Walking down Main Street in Patchogue on Friday with her mother, 3-year-old Clara Intravia began to cry at the sight of a tree.
“She’s normally a tree-hugger,” Jenny Intravia, her mother, said.
But this tree hugs back.
Dressed in an elaborate costume of twigs and leaves and using stilts to stand 10 feet tall, the “Treeman,” Lionel Powell, offered high-fives, fist bumps and waves to everyone he passed, including Clara and her mother.
The performance artist has been turning up in character for more than 10 years, sharing his love of nature and fantasy. He has gained a social media following, made television cameos and is the subject of an upcoming documentary.
Now, Powell, 57, is putting down roots in Patchogue for the foreseeable future, where, in the last several months, he has become a regular feature on Main Street.
At least weekly, the street performer spends two hours getting into costume and then shows up anywhere from downtown Patchogue to the Long Island Rail Road, to Manhattan. Social media posts often track his travels.
“It’s not just so people can see me, it’s so they can have that little fantasy, that little miracle, that joy in life,” he said.
On a walk to the train station Friday, he left a trail of bewildered passers-by with iPhones in camera mode.
“I got out of the car and chased him down,” said Elizabeth Rinaldi, 30, who took several selfies with Powell. “I thought I was losing my mind.”
Powell was raised in the projects of Brooklyn and he has been back to New York to film the documentary “A DocumenTree.” But the Treeman really took off during his more than 10 years in Venice Beach, California, where both the arts community and tourists embraced him and where he lived before moving to Long Island.
When asked how he became the Treeman, he said the character and the imagination that inspired it have always been part of him.
“This has been my nature since I was a young child,” he said.
Performance art isn’t the most lucrative job. Winters can be tough for the Treeman, Powell said, and he relies on the kindness of friends and the occasional tip to help keep him going.
His longtime friend Bill O’Connell, a communications professor at Suffolk County Community College, made living in New York again possible.
O’Connell first bumped into the Treeman more than 10 years ago.
“I was walking on Venice Beach and this head came down from the tree,” O’Connell of Patchogue said. “I almost punched him.”
O’Connell said he invited Powell to visit SCCC for its annual Earth Week when he started teaching there. After buying a house, he invited Powell to stay long-term.
“It’s a wonderful thing when I grow to different places from East Coast to West Coast,” Powell said.
Powell likes to surprise people, and takes every opportunity for Treeman to peer into store and restaurant windows. A favorite tactic is “tree awakenings,” where he stands still like an actual tree and surprises unsuspecting pedestrians with an enthusiastic hello or one of his tree-themed greetings.
“Tree ya later,” Powell said to a woman taking a video from her car in Patchogue on Friday. “May the forest be with you.”
Providing perspective and an appreciation of nature is how Powell sees his role when he dons his elaborate costume and stilts and visits his new community.
“For people working that 9-to-5 job, I try to put that different thing in their life,” Powell said. “Something that kind of wakes them up from the humdrum of life.”