Making Art for Art...Live Tree Carver

Making Art for Art
Live Tree Carver
by Jennifer LB Leese

Woodcarving, also known as woodworking, has been around for many years. Along with stone, mud, and animal bones, wood was one of the first materials utilized by primitive human beings.

Some of the finest extant examples of early woodcarving are from the Middle Ages in Italy and France, where the typical themes of that era were Christian iconography. In England many complete examples remain from the 16th and 17th century, where oak was the preferred medium.

From the remotest ages the decoration of wood has been a foremost art.

A Local Woodcarver

Garry McKinney is a woodcarver from Martinsburg, West Virginia. His tree carvings are the most fascinating and unique aspects of his art--considering he can't draw.

"I never could draw. I do sketches. If I see it, I usually can carve it." Now aside from sounding a little unusual, Garry McKinney carves in live trees! In this case the tree not only lived through the encounter, but became the envy of all the other trees. The tree has now become art.

There are several methods, styles, and techniques to woodcarving. Selecting the wood is a careful task as the nature of the wood being carved limits the scope of the carver in that wood is not equally strong in all directions.

The Beginning

Garry McKinney began creating these living sculptures in 2005. He never took classes in woodcarving, or for the proper methods of manipulating tools for the desired look, or for finding the right kinds of wood. Garry began his search on the wonderful World Wide Web. He asked questions, found carving patterns, and was amazed at the help he had received. "They [fellow woodcarvers] were tremendous," he said. From there, he bought a very cheap set of carving tools and set to work.

Even though his work does not reflect it, he is still a beginner. His first woodcarving was an inlayed winged dragon--the beginnings of a sign his brother, Mike McKinney, asked him to make for their business. Garry has traveled and met many woodcarvers, "Guys with 7, 8, 12 years of experience," and has brought back techniques and lessons one might not have learned during a class.

"The first woodcarving magazine I picked up was about carving live trees. "I thought 'Oh that is too cool! I've got to try this.'" So he did.

Live Tree Carving

When Garry carves a live tree it is not harmed. This is because he is careful not to remove the bark all the way around so that the sap flow is not cut off. "Protecting the tree is important," said Garry. "You can't leave it open [exposed], it will dehydrate because you are interrupting the water flow. Life tree carving is [different], because it is constantly changing--even when you're working on it. You can see it healing."

Garry's Magic Fingers

On the front lawn at Anchor Industries where Garry works, there is a dragon, a leprechaun, a barber, a whomping willow and a wood spirit in the living trees. Garry very much feels still like a beginner, even though fellow woodcarvers have told him that he could be in the professional class. When Garry began working on trees he knew it was for him. "Carving is a way for me to let go of stress. I relax so much. It's been a great tool for me," he said.

Garry's talent has won him several awards. His Stonewall Jackson carving, carved in batch wood, is greatly detailed and lifelike. In fact, Stonewall Jackson's great great grandson bought this piece from Garry saying, "This looks exactly like my grandfather."

His Lincoln and Tad portrait is a 3-toned oil woodcarving that Garry proudly displays in his office.

Currently Garry is working on two ladies in an oval frame. He also freelances making wood santas from blank templates for Harold Goodman in Baltimore.
Garry is a fast carver with magic in his fingers. Jobs from Mr. Goodman usually should take about 2 weeks, Garry completes them in 2 days. Stonewall Jackson took him 3 1/2 weeks and the longest yet are the two ladies at one month. "Portraits and carvings are different. Faces [in trees] are great. The face brings out the tree. With portraits you have to get the lines right."
"Time is funny when you are working with wood. There are times that you really can gouge down into it and cut the wood through and there are times you just sit there and look at it and say 'I know there is something not quite right'.
"I feel that in any job that is technical and controlled, you have that same problem."

How Does He Do It

Now a year later, Garry doesn't quite know the extent of what he is able to accomplish with his carvings.

With live tree carvings, Garry usually doesn't know what he is going go carve into the tree until he starts cutting. His imagination knows no boundaries.
It is the detail work that really brings the carving to life, especially with the eyes. When the carving is finished Garry treats it with wood sealer to protect it from decay.

As with all living tree carvings, the work is never finished. The art will change as the tree grows. Like people, the older the carving gets the more character it acquires.

"I won't do one I don't like," he said. "I enjoy making art for art."
Garry has accomplished a lot in his single year as a woodcarver--carving into the wood of a rifle to making staffs (canes). One in particular was a staff for a young boy with cancer. After the boy broke his leg, Garry decided to make him a staff in his favorite theme--dragons. Garry also made one for the boy's brother. A few weeks later, Garry received a gift from the family--a beautiful gun. The boy's father was a gunsmith and needed to show Garry their appreciation. "It's so nice to give your work away to someone who appreciates it," said Garry. "I think that if somebody wants something made from wood then they want to see the wood."

Contact Garry

Garry's natural ability is evident. Making art for art is what he does best.

If you would like to get in touch with Garry McKinney call 304-263-7403 or email him at