Eugene father-son team carve out art niche with chainsaws

Eugene father-son team carve out art niche with chainsaws

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - Call it art with a buzz.

And plenty of sawdust.

Father-and-son chain saw carving team Kevin and Tyler Strauslin of Eugene say they have found their dream jobs, making works of art out of chunks of sitka spruce, Western red cedar and Douglas fir, and whatever other masses of dead trees come their way.

"I tell my boy, `We just gotta keep carving every day,"' Kevin Strauslin says, watching Tyler, 19, work away in their Highway 99 shop just north of Jerry's Home Improvement Center.

And now, the Strauslins are not only making money selling their pieces, they are both champion chain saw carving artists.

Tyler won the semi-pro division contest last Father's Day at the 13th annual Oregon Divisional Chain Saw Sculpting Championships in Reedsport.

Kevin Strauslin took first place on July 17 at the annual Logs to Frogs chain saw carving competition in Milton-Freewater, with his piece of an American Indian doing a rain dance.

"It's just a lot of fun doing what we do," Kevin says. "I never had this opportunity doing drywall. I finally find out late in life what I'm supposed to be doing. It's kind of neat."

Kevin Strauslin, 52, was a dry-waller - installing plasterboard panels for walls and ceilings in homes and businesses - for about 30 years, pretty much ever since graduating from high school in Southern California.

Then one day, in the spring of 2008, he was driving back from a job in Junction City, driving south on Highway 99, when he noticed the bear wood carvings off to the side of the road.

Curious, he pulled in.

Neal Davis, a full-time saw filer with Weyerhaeuser's Lebanon mill and now a friend of Strauslin's, was doing his part-time thing, using chain saws to carve all sorts of creations at the business he called Fuzzy Bighead.

Strauslin, who used to just do chisel carvings, said he tried to carve something, turtles he believes, with a chain saw a few years earlier with his brother-in-law, but it didn't go so well.

"It kicked like a mule," he said of the chain saw. After that, "I thought chain saw carvers were crazy."

But that day at Davis' place, where Davis rented space in a warehouse building alongside Holiday Pools & Spas before it went out of business, Strauslin took a stab at carving something out of a panel of wood.

He made a salmon.

Davis thought it was good.

"Once he picked up a chain saw, he was a natural," Davis says.

A few months later, Davis offered him a job. And a few months after that, Strauslin took over renting the space, and now owns the business known as Oregon 3D Art.

Today, chain saw carving is not only Kevin Strauslin's life, but his son's life, too.

"I always thought that it would be cool to be a sculptor," says Tyler Strauslin, a 2010 graduate of the Eugene School District's Opportunity Center. But it also sounded like hard work, taking chisels and mallets to giant pieces of clay. But when his father started getting into chain saw carving, entering his first competition at the annual Reedsport show in 2009 and finishing fourth in the semi-pro division, Tyler watched and began to think he could do it, too.

After a year or so of trying, Tyler entered the semi-pro competition in Reedsport last year and did as well as his father did in 2009, finishing fourth with a carving of an osprey catching a fish, a piece he recently sold for $600. That was good enough to beat his dad, who took fifth last year with his carving of a mountain lion.

This year, Kevin Strauslin entered in the pro division, and placed 13th out of 31 carvers, two who came from as far away as Denmark and Australia. Tyler stuck with the semi-pro division, and beat out 12 other carvers from Oregon, Washington and California with his carving of an American Indian navigating river rapids in a canoe.

"I just wanted to do such a good piece that I couldn't lose," Tyler says. After seeing the competition in 2010, he knew what he was up against, he says. The Strauslins say Tyler is the youngest to ever win the semi-pro competition in the 13-year history of the Reedsport show. And now, he, too, will carve among the pros next year.

"He's getting so good at it," Kevin Strauslin says, watching Tyler work on a custom-ordered piece called "Wedding Bears."

After a couple of years of Tyler watching over his father's shoulder, it's now Kevin Strauslin who often finds himself looking over his son's shoulder and saying, "How'd he do that?'

When you first pick up a chain saw and try and carve something with it, you have no idea what the saw can do, Tyler says. Like anything, it comes with time and practice, he says.

The Strauslins use sanders and grinders and chisels, many of them tools they got from Davis, to refine their work.

What began as something of a hobby has now turned into a way to make a living during some of the toughest economic times in recent history.

Kevin Strauslin says he made $21,000 selling his carvings in 2009. Last year, he made $38,000. And this year, he's hoping to double that but will be more than happy just to top $50,000 in sales.

"If I can make over $50,000 (a year) I'll be doing alright," he says.

A sign in the middle of his shop says, "Carve or Starve."

Kevin Strauslin's biggest payday yet came at the Milton-Freewater competition a couple of weeks ago. He got $1,000 for first place, also won the competition's "Wow Award" - the piece that draws the most attention - for the second straight year, and sold his rain-dancing sculpture to one of the show's organizers for $1,800.

"Then it rained for the first time in Milton-Freewater in seven years," Strauslin says, exaggerating just a tad but referring to the typically bone-dry summers in Eastern Oregon. "It was the weirdest thing."

When he quit his drywalling job three years ago to start carving full time, Strauslin says his wife, Sue, was skeptical that he could make a living at it. Something about "when pigs fly...," he recalls.

So he carved a flying pig, and made a planter out of it.

Tyler, who won $350 for his first place showing in the Reedsport competition, plus a $400 chain saw, says he has found his calling. He insists there's nothing else he wants to do and says he'll be a chain-saw carver "forever."

Thus the sign among the bears and frogs, the salmon and eagles, and other creatures in front of the shop that says: "Carver 4 Life."

 

 

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)