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Chain saw artists carve beauty out of derecho destruction
Trees turned into art for area residents in wake of storm
The derecho left not only broken trees, but broken hearts in its wake. So many lofty, soaring sentinels were snapped and shattered that the whir of chain saws became white noise in the days and weeks that followed.
But not all the fallen trees were turned into mulch. Some of the trunks that remained standing have found new life as yard art.
Carve R Way’s Clint Henik, 32, of Mount Vernon, has done more than 100 such carvings since the winds raged Aug. 10, 2020, and he has at least 200 more awaiting his chain saw artistry.
He was outside carving at his home when the derecho hit, and the winds toppled “quite a few” trees there, so he has his own “big pile of wood” for future carvings.
The top three designs among his clients are bears, eagles and name signs.
And while untrained eyes see a cylindrical core wrapped in bark, Henik looks at a tree trunk and sees “endless possibilities.”
Clients typically send him pictures of their tree and its dimensions, then he gives them some options, and either sends some examples, or if they have a specific design in mind, he’ll do a rough draft so they can visualize how it would look in the tree, he said.
Others tell him just to carve whatever he sees in the tree. On a smaller scale, some clients bring him branches to carve into animals or incorporate into furniture.
Depending on the size of the tree trunk and the amount of detail work in the design, he said it takes him from one day to three or four days to complete a standing tree carving.
His artistic arsenal includes chain saws, dremel tools for fine work, and grinders. When completed, he uses an Australian timber oil to protect the carving from the elements. He said if that’s applied in the spring and fall, the carvings “will last forever.”
His tree trunk prices vary accordingly, from $100 to several thousand dollars, he said, noting that his largest project — which wasn’t related to the derecho — involved turning a 46-foot oak tree into a palm tree for a client at Lake of the Ozarks.
The farthest he’s traveled for work is the Florida Keys, but for the past year, his focus has been on Iowa. He also has up to 10 other carvers he can call upon — a couple of whom are from out of state and have traveled here to help out, as well.
Henik’s work isn’t in any galleries, but at the end of July, he was carving at the Dubuque County Fair in Dubuque, with finished projects headed for the auction block Aug. 1. He also created carvings for this year’s Freedom Festival fundraiser in June and last November for an Iowa BIG fundraiser for Trees Forever.
He’ll be tackling derecho memorial pieces for Xavier High School in northeast Cedar Rapids and for the city of Marion, to be revealed Aug. 10.
A self-taught carver, he’s been doing chain saw art for seven years and takes great satisfaction in his work, especially following the derecho destruction.
“A lot of these trees, (the clients’) parents or their grandparents planted years and years ago,” he said. “I’m glad I can make them a memorable piece from their loss, that they can still enjoy for their future kids or their kids to talk about it.”
Chad Canfield, 48, of Cedar Rapids, was one of those people who grew up playing in the two maple trees his grandpa and uncle planted in the late 1950s in what is now Canfield’s front yard on Wildwood Court NE.
Both were damaged in the derecho. He had one tree cut all the way down, but preserved the other for a carving.
“They had sentimental value to me,” Canfield said of the trees. “It really pained me that they had to come down, but due to the pandemic, what we did is try to make something positive out of a negative, and that’s why we had it carved.”
The result is an abstract fire about 7.5 feet tall, which Canfield stained fire cherry red and sealed with an oil-based marine varnish used on boats. The sculpture is lit at night by four white solar lights, which he can change to colored bulbs for various holidays.
Even though he founded Frightmare Forest about 20 years ago, he said his love of haunted attractions didn’t enter into the design Henik carved for the family.
They wanted something out of the norm that would look good in their front yard, and settled on flames, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.
“There really wasn’t anything symbolic about it,” Canfield said. “It just seemed like something different and beautiful, and we could light it up and it would look really cool.”
They sent their idea to Henik, “and then he took that and ran.”
In his day job, Canfield trains hospital customer service employees, but he’s also an artist and woodworker, with much of his handiwork displayed inside and outside his home.
From the other tree, he saved the stump and part of the branch that fell on his car, and has started turning them into a fountain. He’s a little nervous about the project, so he’s taking his time with it.
The tree trunk closest to the garage became Henik’s canvas.
“He is phenomenal,” Canfield said. “He really did an amazing job,” and had the intricate design done in about six hours on March 12.
Because the pandemic also knocked down the family’s planned June 2020 cruise to celebrate daughter Zoe’s high school graduation, about $800 from that fund was channeled into the carving.
“Instead of one vacation where we could appreciate it for just that period of time, we took that chunk of change and turned it into a memory that will last for as long as it’s gonna last — a lot longer than a vacation,” Canfield said.
Henik also packed up his gear and headed to Fairfax, where two neighbors on Prairie View Circle are sporting ball bat carvings in their yards.
Those are appropriate designs, since Erin Doud-Johnson, 42, is an alum and volunteer assistant coach for the University of Iowa women’s softball team, and neighbor John Lewis, 73, retired 10 years ago after more than 30 years coaching the Kirkwood Community College baseball team.
Doud-Johnson’s tree carving is in the backyard, and Lewis’ is in the front yard, complete with a baseball carved on top. His six grandchildren’s names also are etched into his bat, and Doud-Johnson’s two children’s names are carved into hers.
Doud-Johnson was crushed to lose the first tree that she and husband Jeff Johnson, owner of USA Entertainment, planted when they moved into the house in 2003. An ash tree, they had it treated every year to ward off the emerald ash borer and had a plan in place for shoring it up to heal a small split in one of the branches — before the storm hit. A few other trees on their property had to be taken down.
About 22 feet tall, the ash was one of the tallest trees in their area, she said. She and her husband were nearly home when the storm hit, and when they rounded the corner and couldn’t see that tree, her heart sank. Their garage was caved in, but they were able to get in through the front door and wait out the rest of the storm.
When they went outside afterward to survey the damage, “the tree had missed the house, by the grace of God, and fell onto the front part of the deck,” she said, adding that the shed took most of the blow, and the tree was lying up against the deck and the basketball court.
She didn’t want to have the tree removed, so she spent a couple of weeks contemplating her options.
“My gut was telling me that I needed to do something different, and so after a lot of thought and prayer,” she came across Henik’s name from a derecho Facebook page, and contacted him.
At the Lewis house next door, the derecho stripped most of the leaves from a front maple tree, which was about 17 years old and maybe 50 feet tall, he guessed.
“It looked like it was completely dead,” he said, but he wasn’t ready to have it cut down. “I got to thinking, there’s got to be something we can do with that tree (other) than just take it out.”
He knew the Johnsons next door planned to do a ball-themed carving, so they both contacted Henik, and he did their carvings the same day, in the snow, at the end of September.
“When he started, it wasn’t snowing. By the time he finished, it was snowing pretty good. It might have taken three hours to do that,” Lewis said, pointing to the bat, which cost about $250. Doud-Johnson estimated her bat also took three to four hours to carve, and cost about twice as much.
“It’s amazing how they can do that, because they can just look at that and start carving with chain saws,” Lewis said. He had topped the tree, then Henik took more off the top to get to the height he wanted, which at 8 feet is a couple of feet taller than Lewis. He also brought out a Louisville Slugger for Henik to use for reference.
In a twist of fate, after treating the Johnsons’ tree with Australian timber oil, it’s now black and gold.
Tucked behind the Kosek Bandstand in Czech Village in southwest Cedar Rapids stands a morel mushroom carved from what’s left of a tree that fell by the public restrooms in the mini-park between 16th and 15th avenues.
Mary Kay McGrath, 66, of Cedar Rapids, whose Novak Investments office is near the site, drove past the downed trees in the area for several months. Around November, she thought maybe the stump by the bandstand could be turned into a houby, the Czech word for mushroom, celebrated in the village’s annual Houby Days festival.
So McGrath contacted custom carver Nate Greiner of Greiner Mushrooms in Solon. But the project was delayed by the winter and by the fact that the land was city property, so she and Greiner had to go before the city’s Visual Arts Commission to have the design approved — which she said was a “pretty simple” process.
She initially wanted to have two trees carved, but the other one had too much dead wood, so what could be salvaged was turned into a planter.
The project took a couple of days in late April, after the weather warmed up enough to have the wood sealed. Then Greiner came back to make the planter. Cost was about $1,000, which local art consultant Janelle McClain split with McGrath.
It’s all about “turning trash into treasure,” McGrath said.
Eagle has landed
Chain saw artist Jeffrey Heitt, 59, of Cedar Rapids, spent much of the summer flying way outside his comfort zone.
He’s built tennis courts for 20 years around the state, and wood carving has been his hobby. He belongs to several woodcarving clubs and displays his work at woodcarving shows and in galleries. Three of his abstract figurative pieces are at the Artisan’s Sanctuary across from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, and he’s made other pieces out of derecho-damaged wood.
For about six weeks, however, working around the weather and vacations, he’s taken his chain saw and finishing tools to a standing tree trunk along 30th Street Drive SE in Cedar Rapids, carving a bald eagle for Rick and Marvelene Foreman.
He typically works on 5- or 6-foot wood pieces on the ground at his place, then takes them to his client. So he said to carve the eagle while standing on scaffolding in the couple’s yard is “really out of the box” for him.
He gravitated to wood about 15 years ago, after previously working with clay. “Animals are not my repertoire,” he said, although he has done some for close friends over the years.
The tree he’s been working on, and another a few feet away, weren’t actually toppled in the derecho. They were 60-foot ash trees that were cut down to 9-foot trunks a month before the storm because the branches had been wreaking havoc with the power lines, causing power surges that ruined the appliances indoors.
The trees, which were already there when the house was built in 1965, “would have totaled my house,” Foreman said, if they had been at full height during the storm.
Foreman, 68, was well-acquainted with the derecho’s destruction. He was out driving a dump truck on the southwest side of the city during the storm, and ended up helping to pull a vehicle off a curb and clearing trees from three streets to get back to his shop — a trip that took three hours. He didn’t lose trees on his property, but a neighbor’s tree fell onto his garage.
For the trees in his front yard, Foreman saw Heitt’s work, and because the artist knows Foreman’s brother-in-law, the two made connections for the carving project. Heitt gave him a deep discount, which he declined to state, but noted the job would have run at least $1,500 at full price.
All the carvings described here have been drawing lots of comments and attention, with some passersby stopping to take selfies with the pieces. Which leaves everyone with a smile on their face.
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