time in the UK, three kids, all that stuff. And 35 years later I thought, ‘No, this isn't for me. I'm going to move to Texas,’” he laughed.

His career bounced between being a motorcycle engineer to insurance salesman. And then his brother bought him a chainsaw.

“And so I started doing wood sculptures and they were popular. And I just went from there really, and traveled all over the world for 20 years,” he said.

After all that globe trotting Hancock ended up living at South Padre.
Dona Liston has roots in Harlingen, and through Facebook, caught wind of projects he had done in the area. They exchanged messages and she ended up calling him, and his accent revealed his heritage.

“And it was like, ‘Oh, you are not from the Rio Grande Valley!’ A very, very interesting person,” Liston said.

Angel detail
Jack Morgan
Angel detail

He didn’t know much about San Antonio trees or whether they were big enough to sculpt, so he asked for a picture.

“She sent me a picture and I thought ‘Oh, wow, that's my sort of tree!’” he said. “Oh, yes, it was a monster. This thing was 70 feet.”

They came to an agreement, and regarding the specifics of the sculpting, she gave him a lot of leeway.

“My rules to him were, I want you to naturally do what you see as you're doing it,” Liston said. “I wasn't going to go out and nitpick.”

That sentiment is exactly what most artists like, but rarely hear.

side view of the Angel
Jack Morgan
side view of the Angel

“When you have people with vision like Dona and who really know what they want and then let you do your thing, that's my sort of job. I don't just do anything,” he said.

So he came to San Antonio and began work, staying in Lambermont’s carriage house. He began work in late August, traditionally Texas’ most brutally hot month. For Hancock: not a problem.

“I love the heat. I'm Australian, so he doesn't bother me,” he said.

As you may recall, this year the last week in August wasn’t nearly as hot as the first week of August.

“The whole time he was here was overcast and beautiful. It's like somebody is watching after us on this one,” said Liston

One may wonder if perhaps it was an angel watching over how the project unfolded.

Given Liston’s loose instructions to Hancock, when did she have the sense that the project was going to work?

“I knew from day one he got it. He had it,” Liston said. “He started in on the one wing and it's like oh yeah, he's got this.”
Now the carving is all done, and a 12-foot tall Angel overlooks the grounds of Lambermont. Liston beams looking at the Angel gazing towards Ft. Sam Houston, pondering how a generic tree stump became that angel.

“I see things that other people don't see in things. So I saw this beautiful angel, but I personally couldn't make this into a beautiful angel,” she said.

Andy Hancock takes the humble route in describing his work.

“The angel was already there. All [I] had to do is cut away the pieces,” he said.

You can see it any time, but Liston said with its lighting, it’s particularly dramatic at night.

the Angel at Lambermont at night
Dona Liston
the Angel at Lambermont at night

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii