Creative redemption

Manistee artist salvages driftwood, cacti to make Christmas tree

MANISTEE — The Christmas story declares that there is no such thing as a throwaway — whether a building, a town, a person, a people, a country — or a world.

The work of Manistee artist Diana Monovich’s adds to that: The remnants of nature are not throwaways either. With the help of friend and employee James Hanestock, Monovich rescued the detritus of two very different environments and fashioned them into a strange and beautiful Christmas tree that now ornaments her Manistee living room.

James Hanestock (left) and Diana Monovich (left) worked together to create a Christmas tree out of driftwood. The tree now decorates the living room of Monovich's home on the shore of Lake Michigan. (Meg LeDuc/News Advocate)

James Hanestock (left) and Diana Monovich (left) worked together to create a Christmas tree out of driftwood. The tree now decorates the living room of Monovich’s home on the shore of Lake Michigan. (Meg LeDuc/News Advocate)

The wood of the tree survived the water, the waters of Lake Michigan. And the star that crowns it was created from the remains of a hot, dry place — a cactus from the New Mexico desert, where Monovich spends winters.

Diana Monovich created the star for the driftwood Christmas tree out of petrified cactus she salvaged from the New Mexico desert. (Meg LeDuc/News Advocate)

Diana Monovich created the star for the driftwood Christmas tree out of petrified cactus she salvaged from the New Mexico desert. (Meg LeDuc/News Advocate)

“It was a lot of long walks on the beach,” said Hanestock, who helped Monovich, 70, gather the driftwood. Part of the process was becoming more observant, he added — learning to watch for driftwood in the right shape and weight. The two had been gathering the pieces for years, but only recently began constructing the tree.

“Every year is a theme (for the Christmas tree),” said Monovich, explained that now that her children are adults, she has more freedom to create nontraditional Christmas trees.

Hanestock and Monovich sunk a PVC pipe in a wooden base with cement, then ran a copper pipe up from the PVC base. Hanestock drilled through each piece of driftwood at one end and then hung them on the pipe. The two worked together to balance the tree, arranging and rearranging the driftwood several times before finalizing the order.

Besides the tree, Monovich’s home is decorated with her work, from oil paintings and beach glass ornaments to stained glass and ceramics. She taught both high school English and art in Kalamazoo before retiring to Manistee. As an art teacher, she had to be good at many different forms of art, she points out.

“Sometimes, I’ve been criticized at trying to too many things,” says Monovich, laughing.

But in the hands of someone creative, even dead and petrified cactus can become a star.

Both Monovich and Hanestock have a deep love of the water.

“How can you live without it?” asks Hanestock.

Diana Monovich's husband loved photography and took many family photos over the years, which Monovich has used to create unique ornaments for her driftwood Christmas tree. (Meg LeDuc/News Advocate)

Diana Monovich’s husband loved photography and took many family photos over the years, which Monovich has used to create unique ornaments for her driftwood Christmas tree. (Meg LeDuc/News Advocate)

Twenty-years-old, he has been working for Monovich, who suffers from arthritis, since he was 14. In the summers, he works at Arcadia Bluffs; the rest of the year, he helps Monovich at her home on Lake Michigan.

“Wherever I’m working, I’ve got an up-close view of the lake,” he explained.

Monovich says that her husband loved the mountains, but she has loved the water “since I was a little girl.”

When the couple decided to retire, Monovich’s husband said that they should settle by the water. But he died almost immediately after the final paperwork was signed to buy the land.

“I built the house by myself,” explained Monovich. “(Building the house) sort of kept me alive. You have to be so involved to build a house.”

Monovich lives alone now, and her creativity sustains her.

“I can’t imagine being alone without that creativity,” she said. “I’m always working on something new and different and creative. It’s that creative doing that is inside.”

Creativity also serves as a way for Monovich to reach out to others.

The driftwood Christmas tree is decorated with family mementos. Monovich’s husband loved photography, and Monovich gathered photographs he had taken over the decades, as well as pictures of herself or her parents as children.

She had the pictures scanned and reprinted, then used them to create ornaments. Some of the frames she bought, but some she made herself.

Monovich gathers with other Manistee artists on a regular basis, instructing them on different art forms. She is a member of the Manistee Art Institute and sometimes teaches classes there.

She shares what she has. And this is Christmas, too.

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