What A Cut-Up: How Milton Mizenburg and a chainsaw carved out a place for art in Oakland

“A friend of mine introduced me to the greatest thing in the world–a chainsaw,” said Milton Mizenberg, chuckling. “It was like driving a Ferrari.”

Mizenberg has put his bone saw to good use for nearly two decades. His crafty touches pervade the East 41st Street block where he lives. There are the carvings he etched into his front door, and the shards of colored glass he set into the windows. And then, set up on two of the block’s otherwise empty lots, there’s his fifteen-piece sculpture garden. Guidebooks refer to this space as the Oakland Museum of Contemporary Art, mostly because Mizenberg simply put up a sign proclaiming it so.

Clearly, this isn’t your typical South Side block. And just a short time ago, this neighborhood wasn’t quite so out of the ordinary. “This was a rough community,” Mizenberg says. In 1988, when he and his wife Gloria first moved into their north Oakland house, both their home and the surrounding area were in dire need of a facelift. Mizenberg himself attests to the prevalence of “drug dealers and gangbangers” on the street corners. But bad neighborhood or not, the chainsaw artist knew that he’d found his dream house when he saw it.

“It took me seventeen years to get it comfortable,” he said. Now every square foot of his house seems to be occupied by something Mizenberg painted, designed, or carved himself. Using the carpentry, plumbing, and electrical skills learned from years of contract labor, he remade this rundown row house into an imaginatively designed four-story townhouse. That’s when Mizenberg took up sculpting.

“I was cutting wood in here,” he says, pointing across his dining table into another room. “People could hear from outside. I was rehabbing the house at the same time, so my wife couldn’t say too much about it,” he added. “I invited a lot of people from the community to come in and see.” Soon the project moved outside. Mizenberg pointed his trusty chainsaw at an old tree stump and sliced out an abstract sculpture. Soon he made another. In time, he went to the city and asked to have more space for his artwork.

“They thought I was crazy,” Mizenberg says, frankly. Nevertheless, the city gave him the two lots for art space. City workers contributed fifteen ash, poplar, and oak trees for Mizenberg to have his way with, and he did just that. Sadly, a few pieces have been obliterated by storms, but most still stand tall within eyeshot of Mizenberg’s townhouse windows.

“I don’t have to go up north to see artwork,” he boasts with pride. “I can just go out my kitchen door.”

The sculptures in the Oakland Museum, whether made from wood or plastic pipes, resemble one another in slenderness and verticality. The wooden ones play heavily on negative space, and although a few totem-like figures have faces, most are more abstract. Mizenberg has whittled out shapes that recall everything from stacks of furniture to cross sections of machines and organs of the inner ear. Some are painted bright orange, yellow, and crimson; others stand exposed.

As he worked on the Museum, Mizenberg would answer the questions of curious neighborhood kids. He told them he was following his dreams, working hard, and caring for his surroundings, and encouraged them to do the same. Perhaps as a result, Mizenberg’s works have never been defaced, and the plots they stand on remain free of litter. Mizenberg noticed other improvements as well. “All the drug dealers and gangbangers started to migrate away from this block,” he remarks. Why? It’s certainly possible that even the most street-hardened thug might have decided to set up shop elsewhere at the sound of Mizenberg’s a rip-roaring chainsaw.

Over time, Mizenberg’s block has become a safe, peaceful, artistic place. “People have moved here because of the artwork,” claims Mizenberg. “Then all of a sudden [I find out that] they are artists too all of a sudden–artists want to live next door to me!” The sheer amount of construction in the neighborhood is a testament to its growth. The city recently asked Mizenberg to contribute a bronze sculpture to a park being built a block from his home.

Now in his fifties, Mizenberg spends his time giving art lessons, looking after his grandchildren, winning community service awards, and, of course, sculpting. Some of his new material went on display at the Mekashkhen House earlier this month. For having recently won an eight-year battle with cancer, Mizenberg seems impossibly energetic, always looking forward to his next undertaking. “This community was at the bottom,” he said. “Now I’m at the top of the world.”