*This is part 10 in a ten-part series about the central Oregon coast and how people here are fighting the recession blues.
By Dave Masko
SEAL ROCK, Oregon — A visit to the Oregon coast would not be complete without a somewhat clear understanding of how all these tall trees — and all the woods that surround us here – somehow become a unique art form that’s been dubbed “chain saw art?”
Also, in this depressed economy how does one make a living from the natural surroundings?
Case in point is the “carved bears and other coastal animals” that appear in carved log forms at various selling points along the central Oregon coast. Chain saw artists such as Karl Kowalski “re-creates” these local creatures in wood form for various reasons.
“It’s art. Some think of it as something more, but I’d say its art and it’s unique for Oregon,” said Karl Kowalski who’s honed his craft to the point that he can now carve a four-foot bear on a tree in just three hours.
Coastal or locals know that chain saws are a mainstay. And thus it’s no surprise that Kowalski’s chain saw sculpture business — known as “Carver Work Shop” – is both a business success and a free coastal attraction.
The Carver Work Shop sits along Highway 101just south of Newport at an electric region of the coast called “Seal Rock.”
For instance, many visitors gage their location along the central Oregon coast by “that chain saw bear place on 101.” This is because of the massive “Seal Rock” formations in the Pacific that face a formation of towering carved bears, sea creatures and giant cowboys with big hates along Highway 101 in what appears to be a Wild West ghost town TV set or even an amusement park of some kind.
“It sure gets your attention,” stated one visitor when stopping at this Seal Rock chain saw art presentation.
If you’re lucky, on any given day, you can watch the steel blade of Kowalski’s chain saw (*out back behind the main shop) create a work of art via the blurring and winey sound of the chain saw engine while adding to the whole effect.
The result, for about $60 to $100, is a piece of local timber and history and then add to it by creating a talisman for bear, an eagle or even a sea lion. As local Native American legend has it, the talisman — or reproduction of an animal guide such as a local black bear — would protect a dwelling.
Motorists passing the Carver Work Shop — and many other wood caring businesses along the central Oregon coast — often see the chain saw art as an attraction.
But, Kowalski thinks it’s much more than just people selling carved bears and other chain saw art for tourists.
“It’s a passion that my Dad shared with me back in the early 1970’s when he began this business in Seal Rock. I’m now 47, but it was not too long ago when, as a boy of 13-14, I thought to myself ‘this is special and I need to lean it,’” explained Kowalski as his snaggle-tooted power tool proceeded to transform a big log into a bear sculpture.
Kowalski started public expositions of his work during the 1980’s and 1990 are when chain saw “art” carving reached a zenith. Many experts acknowledge his award-winning carvings as helping to “lead the way” for what has become a most lucrative local Oregon cottage industry business, and a tourist attraction as well.
“People stop there to see the Kowalski bears, or that ‘image’ of the coastal black bear he’s created. It’s a classic,” explained Stan Ferguson who likes to photograph chain saw art along the Oregon coast.
“You might say Seal Rock and the carver’s work shop is the center for these chain saw carvings. It’s where it began and where it thrives today,” Ferguson said.
Back in “the day,” he adds, “what is now the popular Carver Work Shop in the Seal Rock area was once a “sort of amusement park.”
It’s where Kowlaski’s father, Ray, and his friend Larry Silverthorne, created a series of cowboys and Indians, and many other carnival figures, that were larger than life (*many 10 to 14 feet in height) and made from local logs that were plentiful in this area of the great Pacific rainforest.
They were special carvings based on the old amusement park fantasy rides and that idea. They attracted visitors and also were used in various amusement park projects.
During a recent interview, Kowlaski admitted that “it was something that visitors still remember from back then (*in the early 1970’s).”
He also noted that the carving of smaller, garden-sized bears became more profitable at nearly $100 each.
While prices for bread-basket carved bears (12” x 12”) vary from artist to artist along the central Oregon coast, the average remains in the $60 -100 range for a good bear carving, said Ferguson.
It’s also no secret that Kowlaski is the man behind what has become a multi-million dollar art form, seen by thousands, if not millions of people every day as they drive along Highway 101 or at any of the major national parks out West.
“I have friends who market my work and you see it sold at the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Crater Lake, and any of the gift shops at the major parks. They (the parks) buy my carved bears and sell them. It’s become a great way of making of living for me and my family,” he added.
In turn, Kowlaski’s sons Curtis, 26, and Ryan, 19, are not yet sold on chain saw art carving as a good way of making a living.
“They are too involved in modern stuff to really appreciate it. I was lucky to get involved because I wanted to share it with my Dad. But, again, my sons are of this new generation.”
In fact, it was Oregonian Joseph Buford Cox who is credited with inventing what is today the popular chain saw that’s been used for more than a century to shape and form what is the mainstay of the Oregon timber industry.
Legend has it that Cox was watching a timber beetle larva chew its way through a tree stump one day in 1946 when he got the idea that he could replicate the larva’s jaws in steel. What followed was a gas-powered chain saw. Cox went on to create the “Cox Chipper Chain Saw.”
The rest, as they say, is history with chain saw carving originating in Oregon in the 1970’s. The art form has since caught on “big time” with chain saw art competitions taking place in all parts of the United States, in Canada, Great Britain, Australia and Japan.
“I’d like to think my Dad helped start it all, but who’s to say who or what created these carvings first? All I know is that it’s a big part of our life here in Oregon,” Kowalski said.
I’m not sure if they will take it on after I’m gone or not? It’s our legacy and something I think about,” he said.
For wood, Kowalski prefers to carve Western Red Cedar or pine, cedar and elm wood at his shop or wood carving fairs because “it carves easier and faster.”
Also, he explains that Western Red Cedar is preferred for his larger, more pricey wood creations (*that cost from $400 to $800 for a large bear) “because its stable wood, and it doesn’t rot-out and remains beautiful.”
And, with this poor economy and slowed housing starts, top Oregon timber supplies, such as Swanson Brothers of Noti, Oregon (near Eugene); report a rise in orders for Western Red Cedar because of the popularity of chain saw art carvings.
When carving, Kowalski wears hearing and eye protection, jeans and a T-shirt. It takes him about four hours on average to complete one of his popular “big bear” carvings, but the smaller bears take about an hour or less for this carving master who’s produced “thousands” of carvings over the past 30 plus years.