MEXICO — The greatest sculptor of the Italian Renaissance, Michelangelo, also left us with the greatest image of God’s creation of man, painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. God does it with the touch of a finger. Jon-Vincent Antonuk does it with a chainsaw.
Columbia Sociology Professor Emeritus William C. Casey (1891-1978) spent many a summer away from the hustle and bustle of the New York City of the 1930s at the Mexico Point Club, long burned down, on the site of the present Mexico Point Park. There he transformed the club’s carriage house into a medieval manor house carved with pictures of people from medieval times and verses from Chaucer in old English and from Cicero in Latin on the walls and ceiling beams. There his friends and students gathered for good conversation, good music, and good companionship amidst a beautiful setting on the shores of Lake Ontario. That carriage house became known as Casey’s Cottage.
It stands there still, watched over by the Friends of Mexico Point Park, who felt over the past year, it was time to add a wooden sculpture of William Casey to the many others they’d commissioned of people throughout the land’s centuries. Unfortunately, Kenvyn Richards, carver of many of the wooden “Park People,” passed away last fall. And so, a new sculptor was needed. Enter Jon-Vincent Antonuk, of Barneveld, chainsaw carver extraordinaire.
The Friends of Mexico Point Park wanted the wood to be maple, and Kevin Gates, of Midstate Tree & Lawn, was good enough to donate a huge maple log. Originally, Antonuk was to carve Casey amid the park’s annual “Celebrating the Arts” festival on May 31. COVID ruined that plan. And so, as to not attract attention, a secret location was designated, the enormous log was moved, and Antonuk and an associate carver, Adam Mulholland of Connecticut, fashioned a tremendous, nearly-life-size sculpture of Casey sitting, legs crossed, reading a book with a long bench to his right and left at right angles, all to be placed in a corner of Casey’s Cottage on permanent display for all to see.
In three days it was done. God did it with a finger. Antonuk did it with an assortment of 13 chainsaws of different sizes for different purposes. But little by little, this master carver released Casey from the log.
“It’s a subtractive art,” Antonuk said. “You’ve got to think backwards. You’ve just got to envision that person inside of that log and remove what doesn’t belong. You take a little away at a time until a form emerges, and then you can refine that form down to what you think is perfection.
“You start out bulky, then you just whittle it down until it takes its form. It’s in there. You’ve just got to release it. It’s already in there.
“It’s pretty difficult doing the human form with a chainsaw,” he continued. “I’m my own worst critic, so nothing’s ever perfect for me. But within a limited amount of time, I think I did very well. I had to turn 2D (a photograph of Casey) into 3D. That’s where it threw me off a little bit.”
And the wood itself was difficult to work with. Antonuk usually works in white pine.
“It’s soft, it’s light, it’s somewhat resistant to decay as long as you take care of it, treat it every couple years. But maple is one of the fastest rotting hardwoods. Lot of sugars inside the wood, and that helps with the rotting process. But these guys should be fine. They’ll be indoors.”
He puts preservative on the finished piece after it’s dried for a while. “I don’t like to put it on right away,” he said, “because you trap the moisture inside, then it’ll come out the bottom or start rotting.”
Maple is a “very” tough wood to work with, Antonuk said. “It’s one of the hardest. It’s got a lot of moisture in it. It’s really dense. Maple trees pick up dirt as they grow. In the middle of a log you’ll see a big pile of dirt that it grabbed as it grew.”
And sure enough, that dirt was evident in parts of this log. It almost looked like wood to me. Shows what I know. But then, I haven’t been chainsaw carving for the past 12 years. Antonuk has.
He started out as a chef. He worked that for 10 years. “It wasn’t for me,” he said.
“I found chainsaw carving, I saw somebody do it, and I was absolutely amazed, and I knew I could do it. I was unemployed and I didn’t have anything to lose. It blew up pretty much right away. I decided that’s what I would do for the rest of my life. My first carving was a bear, and it sold the day after I finished it. So, I kept going. I haven’t had to look for a job for 12 years.
“Chainsaw carving, as soon as I found it, I’ve never stopped,” Antonuk said. “It saved my life.”
And now, it’s brought back to life, in a wooden sort of way, Professor William Casey.
The project was funded in part by a grant from the Decentralization Program, a re-grant program of the NY State Council on the Arts.
Casey’s Cottage will re-open someday once COVID’s subsided. In the meantime, search out a short video that’s been made of the entire carving on YouTube. Better yet, go see it all yourself when you can. It’s a special place and a very special sculpture.