Here They Come-- The Chain-saw Creatures!

April 07, 1991|By Linda Lowe Morris

Portrait of the artist describing the creative process: "This started out as a regular house cat," Gary White says, his arm draped lovingly over the top of what would have been the world's largest kitty.

The huge wooden cat, sitting in a particularly regal pose on the front porch of Mr. White's home near Westminster, is almost as tall as he is -- and he is pretty tall.

"But then it didn't look quite right," he continues. "So I changed it to a lion."

He heads around toward the back of the house, walking past a wooden bear painted to look as if he is wearing a brilliant blue flowered shirt. "It was going to be wild bear," he explains, "but he didn't really look like a wild bear. So I just put a Hawaiian shirt on him.

"Sometimes things start out as one thing and end up as something else."

Gary White is a woodcarver, a man who started out as a carpenter and ended up as an artist.

And all around us, here in his workshop, is a winter's worth of carving -- turtles, bears, owls, shorebirds of all kinds, a couple of loons, brilliant red foxes sitting on their back legs, a huge blue swordfish arcing out of the water, several tall pink flamingos, a shark, dogs, cats, eagles, squirrels, chickens, a wolf head, pigs of all sizes, a frog reaching out to grab a fly, a tadpole, a snake with stripes.

On one wall hangs a wooden deer trophy ("for the anti-hunter I guess"). From the rafters hang a couple of pterodactyls. Here and there bright green alligators, big enough to be benches, bare their teeth. Long-necked, long-beaked birds are everywhere, staring out with hauntingly lifelike eyes.

"It looks like a zoo in here," he says. But this is a zoo that has escaped from the pages of a children's book. The animals are whimsical, appealing, primitive and rustic but still artful -- the essence of true folk art.

(Mr. White is bringing his folk art zoo to Baltimore next weekend in a show that opens Saturday at Gallery Elizabeth on Light Street in Federal Hill.)

These animals are so sweet of face and the artist is so gentle of spirit -- when his beagle, Baby, was injured and became paralyzed, he bought it a little dog wheelchair -- that it's hard to imagine the incredible ruckus that goes on when these creations are born.

But when the muse strikes, Gary White goes out back and fires up the chain saw. In a storm of flying wood chips and sawdust and with a roar so loud he has to wear earphones to protect his hearing, he carves his animals.

"I saw a guy a long time ago, I guess it was about 10 years ago, doing it at a carnival -- he was carving owls with a chain saw, and that sort of gave me the idea. Here and there when I was cutting wood I'd just mess around with the logs and stuff.

"I started out making things for friends and relatives and people started saying, 'Why don't you put a price tag on them?' So I did and they sold pretty good."

Three years ago he began serious production, carving in the evenings and during the wintertime when his regular job, that of home remodeler and carpenter, traditionally has a slow period.

He has four chain saws of various sizes -- three gas-powered and one smaller electric one with a 16-inch bar that he uses for the finer detail work.

The process as he describes it sounds easy enough. "First you find a piece of wood. Then you carve it out with a chain saw. Then you might rasp it down a little. Maybe sand it or not -- and paint it."

There is, needless to say, a little more to it that that. A big part of the charm of his creations comes from the fact that he can see the shapes of animals in the pieces of wood he finds.

In the middle of the room is a large elephant whose face, trunk and all, is made from a single piece of weathered stump. All he added were eyes and ears to make everyone else see the elephant in it.

"When you make them out of the way the piece of wood is

shaped they seem more lifelike than if you just carve it out of a solid block. But it's a lot harder to see what you're trying to do," he says.

"I just walk through the woods and find an old tree stump or tree root to use. I'll bring it out and throw it in the pile in there and it might be a couple of days or so before I look at it a certain way and I just go from there."

If he is blocked -- "carver's block," he calls it -- he just starts to make cuts in the wood. "I'll just start cutting here and there and it starts looking like a fox or a bear. A lot of times you find branches that look like bird necks. Sometimes you don't have to carve hardly at all."

Sometimes supplies of paint influence his work. "If I have a lot of green paint I'll make a lot of alligators and frogs. If I have a lot of white I'll make birds."

He works alone. Members of his family -- his wife Cheri, daughter Heather, 14, and son Lucas, 13 -- are somewhat bemused bystanders. "They're kind of used to it now," he says. "I'll say, 'Well, how do you like this?' and they'll say, 'Yeah, that's good, Dad.' "

Most of his works are animals but he also carves faces and figures of Indians, other human faces that are weathered and wrinkled, pumpkins, watermelons, totem poles large and small and stylized wooden American flags.

He uses all kinds of woods -- oak, cherry, pine and paulownia. "Paulownia isn't a hardwood but it really looks like a hardwood. Usually I run around and find people that are bulldozing land for development and I ask them if I can go get the wood. It's never a problem."

Gallery Elizabeth (752-3466) is located at 1448 Light St. Mr. White will be at the gallery from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday for the opening, which will take place in the garden behind the gallery.

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