By Jane Keller Gordon, Contributing Writer
MARLBOROUGH – Carl the Cardinal’s life has had its ups-and-downs.
First, he was a tree. Then, he was a seven-foot-tall stump painted bright red like a cardinal. Then, he sat in pieces on snowy ground. Now, his restored head rests parked on a chair.
One of a kind, Carl is the creation of Beth Schrag and Bill Condry. The two, in turn, are members of Employment Options, a nonprofit that helps individuals and families in mental health recovery via education, jobs training, advocacy and more.
Schrag and Condry both suffer from depression and live in a Marlborough apartment building that is owned by Employment Options and subsidized by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Stump sparks creativity
Inspiration struck when Condry first helped Schrag move into her apartment back in October of 2016. Condry himself moved in roughly four years later.
Back in 2016, the pair noticed an old tree stump next to their parking lot. They got to work, feeling called to a creative project while settling into a new home.
“My first thought was to turn it into a totem pole, but we decided to sand it down and just stain it,” said Condry.
Later, looking at their polished stump, Condry and Schrag noticed a branch sticking out that made the whole thing look like an old man smoking a cigar. Then, they envisioned a cardinal, including its beak.
“I’ve always loved cardinals,” said Schrag.
In May 2017, Carl took his final form when Schrag and Condry painted his features and added flowers to a cavity in his trunk.
Project carries personal meaning
All this was, at least in part, personal.
Schrag lost her father in 1993, 24 years before Carl spread his metaphorical wings. Before he died, Schrag recalled, her father told her he would “come back as a cardinal.”
She didn’t name her new wooden creation after her late dad. But Shrag said she had him in mind in the years while he proudly guarded her property.
“What better name is there than Carl the Cardinal?” she asked.
‘Carl’ comes down
For all the love, though, Carl posed some problems.
“Our neighbors said it was beautiful,” Schrag said. “But someone told me that it was going to be torn down soon. People were worried that it was going to rot and fall over onto their cars.”
As expected, Carl was eventually taken down as a safety precaution. He laid on the ground, first in the snow – split along his trunk.
Then, after between six and eight months, Condry rented a chainsaw to at least help salvage Carl’s decorated head.
Couple gives sculpture a facelift
Still, Condry and Shrag weren’t ready to give up on Carl even after he had to leave his driveway perch.
“His beak was badly damaged,” Condry said. “[But] we used three pounds of Plaster of Paris and steel wool to fix it. Once he was painted, he looked great again. He has been outside weathering since then.”
Schrag and Condry recently moved Carl the Cardinal to a new area on the Assabet River Rail Trail known as the COVID 2020 Garden.
The small parcel of land features plants, painted rocks and trinkets.
“Unfortunately the person who created this let it go,” Schrag wrote in an email to the Fifty Plus Advocate. “So, me and Bill are going to pick where they left off starting with donating Carl.”
‘Magical’ garden joins Carl the Cardinal
In addition to Carl, meanwhile, Schrag and Condry have created a “magical, mystical garden of lights near where Carl originally stood. The fenced-in space is filled with plants, rocks, signs, trinkets and antiques that the couple finds.
“We decorate the inside and outside,” Condry said, crediting Cracker Barrel as his primary source of inspiration decor.
“We have critters and birds,” he added. “It’s like an outside art gallery that we change all the time.”
“It’s amazing to sit outside at night,” Schrag said of the whole area.
Especially as the weather warms, the couple rests outside, watching the sky and delighting as distant bright specs like the International Space Station dart by.
They call their space the WE Club, named for William (Bill) and Elizabeth (Beth).
“It’s just the best,” Schrag said.
“I’ve always dreamed of a garden, and I find comfort here,” Condry agreed.