People turn tree debris and stumps from derecho into art

Bill Potter turned a stump in his yard into an elf house, complete with pictures of his children and grandchildren in th
Bill Potter turned a stump in his yard into an elf house, complete with pictures of his children and grandchildren in the windows. (Bill Potter)

Before the Aug. 10 derecho, wood working artist Clint Plinthenik would get maybe five calls a week from people interested in his chain saw creations. In the month since the storm raged through Iowa, that has jumped to 60 to 80 calls a day.

Plinthenik, who lives in Mount Vernon, quit his day job about five years ago to focus on his chain saw art full time through his business, Carverway. He turns tree stumps and other wood into sculptures, making whatever the client wants, from animals to names to team mascots. Once, he made an 8-foot-tall, sword-covered throne from “Game of Thrones.” He also makes things like bed frames and furniture.

After the storm snapped thousands of trees across Linn County and beyond, he fired up his chain saw and got to work, turning all the destruction into art wherever he could.

“I was just glad to be able to help people that had these trees for generations and generations and turn them into memory pieces,” he said.

Now, he’s booked up until next spring.

“I was not expecting that at all. I’m just glad I’m able to help people out and give them a memorable piece from the storm,” he said. “Some people remember their grandpa planting the tree or they planted the tree. Some have tree houses they built in them, or hung swings from them. Its nice to give them a piece of something to remember.”

Keith Vanous of Robins hired him to turn a snapped off sugar maple into University of Iowa mascot Herky the Hawk.

“We were sitting in the garage during the derecho and limbs were breaking off and blocking the street. Once we walked out after the storm, my girlfriend said, ‘That looks like a perfect Hawkeye tree.’ We put a sign up that said, ‘Future Herky,’ and I started my investigations into chain saw artists.”


He said in a year where the derecho intersected Hawkeye football was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was nice to have an homage to his team.

“We’re not doing any Hawkeye games this year, but we’ve still got the spirit going, and something good came out of something tragic,” he said. “It’s like a phoenix rising up out of the ashes after all this.”

Not all the tree art post-derecho involves chain saws and giant stumps. Jane Nesmith of Cedar Rapids taught herself how to weave a pine needle basket after watching a Facebook video, in honor of several white pines that snapped off in her yard.

“When we moved into our current house, one of the things we really loved about it is it was in a neighborhood with lots of mature trees. When I walked up, I smelled this beautiful pine scent,” she said.

After the storm, as the snapped trees were being removed, she couldn’t bring herself to watch.

“Then that Facebook video popped up, and I watched it and thought, ‘I can do this.’ This is a way for me to memorialize this tree,” she said. “I never took pictures of those trees, I just took them for granted. Sitting there and making this kind of gave me a way to memorialize them when I hadn’t done that in any other way.”

She spent Labor Day sitting on her patio, working on the basket.

“I stitched and coiled and stitched and coiled and thought about the trees. It was a way of going through the grieving process for all we lost after the storm,” she said.

Her son Robbie Nesmith also found a way to create from the debris. He went out after the storm and collected linden wood, which he used to carve Norwegian-style wooden spoons, a skill he learned at Luther College in Decorah.


Woodworker and artist Bill Potter of Cedar Rapids also went out and collected wood after the storm — now he has an entire shed-full drying out so he can work with it next year. He sells his pieces through an Etsy shop as Williams’ Whittling and Woodwork.

He also turned the stump of a snapped off silver maple in his yard into a unique creation, an elf house, complete with a roof, shingles and pictures of his children and grandchildren peeping through the windows.

“My wife loves miniatures and used to have a fairy garden in another stump, which has since rotted, so I decided to give her another one, with an elf house,” he said.

Creating something from the detritus of the storm is cathartic, he said, especially since his normal outlet of walking in the area’s trails and parks is no longer possible due to downed trees.

“I’m about art and nature. I love trees. ... It breaks my heart to see all the trees laying around,” he said. “I think art in general is therapeutic, and it is good to come up with ideas to make something new out of something ugly.”

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