Brandy McElroy cuts up for fun and profit
Photos and Story by KEN BECK
Brandy McElroy is not exactly a North country Paula Bunyan, but when she hefts a chainsaw in the direction of a chunk of wood, she knows what she’s up to.
She labored more than 15 years as an executive assistant in several corners of Nashville’s corporate world, but today McElroy’s notched out a new career as Chainsaw Belle due to her gift as woodcarver and wood sculptor.
“This is my gym, my creativity, my outlet and my therapist,” said the 38-year-old wife and mother, who lives in Hermitage three miles beyond the Wilson County line. “I’ve lost like 20 pounds since I began.”
The strong-armed artist has two powerful tools – a 180C stock Stihl chainsaw with a 14-inch chain and a Husqvarna 235 with a 12-inch dime bar – as she makes nips and tucks while performing surgery and transforming wood into art.
Over the past year she has completed 40 to 50 three-dimensional pieces ranging from whimsical to fantasy to the animal kingdom. Her works include a mermaid chair, an eagle, a bear, Jerry Mouse (of Tom & Jerry cartoon fame), an owl, a beaver, a turtle, a fairy, a dragon atop a bear, an Anubis, a mushroom, a bear in a bathtub and a trio of skulls.
“I’ve always been a busybody, and I can’t stand still,” confessed McElroy. “I’ve done every kind of craft: I quilted, beaded, upholstered furniture, sewed stuffed animals, crocheted. “Then I started hand carving in September 2009. I was cutting some tree branches out in the yard and thought, “Huh – that’s something I’ve never done.’ I got some box cutters and cut my hand to shreds. I found out you needed gloves, and it grew from there.
“After about a year, I was getting bored with that, and I just decided to move it up, and I spent last summer doing an in-between piece. It wasn’t small and it wasn’t big. (What it was turned out to be a devil with horns.)
“I did it by hand (with carving knives) and worked hard on it and thought, ‘This is for the birds. There’s gotta be a quicker, better way.’ And there is – it’s a chainsaw,” she laughed.
Armed with a gasoline-fueled, roaring little Stihl, McElroy fetched herself a slab of spalted maple and began to make the chips fly. Some 40 or so hours later, voila!, with the chainsaw and such other tools as grinders, a sander, a jigsaw, Dremels and hand gauges, she produced a wonderful book chair, a solid block of wood 26 inches high and two feet in diameter, that she titled “Imagination”.
The seat is shaped like a wide-open book with its foundation stacked upon eight other books. Inscribed inside the chair near the top are the words, “Once Upon a Time”. “I almost killed myself doing it,” recalled McElroy. “I was sanding it, and a grinder ran into my arm – not the chainsaw – it was the grinder that nearly killed me. It went almost to the bone. It didn’t hit any arteries and took eight stitches.”
But the price she paid in blood, sweat and tears was worth it. Later, when she stepped back to behold her literary masterpiece in wood, she told herself, “Dang! You did good, girl.”
These days when ripping and cutting with her chainsaw, she wears ear muffs, safety glasses, long pants, chainsaw chaps, gloves and steel-toed boots.
“I don’t bleed as much as I used to,” she explained. “When I was carving with knives and gouges, I cut myself every week. With a chainsaw, that doesn’t happen. It better not.”
The hard work of using a chainsaw day in and day out can take its toil, and McElroy admitted, “It’s physically demanding. I tore up my shoulder, and I have tennis elbow.” A while back, as she was undergoing a MRI on her shoulder, she studied long and hard about her new vocation and about life.
“I have this huge hunk of wood that I've been sitting on for a while with the idea to make an angel bench from it. I've been thinking about this piece since I picked up the chainsaws. It keeps me up at night sometimes. I have that manic artist thing sometimes. However, the slabs weren't thick enough for what I had planned, so I kept sitting on the piece of wood,” she recalled.
“I was laying in the MRI machine questioning my choices, you know, pondering life. I began by thinking, 'Should I quit carving? I'm tearing my body up. Why am I doing this?' and the thoughts slowly led into, 'I'm lucky. I have a lot of friends who are sick or depressed,' and then boom! like a bolt of lighting it hit me—'You're the treasure!' We are all treasures.
“I needed to make this piece to remind myself and all of those around me that we are unique and important and a treasure. In that moment it became more important than the angel that has haunted me for so long. So for the next half-hour or more, I lay in that machine deathly still, while it clanked and banged, and I mapped out the piece in my head. It was a great distraction, and one I couldn't ignore. Once I healed, I was ready to carve again.
Thus, in the blazing heat of summer, she forges ahead in yellow poplar on the inspirational sculpture she has titled “You’re the Treasure”. “You’re the treasure—you sit in the treasure chest!” she said, interpreting the piece more specifically. “It’s not always easy to figure out what all you want to do. The public wants one thing, and I want to do another. “I do some pieces like the fairy that make me laugh, and some challenge my ability, and others I do to inspire people. You can take a body that’s not physically well and you can push it, and it’s stronger in the end. If I’m a girl, and I can do this, then anybody can do this.” (Her treasure chest in progress is a wooden bench bearing a starfish, jellyfish and sea coral inching across the back and sides of the piece.)
“It’s different every time when I get set to begin a new work. Sometimes I see something in the wood, such as with the mermaid chair. Other times I see a photo, and I want to turn it into art, and I go find the wood to fit what I want. Then sometimes, I imagine the whole thing while laying in bed,” said McElroy.
She carves in pine, maple, box elder, catalpa, basswood, beech, birch and cedar. The latter is her favorite wood.
“I love the color, the smell, the way it cuts. It’s soft and it’s durable,” she said of the timber for which Wilson County is famous.
Ben Bounds, a missionary and arborist who funds his mission trips by his arbor work, Busy Beaver Tree Service, supplies the carver with wood that otherwise would be heading for the landfill. He also has taught McElroy about the different types of woods and how to recognize them.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, McElroy lived there until her teen years when she moved with her father to Nashville. After graduating from Hillsboro High School, she attended Middle Tennessee State University for a couple of years, studying aerospace and accounting. She left with a 3.0 grade point average because, she said, “It just wasn’t fitting at that point in my life.
Today, things are fitting. Married to Jeff, who works in information technology for the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, they have an eight-year-old son, Gabe. When she’s not carving or homemaking, she serves as a caretaker for family members and volunteers at her son’s school.
McElroy carves two hours a day in the summer and may carve up to eight hours daily in the winter, when, if the temperature is just above 32 degrees, she’s as comfortable as can be. Her suburban neighbors don’t seem to mind the whining racket, but she doesn’t rev up her chainsaw before 9 a.m.
One neighbor told her, “I love that noise. I consider it artistic music.” When that neighbor’s father, the owner of a lawn mower shop, died, McElroy hand carved a small wooden lawn mower, which the neighbor placed on her father’s grave.
In the past year, the wood sculptor has sold 15 pieces. Her works range in price from $100 to $3,000, and she has advertised by word of mouth, Facebook and her web sites. Each of her finished pieces carries her carved initials “BM” somewhere in the wood.
Not alone in her woodworking creativity, for the past 18 months she has been a member of the Fiddlers Grove Woodcarvers, who meet monthly at the Wilson County Fairgrounds.
“Once I got into this, I thought, ‘There’s gotta be a club somewhere in town.’ I found them on the Internet,” she said. “I’m in it mainly for the camaraderie and the friendship and to know there are other people out there who are doing what I do. Some have been doing it for more than 20 years, and I just started. I didn’t have a clue. I was dumber than a box of rocks.”
Ron Blakley, president of the Fiddlers Grove Woodcarvers, begs to differ with her self-assessment.
“Her progress has been exceptional. The way she has taken off after about two years,” said Blakley. “It’s a slow process for a lot of people, but she has really expedited it and gotten ahead of the game. “The interesting thing about Brandy is that a lot of chainsaw carvers basically do one or two items, like a bear or coyote, but she is willing to challenge herself and take on anything. She is able to finish all of the projects she begins, and all are very good. That’s a credit to her to be able to do that. Give her a few more years and there’s no telling what she will come up with – because she sees those things. She has the capability to carve with a chainsaw just about anything she puts her mind to.”
The Fiddlers Grove Woodcarvers has about two-dozen members, three of them women.
“We are a carving club open to all areas of expertise in wood carving, be it beginner or experts,” said Blakley. “All are welcome.”
McElroy drives to her club meetings in a fading white GMC pick-up with its doors adorned with the name of her business.
Regarding her moniker, she explained with a grin, “I’m from the South, so I’m a Chainsaw Belle.”
For more info about Brandy McElroy, who creates wood carvings, stump carvings, corporate sculptures, statues, relief carvings, walking sticks, animals and yard art, go online to: brandymcelroy.tripod.com or chainsawbelle.webs.com. For info about the Fiddlers Grove Woodcarvers, go to fiddlersgrovewoodcarvers.com. The club meets 9 a.m. – noon the second Saturday of each month at Fiddlers Grove at the Wilson County Fairgrounds. They also gather 6 – 9 p.m. Tuesdays at the same locale to do a little cutting up. The public is welcome.