Ever wondered about the origins of the whimsical dog and cat statues standing proudly in front of a Victorian-era home on Alcatraz at Racine Street? Well, it all started in 2015, when Oakland resident Ray Shiflett had a problem. In fact, he had two problems.
The front yard of his home contained two problematic trees: a Deodar cedar that was dying and shedding branches in a dangerous fashion and a redwood whose roots were plugging up his neighbor’s sewage pipes.
The trees had to go, but that didn’t mean that the stumps couldn’t be made into something fabulous.
“I told the people who cut them down that I wanted eight-foot stumps,” said Shiflett recently. His plan: to create two larger-than-life carvings to greet motorists and pedestrians. “I had lined up the woodcarver and as soon as the trees were cut down, he got to work.”
The woodcarver was Marin-based artist Devyon Harrison. Shiflett had discovered Harrison after seeing his work displayed at Artisan Burlwood, once located on Ashby near San Pablo.
Shiflett’s commission to Harrison was to carve the two stumps into representations of his orange tabby cat, Go-Go, and his son’s dog, Cappuccino (Cappy for short). Seven years later, Cappy is still living his best dog life, but sadly, beloved cat Go-Go has passed on, making Devyon’s carving of him a lasting feline memorial.
Shiflett had raised Go-Go from a pint-sized kitten with eyes that were barely open to a fearless cat who loved to free range. Go-Go was “one of those kinds of cats that love to go on walks,” he said. “And I would take him on a walk every evening. This cat was attached to me and wherever I was it wanted to go with me.”
Meanwhile, Capp, who still lives in North Berkeley with Shiflett’s son, is a terrier-lab mix rescue. “He loves to retrieve,” said Shiflett. “When he was younger, he would retrieve a ball for three hours.”
Artist Harrison discovered the art of wood carving about 40 years ago. “I saw someone putting on an exhibition in front of a chainsaw dealership in Marin County and I gravitated to it right away,” he said recently. “I spent probably half the day watching the guy, had a conversation with him, and decided it was a good time to own a chainsaw.”
When Harrison showed up to work on Shiflett’s stumps, he wanted a model to work from. “I showed him a picture, but he said he wanted the animals,” said Shiflett. “The cat was always around, but I got my son’s dog and brought her over.”
The entire process, from the time the trees were cut down to stumps until the completion of the carvings, said Shiflett, took about four months.
Harrison’s work can be found elsewhere in the East Bay, including a pair of rabbits at the corner of Ashby and Claremont Crescent in Berkeley, a trio of bears near Lake Merritt, and a castle carved out of a huge pine tree trunk off Claremont Avenue. His carvings have also found a market at UC Berkeley, where the university’s lock and key division commissions him to create a Cal bear whenever a staff member retires.
So, next time you’re heading down Alcatraz, be sure to wave hello to Cappy and Go-Go. “The likeness of both animals is remarkable,” said Shiflett.