The Fluid Life of the Chain Saw Carver
By Barbara Neville Wilson
I stand at the base of the 24-foot debarked tree trunk, gawking into the roof of an eagle’s open mouth overhead. “Am I seeing right?” I yell upwards. “Is the roof of its mouth TEXTURED?”
“Yeah!” the artist yells down.
“How’d you do it?”
“With the tip of my chain saw.”
I gape. “Really?” I try to focus my camera but can’t get a good picture. “May I come up?”
And that’s how I find myself on a 17-foot high platform in the middle of a field inches away from a six-foot wooden eagle with wings raised, mouth open, neck slightly curved and eyes focused down as if looking at something just out of sight to its left.
The location could not be more magnificent. I glance forward and see the Sandwich Mountains spread wide, backdrop to the freshly painted, new roofed, smartly landscaped Isaac Adams Homestead. To my left is a ribbon of asphalt, NH Highway 109N, Wentworth Hill Road, where cars pull over intermittently to gawk at the artist called Alex and his 30-foot art.
Carver Alex is perched on the scaffolding. His left hand holds a palette of black, white and red acrylic paint; his right hand carefully strokes a ribbon of white from the eagle’s talon and across the totem’s curve.
He tells me this is just the first phase of the project: the eagle carries the American flag. The second phase will reveal the eagle sitting atop a bear. In the third phase, the bear will sit atop a dragon. The bear represents Russia, and the dragon, what? China, Alex tells me. This is a commissioned work, he says. He leaves it to John Dolan of the Isaac Adams Homestead to explain the imagery.
It represents our nation, John tells me. “It is not a symbol from the right or the left but from the view point of the believers in freedom and the constitution. The motto for New Hampshire is live free or die…and it is important for people to remember...” Specifically, he says, “The totem represents the United States on top of its two biggest adversaries: Russia and China. I thought it was indicative of the world atmosphere today and the politically charged climate that we live in. It is just a symbol of our beautiful country. I believe in my heart that we are the greatest experiment still unfolding, even with all our problems and it is important to maintain our position as the leader of free speech and tolerance throughout the world.”
He points to his neighbor Harry Batchelder—and a really big winter storm—as the seed planters of the project. Harry served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and, perhaps as a consequence, became a champion of the downtrodden, the un-loveable. About a year ago, Harry showed up at Alex’ home asking him to carve him a “really sad monk.”
“It’s funny,” almost serendipitous, says Alex. He had been away from home for a months-long road trip and had barely pulled into the driveway when Harry arrived saying, “I’ve been looking for you.”
Alex didn’t know what to make of the octogenarian in his driveway. In his years of carving, he’s gotten used to a lot of tire kickers, he says, but Harry was totally serious. He described the project and showed him a faded photograph taken in Southeast Asia decades ago. They talked, and then deposit in hand, Alex sketched possibilities. He soon found himself in Harry’s driveway on Wentworth Hill. John Dolan watched the project unfold and when a January storm downed his huge spruce, he knew just what he wanted to do with it.
Finding red rot at the center of a huge tree in Woodstock derailed original plans for a sculpture but led to the creation of a new technique that produces filigree-like results.
(Carver Alex photo)
The tree is the largest Alex has ever carved. Before the trunk was trimmed, it was topped by a triple bower. The bower was so gigantic that even after de-limbing, it stands four-foot tall in John Dolan’s meadow. It’s a monster, Alex says. People watching this project will see Alex out in nearly any weather, using only a chainsaw, a 4 ½” sander and burning tools. Today he’s finishing this first phase of the work with oil, stain, acrylic paint, and spar varnish, which is specially formulated for marine—read “rough weather”—applications.
But before he ever lays saw teeth to wood, Alex sits with the owner and listens carefully to their vision. He offers thoughts, and often the budget forces adjustments to be made, but however possible, he tries to make it work. Nature herself, however, often takes the last word.
Alex points to one of his favorite projects: Scott Rice wanted to see his three dogs carved into the trunk of a tree that was threatening to come down on his home. Alex sketched out the project, Scott approved it, and Alex began, only to have his plans suddenly change. Four feet into the piece, he found red rot.
It made Scott’s vision impossible to sculpt. Red rot destroys a trunk from the inside out. Surprisingly, Alex says the discovery of the rot “…was one of the biggest blessings ever.” From a forced situation, he created a whole new way to work with wood. He hollowed out the tree, gave Scott a new sketch for approval, and produced what is now one of his favorite pieces: a filigree-like botanical with twining vines, flowers and leaves.
The spruce I sit beside presented its own challenges, Alex tells me as he paints broad strokes of white. As his chain saw broke into the top portions, he found it misshapen. The tree’s growth would not allow the eagle’s gaze to face straight towards the road. Instead, its neck had to twist toward its left shoulder, in a way that denotes strength to me, or, as neighbor Harry Batchelder says, ferocity. Alex laughs a little at the result from the change he was forced to make. “There’s a lot less planning than you might think…life is fluid. I guess it’s good that my art is, too.”
After nearly two weeks, Alex has nearly finished the eagle, Phase I of John Dolan’s totem pole. The bear and the dragon will take about two weeks each as well, he says. In between, he will intersperse work already promised. Next week, he will be at Owl’s Landing Campground in Holderness and later in the summer, he will be onsite in Worcester, MA. It looks like commissions will keep him busy through the first of the year; after that, he hopes to head west for the last months of winter. A client in California wants another sign, and perhaps he’ll stop to visit a sculpture he shipped to Colorado last fall. There’s no doubt he’ll return to New Hampshire with the warmth of spring, though. Despite “everywhere I’ve been,” he says, “New Hampshire is still the most beautiful place...”
Progress on the Eagle Totem can be seen atop Wentworth Hill on Route 109N at the Isaac Adams Homestead in Sandwich. When you go, be sure to take time to see the sad monk at Harry Batchelder’s home next door on the Moultonborough side. More of Carver Alex’ work is featured on his Facebook page, Carver Alex, or call him at 603-327-8971.