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Indian Princess masterpiece at Lake Ronkonkoma awing visitors

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For four years, passersby in Lake Ronkonkoma honked and waved as Todd Arnett climbed scaffolding and hacked away at a tree on the side of Lake Shore Road.

Now, they honk and wave when they see him at ground level, looking up at his latest masterpiece: a 32-foot-tall carving of an Indian Princess.

Atop a substantial base, the carved Native American woman overlooks Lake Ronkonkoma. Located on the north side of the lake at 279 Lake Shore Road, the princess holds a cormorant in her hands as she gazes across the lake at an Indian Chief carving, another Arnett original that he finished about seven years ago.

A sign from the New York Folklore Society accompanies her and tells her tale. According to myth, Tuskawanta, the Algonquin princess who inspired the wood carving, drowns at least one male in the lake each year on her quest to find true love.

Arnett, 52, said the sculpture might “appease what curse there may or may not be,” but the urban legend should not overshadow the recognition of nature and native peoples to which he has devoted much of his artwork after meeting with a shaman years back.

“I’m always drawn to water, nature and anything native,” Arnett said. “The artwork itself has always been spiritual. I don’t create it, it’s created through me.”

Crafting a princess

The European copper beech tree Arnett used to create the princess was one of five grown in Scandinavia, transported to England and ordered and picked up by the Newton family to plant in their hometown of Ronkonkoma, according to Ellyn Okvist, the president of the Lake Ronkonkoma Heritage Association.

Over a decade ago, when Arnett first met Virginia Schutte, who owns the property where the Indian Princess resides, he asked if he could carve something in her world-travelled tree should it die or if she wanted it cut down. That day came and he made his first cuts in December 2017.

Arnett said he spoke with historians at the Shinnecock Indian Reservation before carving the tree to learn not only history, but to receive some guidance for the project. Specifically, he said, he learned what would be appropriate for the princess to wear.

The job required several tools, primarily three chain saws of different sizes, as well as an angle grinder and a large die grinder.

Arnett used all these tools while “monkeying” his way around a tree – an immovable canvas – on stories-high scaffolding.

“I worked on it every single day and night in my mind,” Arnett said. “Ninety percent of the work is up here. The physical labor put into this was massive, but that was nothing compared to the mental energy to be able to do a three dimensional sculpture suspended in the air safely.

“Doing a sculpture that close to you that’s three times your size, you don’t have perspective so you have to climb down take a step back,” he added.

As for her face, as well as those for other sculptures, Arnett said he starts going off model faces, but then the art itself takes over.

“I’ll use models for general faces, and as always with a sculpture, it takes on its own life,” he said. “I’ll use a model to a certain degree until that starts to happen, then I go with the sculpture and what it’s saying and what it decides.”

After four years of labor, Arnett chiseled and torched Tuskawanta’s nostrils, ear lobes and eyes.

He then coated her with about 12 gallons of a weather-proofing sealant. She could use double that, he said, once he and Schutte, 75, raise sufficient funds for things like more sealant and fixtures to light her.

Even without a lighting rig, Schutte said the carving attracts many visitors for pictures. It even translates into more visits into her flower shop on the property to learn more. She, like Arnett, believes the work of art goes beyond a singular piece of folklore.

“We did this, Todd and I, so people could appreciate and enjoy looking at her,” Schutte said. “It’s not (related) the horrors of the legend. Nine people out of 10 are enjoying it as a beautiful princess and not getting caught up in the horrors.

“I think it just represents something that’s beautiful. We have a heart for her,” she added.