Put in simple terms, Sylvia Cook is an itinerant chainsaw carver, but before you rush to judgment, let me assure you that she is not one of those people who crank out an endless stream of ramping bears, grinning bears and, for variety, bears holding signs. Granted, she has done her share of bears, but she also carves squirrels, turkeys, gnomes, fish, totem poles, Tiki gods, parrots, poodles, fawns, owls and pretty much anything a customer requests. That, plus the fact that she is a woman, makes her a rather unusual, if ironic, member of the “fraternity” of chainsaw slingers.
“Don’t think being a woman means you can’t do it,” Sylvia intones. “People are often shocked to see a woman doing chainsaw carving. Some women tell me, ‘I can’t even start a chainsaw, much less carve with one.’ However, I have taught this craft to quite a few people, including other women.
“People tell me I am the hardest working woman they have ever seen,” she said while describing her path to this unlikely art. “I’m originally from Massachusetts, but left in 1982, moved around a bit and ended up in Jupiter, Florida, where I ran a pest control business. My husband was a ceramic tile and marble installer. In addition to helping him install and running my own business, I got involved in making and sculpting hand painted tiles.
“When arts and crafts shows started becoming popular in the 90s, I would sell tiles at them on the weekends. I saw intarsia at the shows, really liked it, and decided I could do that. I dabbled in intarsia for a while and was selling my work on eBay. It had the advantages of being lighter to ship than tiles, and did not break as easily. Eventually, I moved on to doing gift shows, but it got rather overwhelming.
“Meanwhile, my husband was working seven days a week and was way overstressed. I was afraid he was going to have a heart attack, so we moved to Tennessee. We bought some property, six acres outside of a small town, and sought out a calmer, simpler life. In spite of that, he had a heart attack soon after we moved, just as I had feared.
“In 2001, we happened to go to an arts and crafts show in Indiana where there was a woman demonstrating chainsaw carving. I went right home and bought an electric chainsaw. I had lots of trees to practice on all over the property. The first thing I made was a bear’s head, because that was what she was making. As soon as I showed it to someone, he bought it, so I knew I was on to something.
“Soon I figured out that the electric chainsaw was too underpowered and vibrated too much, so I graduated to a gas-powered chainsaw. I went to a garden center on the main road and asked if I could sit outside and carve. People would stop and watch, and buy carvings. I was trying other animals, like owls, eagles and dogs, which were very popular. Through all this, I was also helping my husband install tile. After about a year of carving practice, I ventured out into the arts and crafts shows, this time with carvings.
“I still do tile installing, but I do a lot of carvings: hundreds each year, in fact. It takes me only about 20 minutes to carve an animal. A 16-foot totem pole takes me about three days.
“I made it into the papers a few times and had a TV station do a show on me. In 2006, I bought my own patch of commercial property on the main road, put up a bunch of totem poles, and opened for business. One day when I was carving there, a man ordered two eight -oot Tikis. He was impressed by the results and offered me a job carving in Missouri for his store a few months out of the year. I still do that, and return to Tennessee every few months.
“We sell a lot of Tiki theme items there. The double Tiki head with two four-foot tall parrots, for instance, lives at a marina in Osage Beach, Missouri. Parrots are fun because they are colorful and everyone loves looking at them. I also make lots of swivel top Tiki bar stools with cedar posts and bases of pressure treated lumber.
“I eventually started a web page, and that brought in work, including one job in Deerfield Beach, Florida. I went down there and carved a 16-foot totem from a pine tree on their property. It resides today on the Deerfield Beach golf course. I also did a couple of pieces for a miniature golf course in Massachusetts. I guess that makes me an itinerant chainsaw carver.
“When it comes to totem poles, you can put anything people want on them. I’ve done them with all sorts of animals and in both traditional Indian styles and nontraditional ones. Anything someone can come up with or show me a picture of, I’ll try to make.”
Often, her design ideas come from the wood itself, or its location. “The garden center cut down a sassafras,” she recounted, “and the top of it looked just like a cactus, so I carved one from it. The squirrel family was made from the only tree left after a tornado wiped out the property they are on. That’s in Kentucky. The owners rebuilt, and I made the squirrel as a memento. The two sitting owls were from two trees growing side by side. The trees were too close to the owners house, so when they took them down, I carved the stumps. That’s typically what I do. I prefer not to cut down living trees, but I often carve stumps in place.”
Some carvings are the direct result of requests, some of which are rather odd. “The poodle, who holds scissors, brush and comb, was made for a dog grooming shop.” she explained “The rooster was a request from a man whose wife collected rooster-themed items. Originally, I offered to trade it for some logs, but he backed out of that deal and ended up just paying for the carving. Foxes are popular because it is a common last name. The school of fish bench was done for a trout farm. People frequently ask for carvings of pets that have passed away. I’ve done a lot of dogs and even a pet skunk named Pookey. Around Thanksgiving, I decided the right thing to make was a turkey. That takes a very large cedar, and it’s not easy to find logs that big.”
There are, of course, a few challenges to this sort of art. “I’ve had logs fall on my feet,” Sylvia admitted, “but I’m glad to say I’ve never had a chainsaw accident. I suit up to work with steel-toed boots, ear protection, eye protection, leather gloves and chaps.” Then there is the image problem. “A lot of art organizations will not accept chainsaw carving, which I find very disturbing. If you are operating a chainsaw, it is no different than using a chisel or paint brush. Art is art no matter what tool you use to create it.”
The good news, though, is that the Internet is helping things along. “There are now a bunch of Internet groups with websites dedicated to chainsaw carving where you can learn the craft and find out about the others in the field all over the world,” she explained.
As for women wielding chainsaws, Sylvia would love to see more competition, and even made a very generous offer. “If there are any women out there who want to start in this field, have them contact me, and I will help them in any way I can.”
Women, the gauntlet is down. I, for one, will be curious to see if any anyone takes her up on the challenge. For all I know, she may be on the cusp of a new trend.