Iowa chainsaw artist turns Winterset’s ashes into attractions

WINTERSET, Iowa — For 150 years, City Park has hosted picnics, excursions and leisurely walks. Winterset came here to escape the chaos of the wide world.

Okay, so this spring has been a little different.

Gary Keenan came here.

“I choose subjects in this case based on the size of the tree,” he says. Keenan is a chainsaw artist, hired by the city.

Maybe you saw it at the State Fair. If you did, you probably quit.

There’s something about watching this marriage of power and precision – destruction and detail.

“Most of the tree carvings I do along this size I can do in a day,” he says.

Winterset had to focus on loss this spring. It’s good to finally Gain.

“We thought it would be a great way to add another attraction,” says Sky Smothers, which manages the city’s parks. He was dealing with a familiar problem: the emerald ash borer.

“These trees were dead and diseased and needed to fall,” Smothers explains, “and we’re just trying to be good stewards for those other trees to stay.”

While most were cut down cleanly, seven of the park’s ash trees were left to Gary and his imagination.

“I always have new ideas and new angles that I want to try,” says Keenan.

“I did both squirrels (and actually there’s a third squirrel sticking out of the hollow),” Keenan says. “The great perched eagle. There are five owls in this tree. And then the rabbit looks at the butterfly.

“People may want a cartoon rabbit, but no one is asking for a cartoon eagle. They want the eagle to be serious.

Speaking of serious, imagine Keenan’s focus.

Not only does he wield a dangerous power tool, but he only gets one chance with every cut.

There is no starting over.

“I grew up on a farm,” says Keenan, “so I’m used to working with tools and being outdoors. It’s a good choice for that.

Before he’s done, he’ll add two gnomes, a Winterset Husky – and another name to his long list of satisfied customers.

“What’s happening now has exceeded our expectations by 1000%,” smiles Smothers.

Life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. He gives you dead trees, you call Gary Keenan – and you plug your ears.

Check out more of Gary’s work on his website.

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