When Tony Barnes lived in Michigan, he used his chainsaw all the time, helping to clear local trails with a wildness club.
"I really enjoy running the saw," he said. "It keeps me in shape. It's really good for staying physically active."
But when he moved to Austin over a year ago, Barnes, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at St. Andrew's Episcopal Middle School, no longer had trails to clear. So he instead began to use his chainsaw to carve sculptures out of wood.
"My outlet, essentially, has been to carve. I started messing around and put some stuff in my front yard, these things that were totally unfinished, as a joke, and the feedback was just unbelievable," said Barnes, 35. "I never knew how much emotion was created from art because I didn't have a background in art. The emotional response that occurs when someone sees a piece, I may have never thought it was going to produce this type of response. Someone will say something to me about how it makes them feel, and it just blows me away."
One piece in particular elicited a response Barnes never anticipated — his wood-carved version of Daniel Johnston's froglike "Jeremiah the Innocent" from Austin's iconic "Hi, How Are You" mural on 21st Street, which he completed as a tribute to Johnston after the singer-songwriter's death in September.
"His original piece is so ingrained in the culture of Austin," Barnes said. "I just posted (a photo of my sculpture) on the Austin Reddit and asked people what they thought. It was so overwhelming, the responses. People were talking in the comments about how it made them feel, how it reminded them of him, it reminded them of people they knew that were struggling with mental health issues. I had no idea that it was going to resonate like that."
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Barnes decided early on that he didn't want to sell the sculpture, which stands 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide and took him about six hours to create. Instead, he opted to offer it as an auction item for the Austin Center for Grief & Loss' Holders of Hope fundraiser and gala Oct. 17. All proceeds will be split between the Austin Center for Grief and Loss and Johnston's Hi, How Are You Project, which aims to "inspire new conversations around mental health issues."
Barnes said some of his other favorite sculptures include a bear and a grackle, and that he particularly likes working on Texas-themed projects. He said the school's administrators have been supportive of his hobby, allowing him to carve on campus during off hours, and his students have been delighted to see what he makes.
"They freaking love it," he said. "I've got some carvings that I've done that I put up around my room, and when they hear about the stories or if I carve a new piece they're always excited to see what it looks like in the morning."
Barnes said he's grateful for the opportunity to give back and honor a local legend using his art and excited to see what else the future brings.
"I'm not an artist, I don't see myself as an artist, but I'm becoming an artist," he said. "I like carving things that make people happy."