Filmmaker Michael Angelo finds inspiration in The Tree Man of Venice

By Michael Aushenker

1treeLionel Powell is a tree.

The Tree Man of Venice, to be exact.

For more than five years, the 54-year-old Powell has been transforming himself into the self-described “plant-like celestial being” through a two-hour process that involves body paint, live foliage, flowers, seaweed and 10-foot stilts.

The Tree Man’s natural habitat is among the artists, buskers and other colorful characters on the Venice Beach boardwalk, but he also makes high profile public appearances.

On Monday, Tree Man and a companion Lady Tree rode in South L.A.’s televised Martin Luther King Day Parade. In December he posed for a photo with actress Anjelica Huston during the ceremonial holiday lighting of the Venice sign on Windward Avenue. Prior engagements have included charity events for eco-friendly nonprofits, a spot alongside actress Rosario Dawson at a Westminster Elementary School garden dedication and a paid gig at the Playboy mansion with Hugh Hefner.

But Powell is much more than a performance artist, said Venice filmmaker Michael Angelo, who is shooting a documentary about him.

“I’ve seen him go out for 12 hours straight and dance and be Tree Man,” said Angelo, who began using his middle name in place of his surname years ago while working as a visual effects artist in Hollywood. “He’ll get on a bus to show up for free at some benefit, and maybe he’ll be happy if he gets some juice or something.”

Angelo befriended Powell in 2012 when “this tree came [poking his head] through the window and trying to talk to us” during a Pacific Avenue house party, he said.

The two bonded over talking about the recent deaths of their grandmothers, and it struck Angelo that Powell sincerely embraced the Tree Man persona.

“This guy is not just some guy making a buck. He’s out here to connect with people,” Angelo said.

‘A natural phenomenon’

Powell’s alter ego is part environmental crusader and part humanist, fittingly enough for a being that’s both tree and man.

The Tree Man “is a reflection of nature — a natural phenomenon, just like you,” Powell said. “He’s here to help people see the forest for the trees. To me, that means to look at yourself. We are not just beings walking this Earth, but part of this Earth.”

Powell traces his beginnings to a particularly rough patch of ground: Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects.

As a child, Powell’s music-oriented family nurtured a love of entertaining — “there was always a piano in the house,” Powell recalled — and he developed a knack for sewing by working at it with his seamstress mother. As a young man he learned to move gracefully in stilts while doing painting and drywall work.

It was two decades ago in Florida that Powell first donned costumes professionally, working at Walt Disney World and Universal Studios as Pluto, Winnie-the-Pooh sidekick Eeyore and Rafiki, the old baboon from “The Lion King.”

Then he started dressing up in his own costumes, sometimes performing at his children’s schools.

Powell’s first stab at creating a character to inhabit was the giant spider Spydek, which, along with a female counterpart (Spindra), won Halloween contests at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Universal Studios for a combined $6,000 prize.

When Orlando’s Club Paris opened in 2007, another Powell character — this time Angel Birdman — partied with establishment namesake Paris Hilton.

As a robotic scarecrow named S.I.R. Crow, he met Shaquille O’Neal.

In 2008, the robot T.I.N. (Technological Intergalactic Navigator) wound up making a cameo in the Will Smith movie “Hancock.”

“All of my characters were benevolent,” Powell said.

Powell’s appearance in “Hancock” came shortly after the decision to head west. He had intended to work as a street performer in Las Vegas but lasted only five days in the desert. Arriving in L.A., he took up a post as T.I.N. alongside the Spider Men and Wonder Women on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

After awhile, advice came “to put T.I.N. away” and Powell wound up starting a tiny art gallery and studio out of a small basement apartment on Rose Avenue in Venice.

“If you were over six feet, you had to duck,” Powell said of his art space from 2009 to 2012, where he would hold movie screenings and host Venice Art Crawl activities.

Celebrating art created by Venetians, Powell used the venue as a vehicle to explore characters, and something about Tree Man stuck.

Soon, he was all over the streets of Venice, where he often startles passersby who don’t notice the man behind the costume blending in with curbside trees.

“I get many different reactions,” Powell said of Tree Man, “but 90% of people are awed. Doesn’t matter how big they are. Mostly what I get is after the surprise [of startling someone] is laughter.”

A cycle of giving

Angelo said his documentary was motivated both by the desire to introduce Tree Man to the world and to look out for his friend Powell.

“He’s in his 50s, cruising around on stilts, living hand-to-mouth and doing all this stuff for free all the time. The guy can’t be running around in stilts for 12 hours a day when he’s 70. If he were to commercialize his skills, he’d be set — I’ve seen him ride an electronic skateboard on stilts,” Angelo said. “But he gives it all away. And people give to him.”

Powell currently lives in gifted space at a small local hotel.

Business owners along the Venice boardwalk also lend a helping hand.

“He comes in all the time [as Tree Man] and the customers love him,” said Venice Ale House manager Megan Davis.

In December 2012, the bar hoisted an inflatable movie screen onto its roof for screenings of early footage from Angelo’s documentary.

The Tree Man “has a lovely energy and people adore him,” Davis said. “We usually crack open a coconut for him.”

Powell currently shares his room with his 26-year-old daughter Krystal, one of three children from a previous marriage.

“He’s a lot of things to a lot of people,” she says of Tree Man in promotional footage for Angelo’s film. “To me he’s my dad.”

Just as Tree Man receives gifts from friends and strangers, Angelo has received support for his film. Cinematographer Niles Harrison has jumped into the project as director of photography, and Hollywood digital effects supervisor Justin Johnson came aboard to shoot with sophisticated camera equipment that Angelo couldn’t afford. Go Pro also gifted the project with one of its high-definition personal cameras, Angelo said.

Angelo hopes to wrap up shooting in April after bringing Tree Man back to the Marcy Projects to get in touch with his roots. Preview footage is posted at adocumentree.com.

Powell said he’ll take the attention and any good fortune the film brings, but that’s not what Tree Man is all about.

“I never want attention so they can look at me and give me praise. All I want to do is entertain and give them some joy with all the pain in the world,” he said. “I’m a struggling artist making my way, going with the flow, and the universe has been blessing me.”

michael(at)argonautnews.com

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