To the untrained eye, this was a mere log sitting atop a stump in a backyard studio in Doney Park, just a three-foot hunk of rough-barked ponderosa pine suitable only to be split and fed into the hearth on a cold morning.
What Sam Murray saw — his artistic vision, if you will — was anything but quotidian. He saw potential for beauty and whimsy. He saw, with a few deft strokes of his trusted Stihl 20-inch chainsaw, the possibility for artistic transformation. He saw, too, a chance to make a buck and make a customer happy.
He saw ... a carved bear.
Or eagle. Or raccoon. Or skunk. Or horned-toad lizard.
Heck, just the other day, a customer approached Murray and his son Mike Steincipher and asked for a giant chainsawed snail. Neither man blinked an eye. These guys will carve a likeness of anything you wish, including that memorable time a woman asked to have the faces of her five children carved, Mount Rushmore-style, onto a totem pole.
Flagstaffians can see the artistic endeavors of Murray and his kin, the product of their collective creative muse, not at a gallery or museum, but on the corner of Milton Road and Butler Avenue most weekend afternoons. There, bears as small as a sack of flour or as tall as an NBA small forward stand like sentinels in front of Matador Coffee, with Murray’s truck bearing the logo, “The Bear Man & Cubs,” parked front and center.
People stop. They gawk. They occasionally fork over $40 (small bear) or as much as $100 (large). Motorists sometimes wave, or at least smile. Nothing like rows of chainsaw bears to lift one’s spirits on congested Milton Road.
For Murray, the self-dubbed "Bear Man," and Steincipher, one of four "Cubs," the display of carved bears in the parking lot — not to mention eagles looming from the bed of the truck and a hirsute Yeti lurking by the back bumper — is all business. But back at home, at the family spread in remote Doney Park with no neighbor close enough to complain about the chainsaw roar, they consider themselves artists honing their craft and aiming for aesthetic masterpieces that also may find purchase in the marketplace.
Art or kitsch?
Chainsaw art, though scoffed at by snooty aesthetes protecting their establishment canon, has become popular with the masses in recent decades.
Top practitioners earn as much, maybe more, than some traditional artists using oil paint on canvas or putting chisel to precious stone. Dismissed by "the academy" as mere purveyors of kitsch, these wielders of power tools believe they are every bit as legitimate as Banksy or Jeff Koons. And they band together for gatherings and competitions, the most notable being the annual “Burning Bear” celebration in Ocean City, Wash., where the climax involves igniting a 12-foot bear that participants had spent three days painstakingly carving.
Call it the height of low-brow art, but also know that wooden sculptures are on display at the Louvre (Gregor Erhart’s statue of St. Mary Magdelene) and New York MOMA (Louise Nevelson’s “Sky Cathedral”). Sure, they were crafted via knife, mallet or plane, but the means to the end matters little to chainsaw aficionados. To them, the tools of the trade are beside the point.
In these folks’ minds, if Rodin were alive today, he’d use a chainsaw.
Besides, brandishing a chainsaw can really up the stakes and test an artist’s dedication. Make a slip with a chisel, and you might badly bruise your thumb. Make a slip with a chainsaw, and you’ll lose said digit.
As artist Jessie Groeschen writes in her 2014 tome, “Art of Chainsaw Carving, Second Edition,” “The danger involved in using a chainsaw, the dexterity and high level of skill required by the artist, and the raw beauty of the natural wood puts chainsaw carving in a class by itself.”
The Artists at Work
At the Bear Man’s Doney Park studio, such sublime craftsmanship recently was on display.
Murray circled that three-foot log, heavy with rough bark, not once but twice. He fit bulbous, noise-canceling headphones over his ears, donned wrap-around sunglasses, then hoisted the chainsaw chest high.
He fired it up and got to work. He stalked the log like a predator. With a subtle turning of the blade and only the slightest pressure, the pine yielded like butter. Wood chips flew like confetti.
Three strokes in, Murray had lobotomized the top of the log. Two deep gouges later, a rudimentary head with two blocky ears emerged. Another turn of the blade, and rev of the motor, and the unmistakable ursine snout appeared. Three more bark-peeling sweeps, and the rough outlines of the bear’s body took shape. A blade thrust to the center of the log resulted in the formation of two burly bear arms and mounds that would become paws. Rotating with chainsaw churning, Murray made quick work of the bear’s back, transforming a straight block of pine into a contoured hump — a pocket of sap like a birthmark — and producing a derriere as curvaceous as a certain mega pop star.
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By the time Murray shut it down — elapsed time: 3 minutes, 27 seconds — he had the broad outline of a two-foot bear completed.
Detail work, more painstaking but doable thanks to a smaller chainsaw grinder, followed. Steincipher took care of that. Positioning himself with legs akimbo in front of the bear, he shaped the contour of the ears with quick, infinitesimal flicks of his wrist. In seconds, the ears went from pointy to shapely, the snout rounded, the mouth a wavy line molded upward at the corners. A series of vertical downward strokes created the four paws.
Then came the meticulous full-body shaving with the knife-edge of the blade, what Steincipher called giving the bear “hair.” In a back-and-forth daubing motion of the grinder, he produced wavy tendrils down the bear’s back.
It took him all of four minutes. The two men’s combined effort to turn a chunk of wood into a recognizable bear: about 8 minutes.
Of course, they weren’t finished. They would have to stain the wood several times to protect it from the outdoor elements, paint specific areas, such as the blackened paws and nose, and add marble-sized black eyes. Lastly, they would have to create the signs that the bears — most people, by the way, station the bears on their front porches — would hold in their upturned paws (“welcome” and the flip side “go away”).
Watching the men toil is, in a word, mesmerizing — sort of like the fascination in seeing those videos of PBS’ Bob Ross create a landscape painting, minus Ross' soothing narration.
A family that chainsaws together ...
As family business dynasties go, the Murrays kind of stumbled into it. Thirty years ago, in Ruidoso, N.M., Sam was driving an ambulance for the local fire department and making decent money. But as he was cruising the streets one day, he saw a chainsaw wielding man.
“I ran into that good ol’ boy,” Sam said, “and I watched him work on bears all weekend. After that, I tried it myself. Took me three weeks to make my first bear. I loved it. Did it on all my time off. Nobody taught me nothing. You just see a log and start taking away an animal.”
Eleven years later, he started carving wood full-time.
“I started making money, more money than what was in my paycheck,” he said. “It’s an art, and God gave me the gift.”
He passed that gift on to his sons, Mike, Josh, Travis, and his daughter, Katy. Mike, 37, has been carving animals half his life. He started in Flagstaff and later took off to San Diego, where he specialized in parrots. Now, he’s back doing bears because “that’s what people seem to like.” His work is sold at shops around the Grand Canyon's south rim and at Yosemite National Park. He does commissioned pieces, such as a 17-foot bear for a homeowner at Lake Mary Estates.
“Really big log, 42 inches wide,” he said. “This was a dead tree they had there at their property.”
Murray and kids get their wood — primarily ponderosa pine from Coconino National Forest, but occasionally the more pliant, yet pricey, purple-hearted cedar from elsewhere — with permits from the forest service for collecting downed and thinned trees. They also deal with mills.
“We use every part of the wood,” Steincipher said. “Don’t waste anything. Whatever’s cut, we use.”
Sometimes, alas, it’s not just the wood that gets cut. The family has had its share of chainsaw mishaps. Nothing catastrophic, but blood has been shed.
“Yeah, it’s dangerous,” Murray said. “I cut the end off this finger (left, middle) here. It didn’t take the nail, just all the meat. I was told by an old Indian that, if you cover it up and put Neosporin on it, it’d grow back. And it did. It’s numb. I don’t feel nothing with it, but it worked.”
His son Josh, toiling as a chainsaw artist in Longview, Wash., hasn’t been as lucky. The unforgiving chainsaw has severed Josh’s tendon in his wrist, turned part of his left thigh into hamburger and carved a deep gouge into one of his knees.
“Here, I’ve got pictures of Josh's knee on my phone,” Murray said. “See, Josh’s problem is, he goes too fast. A chainsaw, man, it has no mercy. It cuts whatever it wants to cut, and skin’s easier than wood to cut through.
“Now, look at Mike over there. See how he has squatted down and away from the (blade). He’s holding that thing real tight and steady. You don’t want it kicking back at you. One mistake, and it’ll bite you.”
Chainsaw carving is, indeed, cutting edge art. Yes, art. Call it kitsch, call it the height of low-brow culture; these artisans don’t care. They risk losing limbs — and we don’t mean tree limbs — to transform the commonest tree stump into a genial bear.
“What else are you gonna do, put a dead tree in a wood chipper?” Steincipher asked. “No fun in that. So, yeah, lighten up and smile.”