Legacy in the Cedar

Written By Hannah Blair Hurt

Video By Cassandra Castillo.

If you happen to find yourself deep in the woods of Dunlap, Tennessee, you may come across the smell of burning timber, the peaceful chirping of birds and Steve McBryar wielding his chainsaw, ready to carve his next piece of work. 

McBryar is what you would call a chainsaw sculptor. A welder by trade, he is no stranger to power tools and material manipulation. He first discovered his interest in woodcarving after coming across a massive totem pole on a trip to Pike Place Market in Seattle. Afterwards, he told his friends he’d like to do something just like that—but they never believed he actually could. 

“I came back and started working with chisels,” McBryar said. “It took me two and a half months to do a piece maybe two feet tall. I joke with people, my first piece probably would’ve been better as firewood, it was so ugly.”

McBryar soon found himself at the Ketner’s Mill Festival where he was first introduced to chainsaw sculpting. He realized the method would be more efficient than the chisels he used. 

Steve McByrar cleans sawdust out of his beard after a session on his most recent project. Sunday, September 25, 2022. (Photo by Seth Carpenter)

The following Monday, McBryar purchased his first chainsaw and got to work. Twenty-seven years later, McBryar considers carving as a sort of therapy—as well as a creative legacy he’ll leave behind.

“That’s my therapy,” McBryar said. “When I have things going on in life that I need to escape from, then that’s the way to do it. And I’m bringing something beautiful to the world.”

McBryar affectionately calls his process the ‘flow,’ comparing his pieces to running water. He draws most of his inspiration from nature and gravitates towards animals within his work, though he is not afraid to push himself and try something new. 

“I’ve had people laugh at me because of the things I’ve done, you know make fun of me,” McBryar said. “Don’t let anybody tell you [that] you can’t do something. That’s the worst thing in the world to tell me, is that I can’t, because I’m gonna do it just to shove it back in your face.”

McBryar’s fuel for creation over the years has transformed from determination to passion – and a deep love for the wood itself.

“The wood is the heart and the spirit,” McBryar said. “If you look at a grain of wood, it’s telling a story in it. We don’t know how to read it, but there’s a story there. Every knot, every bend in the grain is something that affected that tree at some point.” 

All of the wood McBryar uses is provided by local tree cutters whom he has relationships with, most of the wood being headed for a far darker fate than it is in McBryar’s hands. 

“My thing with this, especially with tree cutters, is that this is wood that was just going to be cut down and tossed away,” McBryar says. “Some of these trees are 100, 150 years old or even older.”  

Steve McBryar runs his hand across the grain of his current project. Sunday, October 2, 2022. (Photo By Seth Carpenter)

McBryar sees his craft as a way for the tree to live on. He is making a new life for this wood, as well as leaving a legacy behind for himself—even if people don’t know his name. McBryar doesn’t sign his pieces, but rather leaves a personal stamp on each.

“In reality, this is my legacy,” McBryar said. “Most people, you may be remembered for 50, 60 years after you die. My work will stand for at least 100 after I’m dead. I don’t really care if they know my name, or who I was, but it’ll still be there.”

McBryar recently found a new way to continue his legacy in the form of a crib for his first born grandson. This piece will not only last throughout the generations of their family, but also through the decades of his grandchild’s life—he has built it in a way that it can be converted and grow with the child, from crib, to toddler bed and eventually to a full size one. McBryar describes this project as the one closest to his heart and simply as a “labor of love.”

Ultimately, one word can be used to describe McBryar: determined. His carving journey began with him being told he couldn’t and so he did.

“Anybody can do this, you just have to believe in yourself,” McBryar said. “Don’t let anyone discourage you from what you want to do. If you want it bad enough, then you’ll make it happen, one way or another.”

Audio By Brittany Santiago.

Carving Out Community

Written By Kylee Boone

Larry Ridge chisels into a wooden carousel horse leg at Horsin’ Around Carousel Carving School. Monday, September 26, 2022. (Photo by Kylee Boone)

Whittling away in the Horsin’ Around Carousel Carving School, amateurs and professionals alike have been creating intricate animal carvings for decades now, even contributing to community staples such as the Coolidge Park Carousel.

To someone who knows little about the woodworking industry, it might seem like a craft that takes years to master, but owner Larry Ridge says only about 12% of the people who go through Horsin’ Around have had previous carving experience. 

“There were nurses and accountants and doctors and everything in between… But as long as they kept at it with guidance and with support, they came up with a beautiful animal,” Ridge says.

Instead of formal classes, Horsin’ Around centers their education around hands-on experience. Despite the hours of dedication that goes into the finished product, they hold their student’s hand every step of the way.

“It’s not a class in a conventional sense like a time and a place [where] you show up and listen to a lecture or something,” Ridge says. “We are project-oriented… you pick an animal that you want to do and then we put it together for you and work with you as kind of a mentor program.”

Before discovering his niche in carousel carving, Ridge experimented with woodworking in different ways. His journey all started decades ago with a knife set and his busy hands. Little did he know that this would develop into something he would carry with him to this day. 

“When I was fourteen my Sunday school teacher gave me an exacto knife kit,” Ridge says, “I guess he figured I needed something to keep my mind occupied… so I started carving then and just expanded as I grew.”

Although Ridge has many years of experience under his belt, he believes creating and restoring carousel animals is something anyone could do. He often tells his students that there is nothing that can be messed up that can’t be fixed or replaced. This allows them to have creative freedom without the fear of failure. 

“One of the things that I really think is important… in life is telling people they can do whatever they choose to do,” Ridge says. “I’ve seen too many people that…[say] ‘I could never do that,’ turn around and do it if they just try.”

Seth Carpenter is a photojournalist and the photo editor of UT Chattanooga’s student-run newspaper, the University Echo. Seth has done stories on a nurse working through COVID-19, the life of a former prisoner, and much more. Seth hopes the stories they tell will make a difference in the lives of others. If you have a story that needs to be told, reach out to Seth at Sethcarpenter101@gmail.com.

Kylee Boone is a visual storyteller studying Communications at UT Chattanooga. She utilizes her leadership qualities as the Social Media and Advertising Director for The University Echo and as the co-founder of her nonprofit organization with Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home. She hopes to one day work in social media management and inspire others through her work in storytelling. For questions or collaboration, please contact llb813@mocs.utc.edu.

Hannah Blair Hurt is a final semester senior Communication major at UT Chattanooga. She is a writer and storyteller with special interest in feature and entertainment. She comes from a family of musicians and travelers, having been to 46 states before the age of ten. Hannah Blair has written for the University Echo and is currently interning at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. For questions or collaboration with Hannah Blair, email zpf745@mocs.utc.edu.

Cassandra Castillo is a junior Communications major with minors in Spanish and International Studies at UT Chattanooga. She hopes to give a voice to the voiceless through visual and written storytelling around the world. Cassandra works as a writer for the University Echo, video editor for Mocs News, and editor for the U.S Department of Veteran Affairs. For questions or collaboration with Cassandra, contact xmx829@mocs.utc.edu

Brittany Santiago is a UTC student double majoring in Communications and Sociology with a minor in Innovation. As a multimedia storyteller, Brittany focuses on amplifying muted, oppressed, or otherwise disenfranchised voices. Originally from New York City, then Atlanta, and now Chattanooga, her cross-cultural experience allows her to make connections with a diverse set of people and gain insights that allow her audiences to feel those connections too. To connect or collaborate with Brittany contact xcb317@mocs.utc.edu.

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