At first glance, chainsaws don’t seem like the most creative tools in the world. Staples of cheesy horror movies, it’s more common to associate these lethal metal machines with destruction. So the rising – and highly skilled – art of chainsaw carving might come as a surprise to many.
Utilizing modern machinary to achieve the ancient art of woodworking, chainsaw carving can trace its humble roots back to 1952, when artist Ray Murphy carved his name into a piece of wood using his father’s chainsaw. Ken Kaiser took it a step further in 1961, producing 50 carvings for the Trees of Mystery and spawning a global movement that, unlike the old stumps they carve, continues to branch out.
Exposure at the Lumberjack World Championships (above) in Hayward, Wisconsin set the craft on course for success in 1980s America. Then in 1987, the first Chainsaw Carving World Championships, won by 24 year-old Barre Pinske, giving rise to the Cascade Chainsaw Sculptors Guild and newsletter, The Cutting Edge.
Chainsaw carving’s cult status swept across the Atlantic to Europe, particularly the UK and Germany, and ultimately reared its decorative head as far-a-field as Africa, Japan and Australia. As the craft’s popularity boomed, public perception began to consider chainsaw carving a performance art due to the noise, sawdust and quick results not normally associated with traditional techniques.
Performance chainsaw artists can draw large audiences and focus mainly on speed and their tools (chainsaw), although traditional sculpting instruments may also be used. There’s even a booking agency – Masters of the Chainsaw, founded by Brian Ruth in 1992 – to preserve the integrity of performance chainsaw art, which boasts some of America’s most respected artists among its ranks.
Chainsaw Chix, launched in 2007 by Brian’s wife, Jen, became the first international group of female artists. In September 2009, the couple released The Homeowners Complete Guide to the Chainsaw. Other books include “Fun and Profitable Chainsaw Carving” by William Westenhaver and Ron Hovde (1982), although the craft’s success in cutting into the global art scene has been largely attributed to the internet.
Notable carvings include statues by Canadian chainsaw artist Pete Ryan that decorate the small town of Hope, British Columbia. Another Canadian, Glenn Greensides, took the art to Japan in 1995 in a project that saw him visit for 12 consecutive years. Each year he created a five meter tall sculpture from an exported British Columbia log depicting that year’s Japanese Zodiac symbol.
Chainsaw carving requires specially modified blades that enable the artist to create incredibly detailed sculptures. Becoming a master requires many hours of practice and a strong commitment to safety. Summing up, chainsaw art is “cutting edge” in more ways than one, and certainly is not recommended for the uninitiated or the clumsy.
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