Wisconsinite Leesa Syryczuk finds support and a home in the world of chainsaw carving

Words and photo by Sydney Price
Video by Alex Payne and Sydney Price

Leesa Syryczuk stands next to an intricate wooden eagle captured in mid-flight, its body weight supported precariously on one wingtip. “That’s just a practice one,” she says. With that, she fires up a chainsaw and steps toward a larger, soft pine log in rural Thorp, Wisconsin. Wood chips fly as the saw whines at 60 miles per hour. Sawdust particles tumble through the air.

Chainsaw carving is a messy endeavor, but the sounds of Syryczuk’s sculpting have a steady rhythm. She pauses occasionally to survey her work, to make a few marks on the wood with a pen and to pick up a different chainsaw—one of nine she brought with her. The larger log she’s carefully carving will become another eagle, this one holding an American flag.

The national bird is one of Syryczuk’s favorite carving subjects. As a careful observer of eagles in the wild, the Wisconsin native knows nearly everything about the majestic bird’s anatomy. She translates those features into her carvings. As she takes breaks to sip a Dr Pepper, she shares information on America’s national bird—like the fact that their eyes are the same size as a human’s eyes.

A Carver in the Making

Syryczuk picked up her first chainsaw when she was growing up on a farm in rural Wisconsin. She would help her brother cut firewood, but he often complained that she was cutting the logs crooked. It would be years before she would attempt to cut wood again—this time, creating sculptures out of it.

She was first inspired to try her hand at wood carving in 2012, when she attended the U.S. Open Chainsaw Sculpture Championship in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, for the first time. Her wife at the time turned to her and said, “Do you think you could do that?” The answer was yes. A two-for-one deal on saws later, Syryczuk began carving in earnest—and loved it.

But her newfound hobby ground to a halt the following year when a bad accident at work left Syryczuk, a drywaller, hospitalized for a month. An array of shattered bones, casts and crutches slowed her down, but couldn’t keep her from carving. Just one day after her wrist cast was removed, she powered up her chainsaw again against doctor recommendations. “I couldn’t sit still. I had to carve. I just enjoyed it so much,” Syryczuk said.

She made her return to the U.S. Open in 2013 (on crutches this time), where she met Jaime Doeren, one of the competition judges and a well-known carver. He wrote the first book about carving that she ever owned, so Doeren was a familiar name to Syryczuk. What she didn’t realize yet was that their relationship would prove to be an instrumental one.

Doeren first encouraged Syryczuk to see her talent as a sculptor and nurtured her eye for detail, despite little formal artistic background (the last art class Syryczuk had taken was in the sixth grade). After spending time carving together, Doeren invited Syryczuk to be a guest carver at the Open. Today, Syryczuk names detail as one of the most important elements of her work.

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Leesa Syryczuk added feathers to her practice eagle with a special saw made for carvers.

“To be able to bring that chunk of wood to life, you use your imagination,” Syryczuk said. “You look at it and it’s like I could see this in there and cut it out. Like what Michelangelo said about David. David was always there; I just cut away what wasn’t David.”

Syryczuk is now on her third year as a guest carver in Eau Claire’s international carving event. Even still, she is surprised by the response she’s received. At this year’s event, a man who has seen her work over the years suggested that she ought to be competing, not just guest carving. “And you know, it was overwhelming right there, that somebody’s been following me for that long,” Syryczuk said.

That loyalty doesn’t stop at audience members. Syryczuk laughed as she explained how the carving events are like “a dysfunctional family gathering”—but one where everyone helps one another. A fellow carver from Minnesota even admitted to her that the solidarity seen at the Open isn’t something she’s experienced in other areas of the country. “All of us have to be half off our rockers to do what we do, but we enjoy it—and the company of us together is just something else.”

The Finishing Touch

Several hours later, Syryczuk’s wooden masterpiece takes its form as an eagle. Now that the main body has taken shape, she goes back with fine-toothed saws, made for carvers to add details, to carefully carve the bird’s feathers.

Once satisfied with the complete design, she’ll decide if she wants to use a torch to char parts of the carving for shading or paint the sculpture in true-to-life colors. For now, she packs up her saws, dusts off her clothes and loads her day’s work into her truck. But for Syryczuk, it isn’t truly work. “If I could make a living doing this,” she said, “I’d never work a day in my life.”