Sculptor creates buzz with wood

Creativity: Word of mouth drives Scott Dustin's success in chain saw art.

November 06, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Scott Dustin's artwork has a way of getting noticed.

The eyes of passers-by are naturally drawn to an eagle lifting its wings atop a tree along Bethany Lane in Ellicott City, a 13-foot-tall white rabbit standing watch over a garden on Ten Oaks Road in Dayton, or a 15-foot-tall wooden toothbrush (the world's largest, he says), which Dustin made for a dentist in Quakertown, Pa.

"People find they become local celebrities" when they have the carvings at their homes, Dustin said. "It kind of brings communities together."

At least 50 of Dustin's carvings stand in yards all around the mid-Atlantic area, including in Howard, Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Baltimore counties and in New Jersey, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

About nine years ago, Dustin, 36, of Middletown in Frederick County, picked up a chisel and a piece of wood for the first time. His wife had been in a serious car accident, and he was looking for a way to relieve stress and relax.

"I didn't know I could do this until I stumbled on it," said Dustin, who worked at the time for his family's construction business.

His wife, a research coordinator at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, recovered, and Dustin kept making small carvings, often as gifts. When someone asked him to make a 3-foot bear, he decided to try it with a chain saw.

For the first couple of pieces, "I had to really figure out how to work it," said Dustin, who had experience cutting firewood with a chain saw. "It didn't take long to get the hang of it."

Carvers' gathering

Chain saw art is spreading in popularity nationally and internationally, said Jim Rourke, a carver in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania and president of the United Chainsaw Carvers Guild.

The largest annual international gathering - in Ridgway, Pa. - drew about 150 carvers last year to share techniques, engage in friendly competition and raise money for charity, Rourke said.

"There is probably more of a market for [chain saw art] than any other kind of art I can think of," Rourke said. In particular, "there is kind of a phenomenon as far as [the public's] interest in bears. There doesn't seem to be any end to it."

Chain saw art "doesn't intimidate people," he said, even as it ranges from folk-art style animals to abstract works.

And the carving itself is like performance art, attracting people with the use of an unusual, and somewhat dangerous, tool to create art quickly in front of their eyes.

Switching careers

Four years ago, Dustin left carpentry to sculpt full time for his business, the Carving Shoppe. "Not too many people get to have a job they really like to do," he said.

Dustin makes furniture and decorative items, selling them at shows several times a year. He also has a steady stream of customers for chain saw sculptures - particularly since Tropical Storm Isabel swept through the area, leaving numerous tree stumps behind, he said.

To have a carving made, clients first have a tree service trim the trunk at whatever height they want. Then they discuss their ideas with Dustin.

When it comes time to carve, Dustin, outfitted with goggles, gloves and protective clothing, marks the silhouette on the tree and cuts it out. He then works on the basic profile, taking off one piece at a time until he can start rounding the edges into the final shape.

He uses a variety of wood-cutting tools, including detail chain saws with tips the size of a quarter or a dime. He also has rotary instruments, disc grinders and air-powered tools.

"The hardest part is blocking it out, getting the proportions right," he said.

When the carving is done, Dustin has to poison the wood to kill bugs, strip remaining bark and treat the sculpture with preservative. Then he paints, it if the client wants. The cost starts at $200 a foot.

Many people request designs that have a personal meaning.

In January, Dale Linthicum chose an eagle for the top of the tree sculpture at his Ellicott City home in part because his son, Shawn, is in the Marines.

His wife, Robin, a secretary at Mount View Middle School, wanted to add some other birds to the sculpture to make it more interesting and ensure her namesake was one of the types represented. She also chose irises to be carved near the bottom because her mother raised the flowers.

"I just thought that it would be a really nice addition to the yard and in a location where other people going by could enjoy it, too," she said.

One person stopped to admire the work and "thanked us for having it so everyone else can enjoy it," she said.

`We enjoy it'

That kind of publicity is a big part of Dustin's success, as many jobs come through word of mouth.

"People we have never seen pull in the driveway and stop," said Anne Woodyard, who has a sculpture Dustin made of a bear and another of an eagle, owl and squirrel on a tree in her yard near Sykesville.

She and her husband, Woody, give out Dustin's business card to interested visitors.

"We enjoy it," said Anne Woodyard about the attention. "We're both retired. It doesn't bother us a bit.

"We have a tree-lined driveway," she said. When the trees die, "rather than knock them down ... we decided this would be much more fun."

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