Stepping into a man's world to carve one's own way is what women's liberation is all about, but who could have predicted that women could carry this out literally? Carving wood sculptures with a chainsaw is a new pastime that is fast becoming popular among women in the US.
"Women have more money to spend now," said George Kenny, Founder, George Kenny School of Chainsaw Carving, explaining why almost half the students signing up for his US $1,500 chainsaw carving classes are women.
At the George Kenny School, located on the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington, two hours from Seattle, it's small wonder that most students are upper-middle class professionals from Microsoft, Boeing or the like. According to Kenny, the popularity of these carvings has "sky-rocketed" in the past five years; and those who carve to make a living can do very well, easily earning US $100,000 a year. It takes about an hour to carve a foot of wood; a one-foot tall sculpture retails for US $100.
And they sell! Kenny started his school because he could not find enough chainsaw carvings to fill the shelves of his shop, Bear In A Box.
For years, men dominated the industry, which probably originated as a lumberjack's pastime. But Kenny has found that women enjoy the physical and outdoorsy nature of the craft. "Women can do this just as well as men," he says. "I don't know why they have waited so long to give it a try. Maybe they just don't know where to take the classes."
Kenny offers one class just for women. "Women have a different way of doing things," he says. "They are a bit more on the creative side than men. They are more tentative, do things a little more carefully."
How do men feel about their wives becoming chainsaw carvers? "Ninety per cent of the husbands are very supportive, because their wives suddenly become an attraction."
Chainsaw carving tends to attract a crowd. At festivals and fairs held across the country, carvers compete in outdoor demonstrations, surrounded by an audience.
The craft has become so popular in the past five years that chainsaw companies now cater to the art form; the new saws are lightweight, "eight or nine pounds, like a gallon of milk" - easily handled by a woman, says Kenny. "If there's something to be done, women will do it. Thirty-eight percent of new Harley owners are women, because the new motorcycles, like the new chainsaws, are easier to handle."
Wielding the whirring saw that roars like a lawnmower, decked in headgear, complete with goggles, visor and ear-guards, women fashion owls, frogs, dolphins and the ever-popular bears, while sawdust flies and gas fumes fill the air.
Donna Genovese took Kenny's course in March 2004. She and her husband had just moved to the area; she had been a nurse, and her husband works for Microsoft. "I saw the store and wanted to try it. It didn't surprise my family. I'm always looking for different things to do. Since I took the class, I carve every week and bring the carvings to the store pretty routinely. My stuff always sells."
And how does it feel to handle a chainsaw? "I'm a fairly strong person," she acknowledges, but the chainsaw "gets pretty heavy after four or five hours. Your wrists get tired. You have to build up to it. Generally, by the end of the day, it's a real bad hair day. You smell like gasoline and have sawdust in all the crevices of your body."
But the rewards are worth it. For Genovese, chainsaw carving is almost therapeutic. "Taking the saw to the wood, you are just in your own little world, doing your own thing," she says, adding, "It's a lot more fun than nursing!"
Retired school teacher Carol Slaughter, 71, thoroughly enjoyed the class. "I have always stopped to see chainsaw carvings and purchased a number of them. What the heck, when you are old and retired, you might as well learn something new."
Of course, the phenomenon of women carving with chainsaws existed before Kenny's classes as well. Susan Miller, 61, of Mist, Oregon, was one of the first women to make a career of chainsaw carving. She used it to put herself through college, build a home, support her children and assemble her geodesic dome house (a kind of architecture quite popular in the 1960s). Outside her shop is a menagerie of dogs, horses, bears, coyotes, frogs, rabbits, deer, even a prehistoric bird.
In Minnesota, Cathy Krumrei signed up for a chainsaw safety class because she wanted to become a carver. Krumrei's specialty is making totem-houses for birds, bats, butterflies, toads, and even mosquitoes. Whimsy and a taste for the fairy folk distinguish these structures designed for gardens.
Cherrie Currie of Chatsworth, California was working on a painting on an oak tabletop when she became inspired to make the image three-dimensional. "I saw two guys chainsaw carving at the beach. I asked them whether they would teach me. And they taught me how to hold it, start it, and that was the beginning. My third piece, of three sea turtles swimming around a piece of coral, was accepted at the Pepperdine Art Expo in Malibu."
But Currie doesn't underestimate the challenge of the task. "You have to be strong to pull it off. Some of the saws are very heavy, and you cannot make big cuts with those little saws. It's also dangerous. You can never let your guard down, never get too comfortable. It's not just the saw, which can kick back on you. The grinders that turn the sanding wheels are going hundreds of miles an hour. If they explode, they can go right through you."
But for Currie, it is worth it. She loves being her own boss. Although she only earns about US $30,000 a year doing this work, she enjoys "creating something that makes me and other people happy".
Currie, who began life as a rock star in an all-woman band - The Runaways - at the age of 16, says she "was just lucky to be part of something that helped women. We kicked the door open for women, we were trailblazers." Is she a feminist? "I don't know exactly what that means. I'm just me."
(Stephanie Hiller is the publisher of Awakened Woman e-magazine and a freelance writer.)
Image of A chainsaw carving by Cherie Currie