Lexington man has wildcats lurking in his honey locust tree

jwarren@herald-leader.comNovember 22, 2013 

When David Terry reluctantly had to take down a deteriorating honey locust tree behind his Lexington home he saw an artistic opportunity.

So, instead of having the remaining stump ground up, Terry called Jeffersonville-based chainsaw sculptor Harley Dougherty.

They looked at the trunk, studied it some, and saw lurking within it ... a wildcat.

"He wanted to know if I could put a wildcat kind of climbing up into the tree, so we kind of talked and developed the idea between ourselves," Dougherty said. "Most of the things I do are a collaboration."

Dougherty, 45, carved away at the tree trunk over the course of three days last week. And when the (saw) dust had settled, there was a fierce-eyed wildcat peering down from the upper part of the stump — plus a cuddly baby wildcat resting on a lower limb for good measure.

"I'm really pleased with it," Terry said after Dougherty had finished the carving and was ready to paint the piece. "In fact, I told him (Dougherty) that it looks pretty good right now. I'm not sure I'm going to let him paint it."

For the record, Terry did agree to having the wildcat painted, along with a sculpture of a hawk that Dougherty also created on another stump in the backyard.

Terry said the wildcat and hawk for his Coltneck Lane home actually are not the first chainsaw carvings he's commissioned. Some years ago he had another chainsaw artist carve some sculptures in stumps on a farm he owns in Carlisle County.

Terry admittedly might be somewhat partial to the wildcat image. He is retired from the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, where he coordinated UK's fertilizer regulatory program. Mainly, he wanted to do something creative with the old tree trunk behind his house, he said.

"The tree was dying and we had to do something with it," Terry said. "So, I thought why not a wildcat?"

Such sentiments keep Dougherty and his chainsaw busy year round. Most of his commissions are from folks who have old tree stumps or chunks of wood and want something beautiful created from them.

Dougherty says the vast majority of requests he gets are for "fur and feathers" sculptures — that is birds, foxes, wolves and other wild creatures.

"But the business basically is centered around bears," he said. "Eighty percent of my work is carving bears. I believe that if I was in the middle of Hawaii with a chainsaw, someone would come up and want a bear."

Other than a tour in the Army — he served in the first Persian Gulf War — Dougherty has been working with wood most of his life.

He grew up on a Menifee County farm, and began learning carpentry as a youngster, helping repair furniture and houses. Soon, he was making and selling his own furniture.

"I did that for a few years, and was going broke at it," he recalled. "The market for high-end furniture was dying out. So I went to carving pieces with a mallet and chisel."

About eight years ago, however, a noted chainsaw sculptor from Minnesota named A.J. Lutter suggested that Dougherty should try a chainsaw. He took the advice, and found his true calling.

"The minute I tried carving with the saw, it just popped," he said.

Dougherty has been going strong ever since.

He can study a chunk of wood and, without making preparatory sketches, fire up his saw and create an accurate image of a snarling wildcat or wolf in almost no time.

Even when you watch it happen, seeing the image appear out of a dead stump is almost magical.

"It's a God-given gift is what it is," Dougherty said. "Because if I had to draw a wildcat to make a living, I'd starve to death. I have no drawing skills."

Dougherty's biggest work, so far, is a 13-foot Pegasus sculpture he created from a maple log for a farm in Bourbon County.

Does he ever make mistakes?

Well ... Dougherty admits that he's produced some of what he calls "fancy firewood," that is pieces suitable only for burning. Usually, though, he manages to incorporate any errors into the overall design of the piece.

He says he'll tackle almost any project — except abstract sculpture. "I turn down abstract," he said.

Besides, he always has plenty to do. He said he's booked solid through March, even though winter usually is his slowest time of year.

Remarkably, Dougherty doesn't advertise, and doesn't have a web site to show off his work. "In this business," he says, "word of mouth is the best advertising you can have."

Jim Warren (859) 231-3255. Twitter: @heraldleader

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