Recently, artist Ron Cowan and several strong helpers sliced a 6-inch-thick, 4-foot-tall panel out of the face of an old maple tree trunk on High Street in Belfast. A few days later, while showing his signature woodcarvings of faces at an annual outdoor art fair, he was besieged with dozens of variations on the same question. It didn’t matter if the people were local residents or visitors.

“I must have had 150 people ask me, ‘What happened to Sergio?'” Cowen said. “A lot of affection was coming his way.”

Sergio Ricardo Gazitua was a Chilean-born businessman. He lived and worked in New York, where he met his wife Rosemary, with whom he made frequent trips back to his home country over the years. The couple eventually retired to Belfast to be closer to their grandchildren. According to some who knew him, he was outgoing and gregarious.

When he died of an illness in 2003, Rosemary Gazitua knew she wanted to memorialize her husband somehow. She had seen Cowan’s work and despite some concerns that the subject matter might be too sad for an artist known for his playful characters, she called him to ask if he would do a portrait of Sergio at their home.

The closest Cowan ever came to meeting Sergio Gazitua was hearing his voice on the answering machine when he called Rosemary back to tell her he was willing to try. Though he had carved hundreds of imagined faces into trees and wood pilings over the years, doing a portrait, he later realized, would require more “left-brain” work than he was used to.

Working from a handful of snapshots and at least one studio portrait, Cowan tried to distill the essence of Sergio’s likeness. In some of the pictures, Sergio sported a beard and moustache. According to Rosemary, the facial hair came and went with some regularity. In the final carving, he wore a substantial moustache and the hint of chin hair.

Sometimes the photos depicted Sergio in glasses, other times without — asked if glasses could be carved, Cowan said they could sometimes be suggested with a line on the cheekbone; adding glasses afterward, presumably of some other material, was “too Hollywood,” he said.

In the end, Cowan said he mixed and matched a bit, but worked primarily from one slightly blurry snapshot in which he saw something in Sergio’s eyes. Sergio, who lived to be 72, is older in the picture. He is laughing.

“If you can get the eyes…” Cowan said. “If you can get them to look back at you, you’re golden.”

The carving was done over five or six sessions. At Cowan’s request, the city removed the top of the tree, which had been dropping limbs into the street, and Cowan capped the 12-foot-tall trunk with copper to keep the rain out.

Starting with a chainsaw — “that’s the one that connects me to the piece, because it gets me there the fastest,” he said — he roughed out the features, moving to increasingly small power tools — disc grinder, Dremel rotary tool — for the refinement and detail work. People have asked him over the years, sometimes incredulously, why he doesn’t use chisels, but Cowan said it just takes too long.

Rosemary Gazitua said she originally envisioned the memorial as something private, but the only suitable tree on her property was the dead maple standing near the road, in full view of southbound traffic on High Street, and nearly abutting a well-traveled sidewalk.

Cowan warned her, she said, that the carving would likely attract interest from the general public, but as she recalled it, she didn’t have any idea how much.

During the years the portrait was on display, Rosemary said it caught the attention of “several thousand” people. From the den at the front of her house, she could hear when people stopped to talk about it. And many times she would go out and chat with them.

The response, she said, was always positive. People were curious to know about the wooden Sergio and sometimes the real one. Children posed with him. Parents lifted babies who kissed him or put their hands on his cheeks.

“It was very sweet,” she said. “I’m sure he would have loved it.”

Though the portrait had the look of a lasting monument, patron and the artist both knew that the tree wouldn’t last forever.

“Anything rooted to the ground, it just melts away over the years,” Cowan said. “[The carvings] are organic; they kind of pass with us. I would cast them out of something else, but once the memories are gone and the people are gone, you’re really gone.”

When Cowan removed the portrait from the tree earlier this month, he found most of the trunk shot through with ant holes. Substantial portions were rotten. Mushrooms had captured the foot of the tree. Barring some old battle scars, however, the face was surprisingly intact.

On July 11, the slab bearing Sergio’s likeness lay on a raised pallet in the yard of Cowan’s Belfast home. As he talked, he moved his hands over the carved portions, stopping on the right cheek, which was darker than the rest of the face, and freckled with light-colored dots. Several years earlier, he said, bees had attacked that area, burrowing holes into the wood almost overnight. Cowan evicted the bees and filled the holes with epoxy, but with ants encroaching from the rear, it seemed like only a matter of time before the portrait was destroyed.

“I knew one day a big, pileated woodpecker would take this out,” he said, patting the cheek. “He’d be going for the ants. The wood would just be in the way.”

At Rosemary’s request, Cowan plans to remove the wood around the face and make it so that it can be mounted on the wall of an upstairs room in the Gazitua’s home, nested among the many paintings hung salon-style around the wall today.

In his retirement, Sergio did scores of watercolors. His images — often of flowers, quiet arrangements of local species interspersed with crowded portraits of tropical plants in their natural settings — hang in every room of the old house. The upstairs room is where he used to paint, Rosemary said.

She declined to be photographed there, and her reason seemed to stem from a desire to restore a layer of privacy to the memory of her husband.

As she spoke about bringing the wooden portrait indoors, it was clear that Sergio’s posthumous celebrity was incidental to her intent. Her connection to the piece remained essentially a private one. The history of the friendly face as a work of public art was accidental.

She reiterated how she didn’t mind talking to people about it, but she would have been happier if it had been, say, in the back yard.

“It was quite a journey and I think it was very nice,” she said. “A lot of people who came here [to Belfast] liked it because it was just unusual… We’ve had very many nice talks and I’m sure my husband would have been very pleased too.”