The buzz of steel shredding wood echoed through the trees below Stemple Pass. Wood chips flew from the block of Douglas fir as the telltale ears, face and snout of Lewis Clark’s latest creation emerged. He paused for a moment to check for symmetry before shutting off the saw, leaving the forest silent except for a light wind coming down the pass.
“When I’m carving is when I’m most at peace – there’s no bosses, there’s no responsibility, I’m not answering to anybody,” the chainsaw artist said. “It’s not like a job. I can go out and carve every day and enjoy it because I’m out here.”
Clark has spent the last quarter century turning raw chunks of wood into works of art using a tool more traditionally associated with knocking trees down than with sculpting them into faces and figures. While chainsaw bears are his most popular pieces, “I’ve carved everything at one time or another,” he said.
Clark’s work includes sculptures of mountain men, raccoons, ladybugs, turtles, frogs, howling coyotes and soaring eagles.
People ask him to recreate the likenesses of pets, but he declines because of the work involved and because customers’ expectations that dogs and cats look like “their” dogs and cats are nearly impossible to meet.
Clark runs his business Carve Me a Bear! from his home on Stemple Pass Road, where a crowd of neighborhood dogs follows him around the yard.
About 20 carvings sit in front of his garage awaiting pickup for transport to Las Vegas, where he runs security for the National Finals Rodeo and will spend the winter with his wife. It is too hot to carve in the scorching Nevada heat, plus he enjoys hunting elk in Montana and the quiet life in the woods, he said.
By: Tom Kuglin | Independent Record | Nov 6, 2015 | Helena, MT
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Clark is now a regular at the Helena Farmers Market, but has sold his bears across the West. He learned carving while in college in Boise, Idaho about 30 years ago. His first six years of carving yielded some “really ugly” results, he said, but as he refined his craft every piece has sold for the last 25 years.
“People just enjoy them. I don’t understand it, why they sell so good, but it’s like a blessing from God or something and he gave me the gift of carving,” he said. “I can look at a piece of wood and other people can look at it and not envision anything on it, and I can look at it and tell you exactly what’s going to happen.”
Clark’s first chainsaw was an inexpensive model that would leave his arms numb from the vibration. He now owns eight saws modified especially for carving.
Wood selection is important for creating a beautiful and lasting piece. While redwood is his favorite, it is hard to come by in Montana. Local woods he most enjoys include ponderosa and cottonwood, both known for soft and straight fibers easy to carve and not as prone to cracking as other types.
Over the summer he got married and decided it was time to leave his stake in a repossession business to fully devote himself to carving. What started as a hobby is now Clark’s full-time job.
“I love it,” he said. “I told my wife when I pass the last thing I want to hear is someone cranking up a saw, and just rev that thing up when they put me in the ground.”