For three days in July, 12 of the best professional chainsaw carvers in the Northwest will gather at the confluence of the spectacular McKenzie Community Track & Field for the McKenzie River Chainsaw and Arts Festival. Demonstrating their deft handling of chainsaws, these incredible artists will work nonstop to create a bedazzling array of intricate wood sculptures.
Returning in 2017 for his fourth year as the fan favorite is professional carver Chris Foltz.
We sat down with Chris to learn more about chainsaw carving and how the incredibly talented artist, who stumbled into the profession, has made a name for himself as one of the best carvers in the world.
How did you become a professional chainsaw artist?
I got into chainsaw carving through ice carving as a chef. Years ago the head chef and ice carver for the restaurant I work at abruptly left and my director told me I needed to do an ice carving. He simple showed me where the chainsaw was and that it needed to get done by the next day.
I had no idea what I was doing at first, and it obviously took a long time to figure out, but eventually I started to get it. I ended up doing two ice carvings that year and then five the year after that.
The following year, I was approached by my boss who liked a sculpture I did for an event. The only thing he didn’t like was that it was ice, so he asked me to recreate the piece out of wood.
I was kind of thrown into each situation and eventually stumbled upon wood carving on accident. I have really come to enjoy it though and it has worked out as something fun to do on the side when I’m not a chef.
Did you have an artistic background? Sounds you were kind of thrown into the fire, but you must have had some level of natural talent that you were able to draw from.
My mother, grandmother, and brother are great artists so I think I had influences from all of them. But I never excelled at any one artistic direction growing up. My art was very unique and I didn’t ever feel connected with it.
The turning point, however, was when my art went three-dimensional. I transitioned from the pad or paper to a block of wood or ice. This changed my entire approach as I really enjoyed being subtractive in taking away pieces of the block, as opposed to adding through paint or clay.
I also really enjoyed working at the speed of thought. When I pick up a chainsaw, I see flashes of images in the medium. The image doesn’t last forever so the power tool allows me to move fast enough to where I can actually catch the image and create it in physical form.
So the ideas for your creations come entirely from your head without any physical reference?
When I first started that is how I created everything. I would see the image of what I wanted to create, and then execute that idea within the three-dimensional space. However, as time went on, I learned how to template ice and wood carvings as two-dimensional drawings. I would create reference sketches that I could then turn around and create into a three-dimensional piece.
As an ice carver, we are creating 30-foot sculptures with hundreds of pieces all based off a single image. It has become so important for me to develop those skills of creating reference sketches beforehand in order to make the sculptures more manageable.
What is the most surprising thing about your work?
The most surprising thing about my work is that it is not normally Northwest wildlife. I grew up in a city so I have a lot of comic book, cartoon, and superhero influences that I draw from when developing my carves.
I was the kid who believed that he would grow up to be Superman, and still to an extent view the world in that light. The chainsaw art has given me an outlet for that mindset and has allowed me to explore my imagination.
Even though my art is so much different than other carvers, I love the guys and culture that surrounds the profession. I’ve been able to find this completely different family in the wood carving world and they accept me as the person who is basically out in left field.
I can understand this as your art is very non-traditional, but I’m assuming your process is the same as every other carver?
Absolutely. When I’m in a contest next to Bob King who will do a lot of traditional Northwest pieces, people think our art is so different. However, my technique and approach is the exact same as Bob’s and other carvers. At the end of the day, it just comes down to a different perspective on art. Where most carvers will create eagles and bears, I carve Wolverine or a giant scorpion in the shape of a clock.
Along those lines of non-traditional carves, could you talk about two of the pieces pictured here?
The first one is the devil from the Charlie Daniels song, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” I did it originally for the Washington state championships and the family who bought it did an installation for it in their yard.
A couple of years later, they contacted me to tell me how much they loved the devil, but that it was getting pretty lonely and that it needed a lady. So the other piece you see pictured is the devil’s lady as a half girl, half lion. What’s unique is that I had been experimenting with cedar bark at the time and decided to try using it as hair because we always end up throwing the bark out. The bark is great because it lasts forever and I liked the look so much I now use bark in many of my carves.
What do you enjoy most about the McKenzie Chainsaw & Arts Festival?
I have always really enjoyed the festival as it is great to be involved in an event that raises money for such an incredible facility in the McKenzie Community Track & Field.
In addition, I don’t get to take a lot of vacations with my family so the fact that I can bring my kids and spend time with my wife really means a lot. We really enjoy the beautiful area as it has always been a fun family weekend for us.