He looks like a Halloween-season hazard as he stalks the forest with a chain saw, but George Kenny knows there’s nothing to worry about. He’s only there to add to the natural beauty.
Escorted around the Heron Loop trail at Columbia Springs Environmental Education Center by Executive Director Maureen Montague and Events Coordinator Kayla Dansereau, Kenny pauses to consider dead tree stumps and fallen logs that could become palettes for his art. One maple stump is big and broad, but soft and disintegrating; Kenny guesses it’ll be gone within a few years.
But a big, hard cedar trunk beside the trail is perfect for a heron — and Kenny has a convenient model too, a few yards away: one stationary bird who hangs out at the edge of the pond like whole the place belongs to him, Montague said.
Kenny revs up his saw and sets to work on a heron in profile. Sawdust flies, but only for about three minutes, and then it’s there at eye level: a graceful long-necked bird.
After decades of doing this, he rarely needs any model, Kenny said — unless there’s something tricky about the creature he’s creating. Maybe it’s turning or twisting in a way that could use a little examination; maybe the fur or feathers or scales need some natural irregularity. Kenny doesn’t want his woodland creatures to look like they just visited the hairdresser, he joked.
Doing that sort of homework is easier than ever today, he said. When Kenny started making chain saw artworks, he regularly consulted wildlife reference manuals and visited taxidermists to study nature’s ways; now he just does an internet search on his phone.
But mostly, Kenny and his son Garrett Aries have what they need in their heads. The father-and-son artists behind the George Kenny School of Chainsaw Carving in Allyn, which is near Shelton, spent Monday making seven chunks of dead cedar at Columbia Springs into eagles, owls, herons, salmon and even “tree spirits” — that is, ancient humans whose smiling faces make the dead wood seem to live again.
Carving a career
Kenny is a handy guy — a former car mechanic and espresso and ice-cream maker — who was running his own sweet shop in California when a chain saw artist asked if he could set up and show off outside. Kenny liked the novelty, which promoted his business, too, and he started learning artistic chain saw skills.
The artist’s sidewalk demonstration moved along again — but by then Kenny was hooked. He started his own chain saw art business, and he was happy to teach students chain saw art skills. Kenny said he knows chain saw artists who refuse to reveal their secrets, but he thinks that’s self-defeating; unless it develops a community of practitioners and buyers, he believes, chain saw art will become a “lost art.”
Fortunately, Kenny said, students and buyers come to him from all over North America. The night before driving down to Vancouver, he took a call from a woman in Nova Scotia who wants to take his course; after he’s done at Columbia Springs, he needs to meet a woman with lumber set aside for a towering 15-foot Buddhist sculpture for her home. He had to talk her down from 50 feet, he said; some art lovers just don’t think too realistically about numbers.
Even if he’s got some animal blueprints fixed in his head, Kenny said, no two tries are identical — so every artwork is automatically different. “I couldn’t replicate that bark if I wanted to,” he said of the gnarled pair of cedars where his son was working atop a scaffolding. His tools included a chain saw, an air blower, a sander/polisher and a small blowtorch — with which he added a pleasing burnt-black color to the hollow where some owl babies were hidden. Up above, owl mom got some of her own color and texture too.
“Nothing is cookie-cutter,” Kenny said. “Everything is unique.”
Class trips, art trips
Montague said the 100-acre urban nature site hosts 250 class trips per year, but hopes to host as many as 400. All the students who come here are tasked with keeping sharp eyes out for wildlife as they explore the Heron Loop trail, she said; the addition of these permanent artworks will provide even more rewards for careful observation.
Montague, who’s also a painter and the former executive director of the North Bank Artists gallery and studios, said she’s excited that her different passions can come together naturally at Columbia Springs. Even as she’s hungry for more class trips and more science education, Montague is also looking for ways to use the Columbia Springs landscape to display more art and hold artistic happenings. It’s already a favorite of photographers, plein-air painters and the occasional bluegrass combo, she said.
“I love to see this place activated with art and culture,” Montague said. “Art adds interest to everything, and this place is already perfect.”