If you’ve been to Maytag Park or driven past the Vernon Company lately, you’ve probably seen a large sculpture made from a tree trunk. These pieces of art are known as chainsaw carvings. They are usually made from standing tree trunks, which artists will sculpt into figures. Any tree will do, but a hard wood, like a large oak or walnut, works best.
Former Newton resident Gary Keenan makes a living carving figures out of tree trunks and has done a few of the carvings in town. He hadn’t had an art class since junior high, but that didn’t stop him from experimenting with chainsaw art 13 years ago.
Numerous examples of chainsaw carvings can be found around town: a flower on West 11th Street South, a corn cob on Highway 14 South, raccoons on South Eighth Avenue East, squirrels at Maytag Park, a cowboy at Love’s travel stop and the cardinal at the Vernon Company.
Sue Iverson of Newton admires wood carvings. After the death of her husband, Gary, she decided to commission a memorial of something that was dear to him.
“He always enjoyed watching the squirrels,” she said. “We had four rockers on our front porch, where we would sit and watch squirrels in our yard or across the street at the park.”
One day, while walking her dogs at Maytag Park, she noticed a large tree trunk on the ground, and that gave her the idea for the memorial art. Iverson called Newton Parks and Recreation. Former superintendent Denny Slings said they intended to use the trunk for a sculpture, but they weren’t sure what it would be. He liked the idea and forwarded her the name of Keenan.
“I had family and friends over for a picnic, and we experienced watching (Keenan) sculpt. It was wonderful, and we all agreed it was a very fitting memorial for Gary. I felt good doing it.”
Keenan sculpts work commissioned from individuals and businesses. He’s currently working on a lion and lamb head for a church in West Des Moines.
Last fall, the Vernon Company reached out to Keenan about a project for its facility. As a way to give back to the community and enhance its work campus, the Vernon Company choose a red cardinal as a tribute to the Newton school mascot.
“They wanted to add something to the community, and they choose a cardinal. It took me about a week to sculpt and paint,” he said.
The average length of time it takes to carve varies depending on the tree size and detail, but Keenan said it ranges from a day to a week.
A vast majority of Keenan’s work comes from commissions, but he also does city festivals and fairs. For the remainder of his summer, he will be traveling to the Franklin County Fair, Warren County Fair, a county fair in Kansas and the Iowa State Fair.
At the Iowa State Fair, Keenan and fellow carver AJ Lutter will host a wood carving attraction to demonstrate how the art form is practiced. The pieces they carve at the fair will go to auction, and the proceeds will go to the Blue Ribbon Foundation.
“It’s a win-win because the money goes to a great cause, one that maintains the fair,” he said. “We get to connect with people, and they can learn more about art, wood and carving. That’s great.”
“I feel very lucky that I love what I do. It’s hard work, but I still love doing it. Just not in January,” Keenan joked.
Staff writer Kate Malott may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 422, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.