by Jennifer Young and Kate Berube
Surrounded by piles of tree trunks, the air thick with swirling sawdust and the deafening roar of a gas-powered saw, it’s clear to anyone watching that local artist Chris Wagner is in his element. Standing in front of a massive pine log, several feet tall and more than a foot thick, Wagner hacks off chunks of the former tree as a shape only he can see slowly begins to emerge from the wood. While the end result is stunning, it’s also readily apparent that the art of chainsaw carving isn’t for the faint of heart.
Back in 2013, Wagner, a trained chef by trade, was researching ice sculpting when he unwittingly discovered videos of chainsaw carvers in action. He was immediately intrigued by the practice. “Something about the mix of a very dangerous tool not being used for its intended purpose, the sheer power of the saws these guys were wielding, and the potential for massive injury was just really compelling,” Wagner recalled with a laugh.
Perhaps instinctively realizing that teaching yourself to create art with a chainsaw from YouTube videos had the potential to go horribly awry, Wagner enlisted the help of pioneer carver Barre Pinske, considered by many to be a founder of the discipline. In the summer of 2013, Pinske invited Wagner to spend 3 days learning the basics at his home studio in Chester, Vermont. The trip was transformative, and Wagner walked away with a love of the medium, as well as a respected mentor and friend.
In the following years he continued to cultivate his craft, but it wasn’t until COVID-19 forced the world to stand still last spring that carving became both an outlet and an escape. “For me it’s thrilling and at the same time centering because you’re forced to hyper focus on the work while tapping into the creative center that encourages you to let go in a very Zen way.” Through a chance encounter, he was able to set up shop among a firewood distribution yard, where space and discarded wood is abundant, and noise is encouraged. This combination of factors has since allowed his work to thrive through his popular online shop, Backyard Art.
Wagner’s pieces are surprisingly intricate for sculptures carved with a massive blade. The exceptional craftsmanship shines through in the unique details, which is primarily achieved with a smaller battery powered saw after blocking. The statues are charming and whimsical, while still holding on to the rustic appeal typical of the genre. When finished, an enormous blow torch is expertly wielded to burn a smooth finish on a surface too delicate to sand. The effect transforms the piece, showcasing the natural grain in the wood and adding an unexpected depth to the work. Created to withstand outdoor elements, the final product is beautifully stained after a vent is strategically hidden along the back of the sculpture to prevent the wood from naturally cracking over time. The nature of the medium means that, try as he might, no two pieces are ever identical. When you go home with Backyard Art, you know you’re taking home an original.
Look for Backyard Art on Facebook to purchase a ready made piece or commission a custom carving today.