Chainsaw carvers transform wood into art

Chainsaw carver Tony Robinson works on an Oregon Duck during the Creswell Carving Classic Chainsaw Carving Expo. Photo by David Evans
By Gini Davis - The Creswell Chronicle

Predictions of the strongest windstorm the Willamette Valley had seen since the devastating Columbus Day storm of 1962 kept many carvers and spectators home, and sent those who did arrive packing early. But overall, the Second Annual Creswell Carving Classic Chainsaw Carving Expo, held last week at Twin Timbers Christmas Tree Farm, about 1.5 miles south of Creswell on Highway 99, was deemed a success.

“We had a lot of energy and enthusiasm from the carvers – they’re very talented and really have a passion for it,” said Twin Timbers owner Tom Salamun, a hobbyist carver himself. “We had a lot of interest and would’ve had a ton of people if the weather had been good.”

“Feedback was very positive, and even the carvers that did not attend were cool,” agreed Cascade Chainsaw Sculptors Guild President Steve Backus. Because they live nomadically a good part of the year, plying their craft, “carvers have complicated lives, and will brave the storm in most cases – this was just an exception to the norm by the weather gods,” he added. “The carvers that attended will spread the word in a positive way.”

Originally slated for Oct. 14, 15 and 16 and to include a live auction of carvings, with up to 20 carvers and multiple vendors expected, ultimately only eight carvers braved conditions and showed, and all had packed up and gone before the final day.

The auction was canceled for lack of potential buyers, and most vendors also withdrew, although the Big Bites mobile food truck was on hand.

“As it got closer to the weekend, people started calling to cancel because they were getting real concerned about traveling; a lot of the carvers come from Washington and California,” Salamun said. “But those who did show up thought it was great; we had a really good time.”

While the southern Willamette Valley wasn’t hit nearly as hard as predicted, the storm shifted north and did significant damage along the northern Oregon coast and into Washington, further hastening the carvers’ departure.

“Washington just got slammed; some of the carvers’ families were hit hard and they were eager to get home and make sure everybody was okay and check damage to their property,” Salamun said.

Demonstrating their skills at the Expo were the father/son duo of Mark and Jay Peppard; Tony Robinson; Ellen Keeland, a 69-year-old carver from Reedsport; Native American carver Emil Marshall of California; the husband/wife team of Ken and Penny Ballenger of Seattle; and Backus, of Whidbey Island, Wash.

Under the talented hands of the chainsaw-brandishing carvers, ordinary logs were transformed before spectators’ eyes into bears, turtles, eagles, sasquatches and more.

A detailed whale created by Robinson will grace a school or library near his home in Ocean Shores, Wash. “It was an awesome whale,” Salamun said. Robinson also began an Oregon Duck, complete with tail feathers, which Salamun purchased unfinished.

Keeland carved a statue of Donald Trump and a man wearing suspenders and signaling “OK” with one hand. “She’s a firecracker,” Salamun said in admiration.

As a second-generation professional carver for 40-plus years, Backus is deeply knowledgeable and passionate about chainsaw carving, an art form which arose out of the transient loggers’ culture of the Northwest timber industry. Loggers once traveled a work circuit from Northern California to Oregon and Washington, just as many chainsaw carvers do today.

“In some ways, carving’s an extension of the transient loggers’ movement,” Backus said. “We’re like a big extended family – and whenever we get together, we’re going to carve.”

Expos like Creswell’s facilitate carvers coming together to share knowledge and demonstrate their art to each other and the public, and Backus is committed to helping such venues flourish. He and Salamun aim to develop the Creswell Expo into a well-known, well-attended annual event.

“We see this as a regional event, attracting people from a very wide area,” Backus said. “From a chainsaw carver’s perspective, this place is halfway between San Francisco and Seattle, and October’s a great time for it, at the end of the season, so I think it’ll take off.”

Furthering that effort is the mounting interest from sponsors. This year’s Expo garnered corporate sponsorships from Woodmizer Sawmills, Alaskan Sawmills, Horner’s Saw Shop, Oregon Chain and Crosswind Logistics.

The carving logs came from Wood Recovery of Junction City, “and they’re going to be a sponsor in future years,” Salamun said.

Concerns about disappointing sponsors, carvers and the public at a crucial stage in the event’s development spurred the decision not to postpone this year’s Expo, despite the weather, organizers said.

“We’re eyeing next year for the growth of this event; three-year lifecycles are the do-or-die for these events,” Backus said.

Backus and Salamun are confident that as the Expo grows, it will bring a boost to Creswell businesses as well.

“From my perspective and experience, once an event attains success, folks want to jump on board – and as an event grows, local motels and stores should see a spike in revenue,” Backus said. “We had at least eight people stay at the motels in Creswell and eat breakfast, buy gas and beer and whatnot, and as that grows it won’t go unnoticed.”

In future years, Salamun envisions incorporating pumpkin carving, logging demonstrations such as sawing and axe throwing, the live auction, a Saturday night bonfire and more. But even as he looks ahead, Salamun is reflecting with satisfaction on this year’s Expo.

“It was a great success from the carvers’ standpoint,” Salamun said. “They really liked the setting, being able to carve in a cleared area with so many trees around, and we did have 60 to 100 people come and watch. Everybody wants to come back.”

And that may happen sooner than next October. In part to make up for the truncated Expo, Salamun hopes to invite some professional carvers to create holiday-themed art such as reindeer and elves during the post-Thanksgiving weekends when many families visit Twin Timbers to see Santa and select their Christmas tree.

“I kind of felt bad the carvers had to leave early after coming all this way,” Salamun said. “I’m leaving up some of the carving stations for demos and sales after Thanksgiving, and we’ll see who wants to come and carve.”