The Scarlet & Black

The Independent Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Feven Getachew
Feven Getachew
May 6, 2024
Michael Lozada
Michael Lozada
May 6, 2024
Nathan Hoffman
Nathan Hoffman
May 6, 2024
Harvey Wilhelm `24.
Harvey Wilhelm
May 6, 2024

The man turning trees into art – with a chainsaw

A Heron now stands at the entrance of the Rock Creek campgrounds. Contributed by Gary Keenan.

Rock Creek State Park has welcomed four brand-new animal-themed wooden sculptures to its campgrounds, all carved by local chainsaw artist Gary Keenan from trees downed in last August’s derecho 

The sculptures are currently located at the entrance to the campgrounds, near the park’s check-in shelter, but eventually they’ll be displayed throughout the campgrounds and park. 

Keenan, who lives about an hour away from Kellogg state park, carved each of the animals. Using his chainsaw, he created freestanding wooden sculptures of an eagle, a blue heron, a jumping bass and an owl, the latter accompanied by a squirrel and three raccoons peeking out of a hollow. Each of the four statues was carved with white or bur oak and took two days on average to fully sculpt. He used power tools and sanding devices for the finer details, as well as to better bring out the grain of the wood.  

On Aug. 10 this past summer, while trees were down across central Iowa after the derecho, Keenan received a number of messages from people interested in potentially turning the damaged trees into sculptures.  

Brian Brunk, who was a member at the time but is now a board member of Friends of Rock Creek State Park, a charity group that helps steward the park, was one of those people.  

Brunk, who primarily lives in Des Moines, purchased a second residence approximately five years ago that borders the park, where he’s spent most of the past year during the pandemic. After the derecho hit, Brunk and his nine-year-old son Cameron, who, like Brunk himself, loves nature, heard from neighbors that damaged and potentially hazardous trees were being taken down at the campgrounds.  

“We were just kind of awestruck at how many mature trees, 75 to 150 years [old] perhaps, had been taken down,” explained Brunk. “On top of everything we’d already been through in the prior week with the derecho and having no power, that was just yet another point of sadness.”   

Upon seeing the campsite, Cameron said, “I wish there was something we could do.” 

The pair began discussing possible options, and soon came up with the idea to have the logs carved into something interesting and unique. After reaching out through Facebook, Brunk quickly discovered Keenan’s work and approached the Friends of Rock Creek group, proposing the project and explaining that he and his wife would be willing to start the fund for such an endeavor.  

“Within minutes people were pulling hundred dollar bills out of their wallets and writing checks,” said Brunk. “It was amazing.”  

“Once he completed that first carving and I saw his beautiful work up close and personal, I just knew that it would mean a lot to the park,” said Brunk. “It would be a great way to memorialize the event that happened and salvage some trees for that purpose. My thoughts immediately went to not only adults having a greater appreciation for what went into that and what the park had been through, but also children – their eyes lighting up and saying, ‘Dad can I take a picture next to the big fish?’” 

Brunk, Keenan and park ranger Kory Kinnick all worked together to decide upon the sculpted animals that are native to the state park and its lake. On top of the completed animal sculptures, Keenan says he will likely be sculpting a bench for the park soon, though the details have not been officially ironed out. 

The animals sculpted by Keenan are all native to the park. Contributed by Gary Keenan.

Keenan himself has a special connection to the campground as he grew up on a dairy farm nearby and on occasion, went camping and fishing with his aunt and uncle at the state park. “One of my cousin’s farms is just on the other side of the lake,” he added.  

In addition, Keenan has some relatives buried at Rock Creek Cemetery. “It’s a lot of family attachment to that area.”   

Keenan has worked in chainsaw carving full-time for the past 17 years, taking up commissioned projects and participating in both the Iowa and Kansas state fairs, as well as several county fairs.  

“All my life I had an appreciation for sculpture,” said Keenan.  

His artistic career began 20 years ago. A friend told him about some chainsaw art they had seen at the Iowa state fair. Although Keenan himself hadn’t seen it, he replied, “I think I could do that.”  

Soon after his boast, Keenan’s friend invited him to test out his skills on a log in their yard and put the claim to the test.  

“It was slow and crude, but I was intrigued with the process and I started playing around with it on weekends and it just kind of took off from there,” said Keenan.  

Pretty soon neighbors wanted to buy his carvings, and after doing it as a hobby for about three years, Keenan went full-time with chainsaw art. “Not everybody in the world loves their job,” he said, “and I feel very fortunate to love my job.” 

Though Keenan has attended a couple of chainsaw carving seminars over the years, he’s had to learn the art form on his own for the most part. “It is something that is predominantly self-taught. You learn your own style and your own techniques and develop it the best you can,” he explained.  

“One of the things I enjoy and appreciate about this art form is that rather than a tree becoming firewood or mulch at the landfill, it can become a piece of art that is hopefully enjoyed by many people for a long time,” said Keenan.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
Donate to The Scarlet & Black
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All The Scarlet & Black Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *