Chainsaws and Chisels: For Sculptor Patrick Burns, The Joy is in The Detail

For sculptor and woodworker Patrick Burns, it’s all about listening to the wood.

Burns has been quietly running his studio west of Leesburg for several years. But last month, Burns caught the attention of the county’s arts community with a mesmerizing large-scale aquatic-themed sculpture.

When Burns got his hands on an impressive 12-foot, 8,000-pound slab of maple, he immediately thought of an octopus.

“It just spoke to me,” Burns said. “The size of it allowed me to do this.”

The result is a large but stunningly intricate piece, featuring a detailed octopus and other marine life, including a dolphin, a sea turtle and small fish.

As with most of his projects, the process starts with an idea and a chainsaw and gets more detailed from there. It’s a process that’s both physically demanding and detail-oriented.

“I grab a chainsaw and put on some good music and try to get a basic rough-out,” Burns said.

Then Burns turns to his prized set of chisels to get down to the fine details. And that part isn’t always easy. Tackling those details isn’t always easy, as he found while working on the sea turtle in his latest piece, one of his favorite but most challenging elements. Sometimes it takes a few days of reflection and letting the wood speak to him.

“There were days when I wouldn’t touch it. I’d sit there and try to get the courage to detail the turtle,” he said. “It’s one of those things—you just need to do it.”

The self-taught artist runs his studio on commission work, including sculptures, signs and furniture pieces. But a couple of times every year, he finds the perfect slab of wood for a large-scale personal project like the octopus, his largest and most complex piece to date.

Burns, 34, grew up on his parents’ blackberry farm near Leesburg. One of six children, he learned his way around power tools and chainsaws as a teen helping around the farm. He was always drawn to art but didn’t make college plans when he graduated from Loudoun County High School in 2005.

Burns went straight to work out of high school, with a series of jobs including restaurant work, while honing his woodworking skills. Seven years ago, when a pastry chef friend died, he did a carving of a cake to remember her. Friends saw that piece and asked about other commissioned work.

As commissions started to flow, Burns’ parents let him turn a barn on their property into a woodworking studio, and he launched Tree Life Art as a full-time business. Burns has grown his studio based on commissions for sculptures, signs, furniture and other pieces based on word-of-mouth referrals.

“It’s what I’ve been searching for for the longest time,” he said.

He has also become one of a group of Loudoun artists and woodworkers who get calls from arborists when historic trees need to be taken down. Property owners often want to commission a special piece—a bench, a table or a sculpture—from a beloved tree.

Last month, Burns got a call from the owner of a 200-year-old tree in western Loudoun, did a site visit and made plans with the owner to make a bench as a way to preserve a part of a landmark.

Burns is also looking to take his artistic projects to the next level—working to build connections in the Loudoun arts community and connect with galleries as his studio enters the next phase. He’s currently talking with potential buyers for the octopus sculpture and plans to connect with environmental and other nonprofits to talk about potential donations for charity auctions or sales.

“Without nature, this wouldn’t be possible. There would be no inspiration,” he said.

And just like with the octopus sculpture, he’ll keep listening to the wood and waiting for it to guide him.

“There’s a relationship there,” he said. “There’s definitely some chemistry. … I feel like I know this wood like the back of my hand.”

For more information about Patrick Burns and Tree Life Art, go to facebook.com/patburns32.

One thought on “Chainsaws and Chisels: For Sculptor Patrick Burns, The Joy is in The Detail

  • 2021-08-05 at 7:35 pm
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    Patrick Burns is such a talented man. I have not heard of his studio, but I’m for sure going to pay a visit.

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