Lion March 2013 : Page 34

Edgard Diaz of Peru carves a welcome sign.

Carving Out a Fundraising Niche

Cindy Ross and Bryce Gladfelter

Animals stalk the grassy grounds of Addison Community Park in Pennsylvania for three days each June. Bears claw the air, birds of prey fan their massive wings and leaping salmon show off their sleek, speckled bodies. These creatures arise from flurries of sawdust. Filled with the scent of freshly cut pine, the summer air is ripped and shredded by the roar of chainsaws. The sculptural works of art, born before thousands of spectators’ eyes, are created at the National Road Chainsaw Carving Festival.

Chainsaw carvers from across the nation gravitate to this annual festival, managed by the Confluence Lions Club. Last year 43 carvers demonstrated this unique art form and sold their creations. The Confluence Lions Club has donated nearly $100,000 to the Somerset County Blind Center with proceeds from the last eight festivals.

The Lions’ festival has its origins in another festival. Lion Don Winner, a chain- saw carver himself, attended the Chainsaw Carvers Rendezvous in Ridgeway, Pennsylvania, the granddaddy of all chainsaw carving competitions, in 2002 and came back convinced his club could pull off such an event. He huddled with then-President Tom Briar, and together they approached Rob Stemple, a Lion who lost his sight after surviving a harrowing head-on collision caused by a drunk driver in 1989.

“What do you think about carving yourself?” Winner asked Stemple.

“I’ll try anything once,” was his reply, and the pair decided on carving a cactus.

Winner handed Stemple a small Stihl saw with a 12-inch blade, making possible kick- back manageable, and he guided him through the controls. Stemple sized up a knot- free hunk of cedar wood with his hands. He carefully lined up the saw and made two cuts to the sides as flanks. Winner kept his hands on the backs of Stemple’s hands.

After he made a cut, Stemple rubbed his hands over the wood. He cut out two wedges for the space between the cactus’s two branches. The grooves in the skin were the trickiest part. All together, Stemple carved four cacti for the first Lions Club National Road Chainsaw Carving Festival in 2004.

The festival has gained a lot of traction since it first began. Some carvers arrive up to five days before the weekend auction get a jump on carving. They hail from all over the country and even other nations.

The carvers select log chunks from a massive pile, delivered by a lumber company. The craftsmen shape the wood with dexterous ease, but unlike a sculptor of clay or similar material, every move is irreversible. To create a work of art from a tree trunk with only a chainsaw is an impressive feat. Some carvings have astonishingly delicate detail and take days to make. Others are very rough and created in under an hour.

Spectators can watch the process from start to finish. Todd Gladfelter of Schuylkill County bends forward with his saw and wood chunks fly away. Sawdust dances in the air. Two red-tailed hawks slowly emerge, their wingtips brushing as they wheel around a rock outcrop.

“When you are first learning, it helps to have a small, three-dimensional figure in front of you, to act as a model,” explains Gladfelter. “Then you can block out the figure on all four sides, moving to a smaller saw for tighter cuts and detail work later.

“I don’t draw my design first, but make a mark or two on the log for measuring. For my complicated, detailed pieces with multiple layers, it’s important to always think in terms of what is happening on the other side of the log. I always have a pre-conceived idea of what I want to carve before I begin. But as I carve I feel as though I am releasing the figure within the tree chunk.”

Bears in every conceivable position are the biggest hit at carving festivals: bears clasping “Welcome” signs in their paws, strumming banjos, paddling canoes, and even holding toilet paper rolls. Other animals that emerge from the wood are turtles with bobbing heads, leaping dolphins and detailed starfish. Other pieces include intricate figures of Native Americans clad in headdresses, wizards, benches, bars, a Flintstone mobile and coal miners.

Is the woodcarving dangerous? Not if you exercise due caution, say the carvers. Cutting firewood with a chainsaw is probably more dangerous. The log chucks that are sculptured are stable. All the carvers wear protective gear like Kevlar chaps, hard hats, ear protectors, even wire mesh face shields. Most of the carvers put up highway netting to shield passersby from flying wood chunks. Some repeat visitors even don their own ear plugs (at least requiring their children to do so) to be more comfortable. The most dangerous part, perhaps, is the toil, the wear and tear it takes on the chainsaw carver’s bodies over time.

Confluence Lions raise funds through sponsors. A sponsor donating $300 or the equivalent of that in services receive a “thank-you” chainsaw carving. Among the sponsors are other Lions clubs, some of which donate tractors or other needed equipment.

One of the festival’s highlights, differentiating it from other events of its kind, is the judging of the carvings by the blind. Clients of the Somerset County Blind Center do the honors. For a blind person to learn to assess a carving, he must first learn “to see” with his fingers. Lions direct them so they don’t miss any details and answer any questions they might have. “Give me a hint—animal, vegetable or mineral?” Stemple jokes but usually he knows what it is.

“Is it a bear?” he muses out loud. “No, its snout is too long. Fox? Coyote?”

“I look for details,” Stemple says. “On the face–if the ears are finished out, if nostrils are chiseled in. I feel for knuckles on eagles, claws on bears, ferules on feathers. I also pay attention to the finish. I can tell if it is painted, if it is smooth and slippery. It’s all about what I can feel.”

Stemple, employed in public relations by the Susquehanna Association for the Blind and Vision Impaired, is on the mark year after year. He takes his time, laboring over details and intricacies.

“A tremendous amount of time goes into creating these pieces. I want to be as accurate as possible. I am fearful I will misjudge a really beautiful piece just because I can’t see it,” he adds.

The sculptures are rated from one to 10 and top scorers receive chainsaws and trophies.

Chainsaw carving isn’t the only exciting attraction to experience at the festival. On Friday, a parade runs down Main Street, and kids scramble on the pavement for candy tossed from the passing vehicles and fire trucks. Even after the unified roaring of chainsaws dies down, music sustains the energy into Friday evening. The night culminates in an explosion of fireworks, observed by visitors, proud carvers and a silent army of newly sculpted creatures.

On Saturday spectators vote for the “People’s Choice” award. The grassy rows between the carvers fill with fans, snapping photos, inquiring about their favorite pieces–will the carver place it on the auction block and if not, what is the asking price? After a chainsaw carving demo, a silent auction, a raffle drawing and then the big afternoon auction are held, followed by a closing ceremony.

The Confluence Lions Club purchases the People’s Choice winner every year and then donates it for display at the park. The carvings chronicle the history of the festival with dates, the names of the carver who created the top pieces and the names of all the carvers that participated in the festivals.

Some sculptures go well into the thousand dollar range. The nice thing, for the carvers, is that they receive half of the price, which makes the long distance traveling to participate worth it. It also encourages them to put in multiple pieces for the auction, a win/win situation for everyone–the carvers and the local blind folks. Last year, there were 140 pieces up for auction, producing nearly $40,000 in revenue. The Blind Center gets to continue its programs, and spectators get to see art created from trees.

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