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Pine Picasso: Chain saw carver transforms wood into art

ArtEnvironmental PoliticsUniversity of Cincinnati

Evelyn Mogren lets the chips fall where they may nearly every day.

After pull-starting her gas-powered chain saw, she deftly applies the tip to a parrot’s wing, a fox’s tail or a rabbit’s fur coat, and their hides and claws begin emerging from blocks of pine. Fragrant chips fly everywhere like rocket-powered confetti, and sawdust blankets the patio at the side of her family’s Thunder Hill Road home.

It’s a paradox unfurling right before an observer’s eyes: a vibrating power tool, commonly used to prune trees and harvest firewood, that can just as readily finesse the delicate feathers of a bird, the fine strands of hair on an animal, or a pair of soulful eyes — when guided by skilled hands.

The artist says she has such a strong mind’s eye that it can interfere when she’s carving. She sees a piece of wood the way she wants it to be, she explains, and not necessarily the way that it is.

That overpowering mental image can override what’s right in front of her, the 17-year Columbia resident says. And when it comes to carving, it’s equally important to “see” what isn’t there.

“You need to know the negative pieces of your figure,” says Mogren, who grew up on a 40-acre farm in central Indiana amid critters and soybeans, where she whittled small figures with a pocketknife to amuse herself.

“Wood carving involves focusing on what you’re removing, and it still amazes me that I know what to take off,” she says.

Pine, a soft wood, is a favorite of chain saw carvers for the way it yields to creative impulses with little kickback, though its knots can be tricky to maneuver, she says.

The artist also works in other woods, creating an antelope from black walnut and an American bald eagle out of black locust. She stores her pieces in their various stages of completion — some commissioned and some not — in her home’s freestanding garage.

The stay-at-home mom and part-time carver, who has a master’s degree in environmental science, is in the minority when it comes to her art. Only about one in five chain saw carvers are female, estimates an international carving-association director.

“If I were to make a mad guess, I’d say 20 to 25 percent are women,” says Jerry Schieffer, vice president of the United Chainsaw Carvers Guild and resident of Mukwonago, Wis. “It requires a lot of total strength,” and that cuts some women out.

“But carving has become so popular that female carvers have come on really strong,” he says, noting that the art form started off small in the early 1950s, but has been exploding around the world for the past 10 years in the United States, and especially in Russia. “Female carvers have added an artistic touch to what we males do, which can take on a rough, less-detailed look.”

‘I knew immediately’

As a girl, Mogren cherished all kinds of creatures and all kinds of art. She recalls getting into trouble in third grade for lowering a startlingly convincing sketch she’d drawn of a witch out a window on a string, and scaring the younger students in the classroom below.

But she especially excelled at taking a pocketknife to a small scrap of basswood and turning it into an animal or human figurine 2 or 3 inches tall.

Her fascination with form continued at Purdue University, where she studied anatomy and physiology on her way to earning a bachelor’s degree in biology. After later getting her master’s at the University of Cincinnati, she worked at the Environmental Protection Agency in that city before becoming a stay-at-home mom 11 years ago to Aaron, now 20, and Benjamin, now 17.

Mogren has been applying her self-taught carving skills for many years to helping Cub Scouts learn to whittle, and now to training adults to teach the boys. But in June 2011, she attended a three-day wood-carving festival in Addison, Pa., after stumbling on signs for it during an earlier road trip, and a new artistic horizon unfolded before her.

“On the first day I knew immediately that I wanted to do it,” she says, recalling the excitement and urgency she was feeling as she watched the chain saw carvers at work.

“I went around asking everyone questions about their saws and other stuff, and very quickly made a pest of myself,” she says. “I liked that I could do what I already knew how to do, but much faster and on a larger scale.”

On the Mogren family’s front lawn, a Siberian tiger and a chimpanzee in a tree often draw second looks from passersby. Some of the more curious initiate conversations with the artist.

What made mailman Ramel Rollins decide to finally knock at the carver’s door was a long-building interest in the fate of the third large piece of wood in the yard, the one whose identity has yet to materialize.

“My girls have been waiting to see what’s going to happen,” says Rollins, whose route is across the street from Mogren’s home. Telling Fauston, 13, and Remi, 9, that “you’ve got to see these hunks of wood,” Rollins has brought his daughters around a few times, not wanting to miss the transformation.

Mogren says people “fairly regularly stop by,” because her display pieces catch their eyes and because chain saw carving is “big, noisy and dangerous” and commands attention.

Cheryl Black Jones, a bank employee who lives nearby in Emerson Hills, is considering commissioning a sculpture for her yard after stopping to chat with the carver. As a pen-and-ink artist herself, she says, “I understand composition and spatial relationships, and I liked what I saw. It’s very unique.”

Also somewhat unusual is the safety getup a chain saw carver wears: hard hat with mesh face mask, chaps and gloves. Mogren uses three sizes of chain saws to create her masterpieces.

Assuming a stance for chain saw carving is a bit like preparing for karate, Mogren says while demonstrating her pose. Carvers’ legs and feet should be aligned with their shoulders, and knees should be bent to avoid pinched nerves or sore muscles, she explains. Stand so you’re centered, not hunched or stooped over, she advises. The vibration of the tool, which has an asymmetric design and therefore is not balanced between a carver’s hands, can do a number on your body if you’re not in good shape, she says.

“I play racquetball with my family on Sundays, and since taking up chain saw carving my game has improved. I even beat my husband, Stacy, and our son at a game of cutthroat a month or so ago,” she says. As she’s become underweight, thanks to the rigors of chain saw carving, she says she has also become more agile.

Viewing her work

Mogren’s biggest exposition of sculptures in one place may be in the 19-acre forest at Camp Ilchester, located in northeastern Ellicott City.

At the campground, which is owned and operated by the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland, she carved for free on six oak stumps still rooted in the ground “to practice,” she says. She later designed and executed a 7-foot-tall totem pole, also bound to the earth, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Girl Scouting in April 2012.

Don Correll, a fellow Scout leader, had suggested Mogren be commissioned to create the wood sculpture to mark the centennial.

“I have seen the work of a lot of chain saw carvers, and Evelyn’s is far more detailed than most,” says Correll, a former Columbia resident who now lives on the Carroll County side of Sykesville.

What he loves about this particular marriage of artist to project is Mogren’s involvement in Scouting and the fact that she’s a woman illuminating the mission of the Girl Scouts through her artistry in a male-dominated art form.

Billy Heinbuch, GSCM ranger and nature specialist, agrees. After giving a tour of her sculptures, he commented that it costs about as much to hire workers to grind a tree stump as it does to have a chain saw carver transform it into art.

“What she does is so realistic that I almost want to cut down trees for her to work on — almost — I hate to cut down any tree,” he says. “But Don (Correll) plopped this woman into my life for a reason, and I really appreciate all she’s done for the Girl Scouts. Everybody loves her work.”

Heinbuch has already handpicked the stump where Mogren will next carve Dr. Seuss’ Lorax, a fictional creature that speaks on behalf of trees in a cautionary tale that pits the environment against corporate greed. It’s a perfect match for the mission of the camp.

“I can’t wait for her to do this,” says Heinbuch. “It’s one of my favorite books, and (the message) applies to what we believe here.”

Mogren feels she was preparing for this style of art long before she even knew it existed.

“You know when you’re really happy how you get this big bubbling feeling inside?” Mogren asks. “That’s what chain saw carving is to me.”

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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