For the past few weeks, crowds have been gathering in Centennial Park along Evanston‘s lakefront to view a large tiki being carved by Hawaiian artist Johnnie “Keoni” Durant. Nearly every weekday between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Mr. Durant can be found atop his sculpture, as he transforms a large limb from the trunk of a white oak, the Illinois state tree, into the tiki he plans to give the City of Evanston as a gift.

A tiki, not to be confused with a totem pole, is a large wood or stone carving that represents the human figure. Historically, tikis represented a deep connection to the spiritual realm and reminded ancient Hawaiians of their values, including respect for family, appreciation of nature and belief in the power of knowledge. Today, they serve as symbols of humanity and the wish to create a better life among all people.

A life-long resident of the island of Kauai, Mr. Durant says he is deeply rooted in the Polynesian culture and committed to honoring the way of life created by his ancestors – the high chiefs of the Kanaka Maoli nation – the original caregivers and settlers of the Polynesian archipelago now known as Hawaii.

“I want to give back to the people, to inspire them,” says Mr. Durant, who was encouraged to create the sculpture by his girlfriend, Heather
Shadur, an Evanston native.

Ms. Shadur, who met the artist while visiting Hawaii, lured him to Chicago for a summertime trip with the promise that he would “love the trees, not to mention the unmatched culture and diversity of my home town,” she says.

The Evanston tiki was inspired by a sculpture found in a cave on Kauai, circa 1850. Wearing the helmet of the Hawaiian high chief (Ali’i), it represents the spirit of sportsmanship and recreation. Mr. Durant has named his sculpture “Ohana,” which means family and community in Hawaiian.

“It will stand as a reminder that no one should be forgotten or left behind,” says Mr. Durant.

Mr. Durant uses Stihl chainsaws to do the rough carving and focuses on hand-carving the finer details with chisels.

Both Mr. Durant and Ms. Shadur agree that one of the best parts of the project has been talking to the many people who stop by to inquire about the tiki and the artist.

“We’ve had people who come by daily to check up on the progress,” says Ms. Shadur.

“I just had a boy and his father spend time talking to me about the art of carving,” says Mr. Durant.  “If I can inspire a child to pick up a carving tool and give it a try, then I am a happy man.”

To pay tribute to the community of Evanston and the City’s commitment to the health and well-being of its residents, Mr. Durant has incorporated the City’s seal into the design. The project will take approximately a month to complete. When finished, the tiki will stand nearly 8 feet tall and weigh close to 1,000 pounds.

Mr. Durant will present the finished tiki to Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and the City Council at their Sept. 14 meeting.  He says he hopes to have a public dedication and blessing at a community Luau in Dawes Park mid-September.  The final location for the completed sculpture has yet to be determined.

For more information about the tiki and the artist, or to volunteer to help with the community luau go to www.kauaicarver.com or email Mr. Durant at kauaicarver@gmail.com.