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Out of the wood

By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– A panther has been unleashed at Penn Elementary School; not from chains or the bars of an iron cage, but from a 500-pound log of soft pine.
Pat Doyle is a former Solon resident who has carved quite a niche for himself, creating a successful business using a chain saw and his God-given talents. He came to Penn school in North Liberty on Friday, April 13, to craft a wooden rendition of the school’s mascot for a permanent display honoring Penn’s 50th year in the Iowa City Community School District.
With protective eyewear and headphones in place, Doyle deftly buzzed his chainsaw over the block of wood, sawdust swirling and an occasional chunk of pine flinging through the air. Doyle worked on the playground, under a small tent with mesh walls to keep his audience safe from flying debris. He stopped briefly as each class came to observe, long enough to answer their questions and let them get a good look at the cat gradually emerging from the block of wood.
“What’s the first sculpture you ever did? What was your biggest?” the students asked. Doyle told them of his first piece, a mountain man he named Rufus, and his 20 ft. sculpture of four eagles that represent the now-famous Decorah eagles whose lives have been viewed on the Internet since 2010. His most famous sculpture might be the panther he carved for the University of Northern Iowa, or maybe the Norman Rockwell scene that he did in Des Moines. His sculptures can be found in county parks, on church lawns, in cemeteries, golf courses and campgrounds, and some even grace the entrances of a few Midwest communities.
His smallest sculpture was of a mouse about four inches long, he said.
“I used a chain saw, but I couldn’t find anyone to hold the wood,” Doyle joked. He assured the kids he had never hurt himself with his chainsaw, but a grinder once nearly took his finger off.
Raised on a farm near Solon, Doyle graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a degree in teaching and then earned a master’s degree in counseling. He has worked in the addictions treatment field for over 30 years.
Addiction is partially what shaped his own future, he said.
About 20 years ago, he quit drinking and quit smoking. He tried running as exercise to replace his addictive behaviors, but bad knees kept him from enjoying it. He met a hand carver who showed him the joys of forming things from wood.
“I was fortunate to stumble into this,” Doyle said of his carving. “Forty years ago, if someone told me I’d be making a career out of it, I’d have laughed. I didn’t like art. I flunked art in school.”
He has been carving sculptures for a living for over 15 years now; he completes about 1,000 every year.
“It just goes to show, you never know what skills and talents God gives you,” he said.
He and his wife Sonne Nielsen now live near Floyd, close to Mason City, also the home base for their business, Doyle Carving Niche. Nielsen manages the corporation and helps to run the operation. The couple spends much of each year traveling to fairs and festivals, and Doyle schedules many performances throughout the Midwest, including being the featured chainsaw carver at the Iowa State Fair and other county and regional fairs. He does commissioned work for a variety of clients, including individuals, companies and organizations. Doyle’s work can be seen on their website at www.doylecarvingniche.com.
It only took him the length of a single school day to fashion a sleek feline lounging on a pile of books, the panther that will welcome visitors to Penn Elementary as it marks its first 50 years, and looks toward the next.
The students were amazed at the way the cat’s features emerged as Doyle worked his chainsaw over the still-crude block of pine.
“Look at the details,” noted student Kevis Berger. “You can already see his nose and his tail. Look, you can even see the three books stacked under his feet.”
Student Tia Dunn was also enamored of the cat.
“He is smiling, I think,” she said.
When one student asked how he learned to carve wood so well, Doyle offered a grain of his own truth.
“Lots of practice, and making lots of mistakes,” he said. “That’s how you learn, right?”