Pine Picasso: Chain saw carver transforms wood into art

(photo by Jen Rynda )
August 28, 2012|By Janene Holzberg

Evelyn Mogren lets the chips fall where they may nearly every day.

After pull-starting her gas-powered chain saw, she deftly applies the tip to a parrot’s wing, a fox’s tail or a rabbit’s fur coat, and their hides and claws begin emerging from blocks of pine. Fragrant chips fly everywhere like rocket-powered confetti, and sawdust blankets the patio at the side of her family’s Thunder Hill Road home.

It’s a paradox unfurling right before an observer’s eyes: a vibrating power tool, commonly used to prune trees and harvest firewood, that can just as readily finesse the delicate feathers of a bird, the fine strands of hair on an animal, or a pair of soulful eyes — when guided by skilled hands.

The artist says she has such a strong mind’s eye that it can interfere when she’s carving. She sees a piece of wood the way she wants it to be, she explains, and not necessarily the way that it is.

That overpowering mental image can override what’s right in front of her, the 17-year Columbia resident says. And when it comes to carving, it’s equally important to “see” what isn’t there.

“You need to know the negative pieces of your figure,” says Mogren, who grew up on a 40-acre farm in central Indiana amid critters and soybeans, where she whittled small figures with a pocketknife to amuse herself.

“Wood carving involves focusing on what you’re removing, and it still amazes me that I know what to take off,” she says.

Pine, a soft wood, is a favorite of chain saw carvers for the way it yields to creative impulses with little kickback, though its knots can be tricky to maneuver, she says.

The artist also works in other woods, creating an antelope from black walnut and an American bald eagle out of black locust. She stores her pieces in their various stages of completion — some commissioned and some not — in her home’s freestanding garage.

The stay-at-home mom and part-time carver, who has a master’s degree in environmental science, is in the minority when it comes to her art. Only about one in five chain saw carvers are female, estimates an international carving-association director.

“If I were to make a mad guess, I’d say 20 to 25 percent are women,” says Jerry Schieffer, vice president of the United Chainsaw Carvers Guild and resident of Mukwonago, Wis. “It requires a lot of total strength,” and that cuts some women out.

“But carving has become so popular that female carvers have come on really strong,” he says, noting that the art form started off small in the early 1950s, but has been exploding around the world for the past 10 years in the United States, and especially in Russia. “Female carvers have added an artistic touch to what we males do, which can take on a rough, less-detailed look.”

‘I knew immediately’

As a girl, Mogren cherished all kinds of creatures and all kinds of art. She recalls getting into trouble in third grade for lowering a startlingly convincing sketch she’d drawn of a witch out a window on a string, and scaring the younger students in the classroom below.

But she especially excelled at taking a pocketknife to a small scrap of basswood and turning it into an animal or human figurine 2 or 3 inches tall.

Her fascination with form continued at Purdue University, where she studied anatomy and physiology on her way to earning a bachelor’s degree in biology. After later getting her master’s at the University of Cincinnati, she worked at the Environmental Protection Agency in that city before becoming a stay-at-home mom 11 years ago to Aaron, now 20, and Benjamin, now 17.

Mogren has been applying her self-taught carving skills for many years to helping Cub Scouts learn to whittle, and now to training adults to teach the boys. But in June 2011, she attended a three-day wood-carving festival in Addison, Pa., after stumbling on signs for it during an earlier road trip, and a new artistic horizon unfolded before her.

“On the first day I knew immediately that I wanted to do it,” she says, recalling the excitement and urgency she was feeling as she watched the chain saw carvers at work.

“I went around asking everyone questions about their saws and other stuff, and very quickly made a pest of myself,” she says. “I liked that I could do what I already knew how to do, but much faster and on a larger scale.”

On the Mogren family’s front lawn, a Siberian tiger and a chimpanzee in a tree often draw second looks from passersby. Some of the more curious initiate conversations with the artist.

What made mailman Ramel Rollins decide to finally knock at the carver’s door was a long-building interest in the fate of the third large piece of wood in the yard, the one whose identity has yet to materialize.

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