This coming spring will mark the 47th year that woodcarver Brian McEneny will be at work in his Seal Rock gallery.
It’s a far cry from the ski slopes of Montana, where McEneny was a professional skier, but it’s home to a career he carved out for himself many years ago.
“At a young age, I realized that every job I had was someone else’s dream,” said the Washington native. “I wanted to do my own dream.”
And he has. McEneny’s Woodcarving Gallery in Seal Rock has three showrooms in two buildings, as well as plenty of space for him to carve large pieces of wood into striking representations of sea life.
But carving was not a goal the artist set for himself — it happened by chance. “I kept getting hurt,” he said of his skiing career, which took him from Mount Hood to Lake Tahoe, Idaho and Montana and included time as a ski instructor and service on ski patrol.
“When I got hurt for the fourth time in seven years, I couldn’t do it anymore,” he said, adding that it didn’t work for him to be around the mountains when he couldn’t ski.
“I had a friend who was working at Mount Hood, and I went to visit him in 1974,” McEneny said. “The mountains were kind of dead to me by then, so I came to the coast.”
He spent some time in Newport, considered becoming a fisherman and eventually took a job as a forestry construction instructor at Angell Job Corps in Yachats. He moved to Seal Rock to be closer to work, but soon quit work to spend time with his wife, Sue.
While living in Seal Rock, he met Ray Kowalski at a local store. Kowalski started chainsaw carving, and McEneny and several others began carving together and eventually selling their work at Sea Gulch.
McEneny said that when he first started chainsaw carving, he produced cowboy sculptures and bears. But one morning in the late 1970s or early ‘80s, he woke up, looked out his window at the ocean, and realized, “I could do something else. The ocean was my inspiration. I lived in Seal Rock, so I started doing seals on a rock.”
McEneny built his own gallery in 1989, then added a second one next door after selling his house. His larger gallery is home to his biggest sculptures, but these days he is working on smaller creations — 3 or 4 feet in size.
About 20 years ago, he began seeking out wood with bent limbs and other twists and turns to allow him room to create more pieces of sea life “with character,” he explained. “I was inspired by neat pieces of wood, some of it driftwood from California. I was working with nature, and when you do that, you can see things evolve out of a little piece of wood.”
Now he works with redwood, and often selects pieces from a barrel of Manzanita burls he’s had for about 30 years. “If you get a curve in the wood, you can put any shape of animal in the curve,” he said, noting he likes bringing shapes to the surface. “I’m trying to let the wood itself do more.”
He uses a variety of tools, but starts each piece with a chainsaw. “When it gets to a close resemblance of what I want to do, I start sanding,” he said. “I sand everything — I’ve been breathing sawdust for 40 years!”
He also uses hand chisels, Dremels and other tools, and said he is carving more freely these days. He may use color to highlight the wood grain, or to set off different elements of a carving.
Recently, McEneny worked on a piece of wood he has kept around for 15 years. “It took me 35 days and is a double octopus, held together by the tentacles,” he said. “As you look, you see more and more detail.”
And he is pleased at how the tiny unincorporated community of Seal Rock has been attracting new businesses, and notes it offers five galleries occupied by working artists.
“I’m thankful for all the support I’ve received over the years,” he said. “If you think of all the viable businesses that came and went, it makes me feel really fortunate that we’ve been here this long.
“I was raised to always try to do better next time,” he added, explaining he is not striving for perfection as much as trying to make each piece a little better than the one before.
He’d be delighted if his two children, Casey and Jennifer, kept the gallery going as a McEneny family legacy. And he noted the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. Both of his parents painted; Casey is the art teacher at Newport High School and is on his own artistic path as a muralist, with his work on display at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! in Newport and Rogue Ales in South Beach.
Now a new generation is involved: Jennifer’s son spent two summers carving with McEneny, and her daughter is a ski racer.
Putting it simply, McEneny said, “I’ve carved out a life,” hence the name for his coffee table-style book, “Carving Out a Life.” He spent two winters putting the book together with the help of Carla Perry. It includes poems and their “back stories” from the years before he began carving, as well as numerous photos of his sculptures.
“When I moved here, I started being more visual rather than verbal,” he said, explaining that he wrote poetry from the time he was 15 to 27, then went “dormant” for 42 years. Now he’s come full circle.
“I recently awoke in the middle of the night with an immense sense of gratitude and wrote this verse,” he said, adding that it conveys his philosophy toward art:
“God gave me a piece of wood
Told me to take it
And make something good.
He told me to try
To do what I can,
To be honest and humble
That was the plan
I accepted his word
Took it to heart,
That’s when my carving
Got its start.
46 years later
I remember what he said,
His sermon is always
In the back of my head
All these years
I followed the code,
When it comes to God,
I do what I’m told.”
“Everyone has God-given gifts and talents, not just making art, but including most virtues such as kindness, compassion, emotional strength, etc.,” he reflected. “Some may never realize their gifts, as there are many distractions in life. Once you discover your gift, it is up to each of us to pursue these gifts and take them as far as you possibly can.”
Looking back at his life as a carver, McEneny said, “The whole thing has been fun. It’s completely different from skiing, which was showy and gregarious. That was all about people. I hardly got solitude unless I was on ski patrol.”
Then things changed. “I’ve been carving by myself for 35 or 40 years,” he said. “It gives you a chance to think about things — politics, religion, whatever — it’s meditative. I don’t have to talk to anybody, and I’m always thinking. I feel really fortunate that I’ve gotten to do what I want, and Sue, who runs the business, has been with it every step of the way.”
To visit the Woodcarvers Gallery, call 541-563-2452. More information is available at woodcarvinggallery.com. The gallery is at 10751 NW Pacific Coast Highway in Seal Rock, near the corner of Art Street.