INDEPENDENCE, Wis. — Cutting wood is part artistry and part practicality for George Gierok of Trempealeau County. Besides wood for home heating, Gierok makes use of his chainsaw skills to create wood sculptures that can be seen throughout the area.
The path to Gierok’s art started when he was 15 years old, cutting brush and firewood on the family farm. He learned to identify trees and their unique characteristics as he became proficient with a chainsaw.
The artist in Gierok emerged nine years ago when he made a copy of a wood-cutout star he saw while visiting Switzerland, his father-in-law’s home country. A large downed tree in town gave him the raw product he needed for that first piece. Once people saw what he could do he began to receive requests — and a new business was born. It’s called Star Carver in honor of his first work.
Most of Gierok’s time is spent milking his 55 cows on his 285-acre dairy and doing necessary fieldwork. The chainsaw art is a way for him to relieve stress.
“It’s fun,” he said.
Gierok uses whatever woods become available to him. People know he needs trees for his sculptures so they will tell him when they have something available. After making a couple of bears, he realized they are the typical choice for a piece of wood. So he started experimenting with letters. His most popular items are wood pieces carved into names, either vertical or horizontal.
He spends 90 percent of his time thinking about the wood, he said, and what shape is in the log. Cuts need to be thought through before he uses the saw so the piece stays together and doesn’t split.
“The log will give me what I need,” he said. “Every piece has character.”
He has a collection of 16 chainsaws of different sizes he uses for carving, although he admits he primarily works with only three of them. They need to be kept very sharp, which he does by hand as many as six or seven times each day. When he’s busy his wife, Mary Gierok, helps with the sharpening. He said 99 percent of the work is done with a saw. Details are added using a polisher-sander or a torch.
Working with chainsaws is dangerous, but George Gierok said he’s never cut himself. He realizes the saw is not forgiving. Cutting skin is like going through Styrofoam, so he works slow and steady while making intentional cuts. And wood carving can be a challenge because once a piece of wood is cut off it can’t be put back.
“When it’s gone, it’s gone,” Gierok said. “I get one shot to get it right.”
His newest art form is ice carving, which he describes as addicting. This past winter he snaked a 16-inch slab of ice out of his pond and winched it into the yard. He then packed snow around it and carved a whale tail. He says ice cuts like butter and is really smooth. He used a propane torch to polish it when he was finished with the piece. He said the best part of ice sculpting is there’s no cleanup, unlike the wood shavings remaining after cutting logs.
Gierok calls his work “reduction sculpture,” which is a term he learned while doing a presentation on chainsaw art at the local high school. Unlike other art forms that consist of adding paint, clay and other mediums, a chainsaw artist is taking wood away from a log — resulting in a reduction of material.
All the work is a process.
“It’s neat to see where I started, and where I’ve evolved,” Gierok said.
He gives a bit of advice for anyone who wants to learn the art.
“The key to becoming a good chainsaw artist, or doing any kind of artistry is practice, practice, practice,” he said. “That’s how talent comes out.”