When you’re driving the back roads of western states like California, Nevada, and Arizona, you’re likely to encounter many picturesque roadside attractions. Among those roadside attractions may be carvings of fanciful creatures. You may see dragons, dwarves or even a wooden bear statue. Such wood carvings have a long and colorful history.
The Trail of Tall Tales
People first began experimenting with wooden carvings in the 1960s and the 1970s, following the publication of a popular book entitled “Fun and Profitable Chainsaw Carving” by William Westenhaver and Ronald Hovde. One of the earliest roadside carvings still standing is a redwood mural at the Trees of Mystery attraction in northern California that was created by the chainsaw artist Ken Kaiser. Kaiser had been creating chainsaw artwork since the 1950s, but since wood is a perishable medium, particularly when it’s outside and exposed to weather, much of Kaiser’s early work did not survive.
Kaiser’s subject for the Trees of Mystery mural was the life of Paul Bunyan. Paul Bunyan is a mythic lumberjack whose exploits revolve around stories of his well-nigh supernatural powers. In 1961, Kaiser used redwood logs and panels to carve more than 50 pieces celebrating Bunyan’s life.
Contemporary Chainsaw Carving
Contemporary chainsaw carving encompasses a much wider range of themes and styles. While some artists carve quickly so that their finished statutes have a rude, cartoonish appearance, others spend many hours on their carvings and end up exhibiting them in art galleries.
With the rise of the internet in the 1990s, this quintessentially American art form was suddenly embraced by sculptors all across the globe. In fact, chainsaw manufacturers have begun making equipment that’s expressly intended to be used for creating statuary. These chainsaws are manufactured with narrowly tipped bars that are described in the literature either as “dime-tipped,” “nickel-tipped” or “quarter-tipped.” It’s estimated that there may be as many as 1,000 sculptors in the U.S. today who specialize in chainsaw carving. Redwood remains the most popular wood for creating chainsaw sculptures.