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Carving Out a Memory

Artist Turns Dying Oak Into New Tribute to War Hero


THOUSAND OAKS — This city's attempt to again make good on a long-ago promise to honor a fallen war hero is nearly ready for public review.

A local artist has completed carving and sanding portions of a sculpture made from a dying oak tree that once stood in memory of Air Force Capt. Eric Huberth, a Thousand Oaks resident who was shot down over Cambodia in 1970.

Gulhis Celayir-Monezis, an adjunct art instructor at Moorpark College, designed a wooden sculpture that now awaits a protective coating, a preservative and city approval before being placed at City Hall.

The Huberth Memorial Sculpture, as the artwork is called, was crafted from the remains of the tree that died of a fungal infection three years ago after serving as a tribute to Huberth since 1973 at the former city hall building on Hillcrest Drive.

The city planted a replacement oak in Huberth's honor at Conejo Creek Park on Memorial Day 1998, but a number of residents felt more needed to be done--specifically with the first tree.

"I feel to bring closure to this portion of the Huberth family's ordeal, it was important that everything be brought together including the remnants of the original tree," Mayor Dennis Gillette said. "I feel there is a certain amount of very valuable symbolism in that."

Celayir-Monezis, who was selected by the city in February to construct the sculpture, said she took a leave of absence from her teaching job and worked about 10 hours daily in June and most of July on the project.

Last month, the Thousand Oaks artist tested a protective coating and preservative on small portions of the tree not used as part of the sculpture. This will help ensure the wood survives the elements.

"She put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it," said Lorraine Larsen, one of Huberth's four sisters who recently saw the sculpture at the artist's home studio. "You could just tell it was very emotional.

"The amount of effort and time and love that she put into this, it almost feels like she's part of the family doing it. It was great we were able to have somebody who really cares."

The memorial sculpture, made up of seven pieces of wood ranging in height from 3 to 6 feet, will be installed under an oak tree to the left of the main entrance to City Hall. The sculpture will also commemorate the service of all local veterans, Gillette said.

The segments of tree will stand on four circular concrete platforms, each faced with red brick and stacked atop one another. The individual tree pieces are carved to look like twisted ribbons and will be oriented toward the center of the design, which is the artwork's highest point.

City officials have yet to decide when to install the artwork, but Huberth's family is hoping to see it erected Jan. 20, which would have been the pilot's 55th birthday.

"It's going to be a pretty heart-wrenching day for us," said Larsen, 46.

Celayir-Monezis will receive $5,000 from the city to cover her expenses and time spent on the project, according to city officials, who estimate it will cost an additional $10,000 to install the sculpture.

Aside from the honor of working on a city project, the art instructor said she found personal satisfaction in the project because she understood what it meant to lose a family member. Her father died in January 1998.

"It was almost like I was doing this for my dad," Celayir-Monezis said. "There was an intensity in that. I had to concentrate in it. I had to give everything I had to the tree."

Huberth's family is grateful for her hard work.

"[Eric] is still playing a part of my everyday life because of this, and it's a wonderful feeling to know that," Larsen said.

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