Transcript of Spirits in the Wood: The
Chainsaw Art of Skip Armstrong. A Video
by Sharon Sherman. c. 1991
Armstrong: I do what I do because I live in Oregon. I mean, Oregon is very much a vital part
of this sculpt thing. Wood is inherently Oregon. We have a wood culture here, chainsaws are part of
our everyday events. There's a real individualistic quality to the people, and I feel very close to that individualism, rugged individualism that Oregon (laugh) represents. You know, the last of the pioneer spirit is still here. And Central Oregon, it's high desert. It's dry. It's a hearty, harsh environment. Oregon and I are very close, it's a sympathetic, symbiotic touching. I certainly couldn't do this in L. A.
[Music] (Piano) (Chainsaw sounds)
[Music] (Piano music fades)
Armstrong: Yep, this is the one. For the little project we have in mind this'll do real fine. Yep.Okay. And we're ready to begin. Some people consider these tools of destruction, but they're tools of creation.
[Chainsaw starts and continues to sound. Chainsaw sounds behind talking]
Armstrong: I grew up in a house that was full of wood carvings, which is not the norm. The wood carvings were from the far east, the middle east, all over the world. There's a folk art wood carving that's alive and well out there and I grew up with it. My mother was an avid collector. And I really credit her with my feeling for wood and wood carving to this day. And so I, as a kid, you know, would study these things and marvel at them, and it wasn't til later, ya know, when you get back out into the real world, and you're faced with the whole dilemma of how you're going to make a living and how, what are you going to do, in your time. And I kept comin' back to the wood carvings that I'd seen, because there was a real love there and I'd had a real appreciation for wildlife. I grew up in California. At the age of 21, I didn't know there was such a thing as a chainsaw(c)(c)I mean it was a complete unknown to me. And I went back east and I lived in a little town in Vermont. And I came with nothing and I had to figure out what to do and I would work for the farmers around there, and I would cut their, cut their trees down, clear their fields, and one of the farmers down the road had an old chainsaw that he wasn't using and I'd take that chainsaw and I built barns with it, I cleared fields with it. It became my everyday companion--it was my ticket. And I got really versed with it, I could cut corners and circles and felt pretty good about the old chainsaw .
And, uh, I left Vermont, came back west and I got a job as a YMCA camp director. And part of the job, I had to make up a program. When you're a camp director you get to make up the program that you love to do, and I started--I wanted to introduce the kids to wood carving. “The perfect opportunity,” I said, “I'll teach the kids and teach myself at the same time.” We had chainsaws, we had big trees. And so we taught the kids how to carve wood, wooden, totem poles. I'd rough 'em out and the kids would finish 'em. And I loved it so much that at the end of the summer, when the kids left, I just kept goin' at it. And that was the beginning. And the irony is that at
the end of my time there [noise], when the snow started to fall, and I had to leave the camp, I loaded up this boatload--you had to go in and out by boat--I loaded up a boatload full of the sculptures that I'd done in the couple of months I'd been there. And on the other side I created a real sensation when I docked and unloaded these things into the parking lot. I remember it to this day-- the people gathered around ooing and ahhing. And then somebody popped the big question of how much. “How much is that? How much is that?” So I sold a number of them right there on the spot and I ended up with three hundred dollars in my pocket, and I thought this was the new world, this, this would work.
Estep: Our spaces have to be separate, I mean the home sphere (laugh) and the shop sphere. I mean, there's so much chaos and so much under, underway in the shop area that the distance is essential between us.
[Music plays in the background]
Armstrong: Susie's the main link in the family line, keeping all that going.
Estep: The girls are definitely the heartbeat of the relationship.
[Music] (People sing happy birthday]
“Blow em out-- oooh”
Armstrong: What we've done here basically is roughed it out with the big saw.
[Saw started, runs through talking as background]
With the big saw you can't get cluttery. You have to do the whole totality of the piece. It forces me to think big and major. And so the dominant shape is, is grasped that way. And then I go to a littler saw and that defines out what that big saw suggested. And then I go to a littler saw again. So you see, you have a series of shaping tools, like the camera focusing--you start with the big picture and you finally start focusing down and bringing it into focus. So all of my tools bring into focus what that initial act of the big chainsaw suggested.
[Background saw noise]
Armstrong: One day I just got tired of living in a space where I couldn't see the mountains. And rather than cut the trees down, I came up with this great idea of going up above the trees. So I took the chainsaw out, cut the roof off, went up to the woods, up here in the high country, and got four fifty-foot logs. So I brought ‘em in and set them
up, four logs, fifty feet high in the air, and, uh, just started buildin' up 'em. I kept building in order to see the mountains and I kept adding story after story until I got the view that I was looking for. It turned out that I had to go all fifty feet, fifty-five feet up in the air before I got that panoramic view that I knew was out there.
Armstrong: This house grows--this is a sculptural entity. I live in a sculpture, I created this in the samesense that I create a sculpture in wood. The lines are very important to me. A line to me has an inherent rhythm. You know, if it sweeps up there's a corresponding sweep down. I mean, there's a rhythm to every line. And the shape of the piece is determined by what I feel about the shape of that line. There's a beauty in a line.
Estep: He isn't an artist that could just work at home and send his stuff out and have someone elsesell it. He wants to be there and meet the people and share his process with people. That's an important part of what he does.
Armstrong: He's goin' for the eagle. He's decided it's gonna be a good month.
Woman: What are those? Doors?
Armstrong: Okay. I don't even need to cash it.
Armstrong: Awright, number two, huh?
Man: Yeah, right.
Armstrong: Yeah, bad news, bad environmentally.
[Crowd sounds] [Chainsaw starts]
Armstrong: I'm looking, of course, at the block, the block is my initial core beginning. It has a certain heighth and width, it has a mass to it. I study the rings, the way the, the circular rings go in the log. I hit on something that will work in that log. I mean there's a spontaneous connection.
[Chainsaw sounds] [Crowd noise]
Armstrong: I study the log. I look at it. I might daydream a bit about it, walk away. Then I start looking at the log a little differently, I start, in my mind, I try to see a little clearer that shape that I see might work in that piece.
Just a beginning, that's all I'm looking for. Some way of getting in to that log, so that little spark of an idea just let’s me start approaching the log, and then I can start blocking in something.
Armstrong: So I'll start making some cuts. I have that one little seed idea and as I start to cut and I start to really deal with the physical mass of that log, the idea starts taking shape.
It starts defining itself, so to speak. Each cut begets another cut. I see from that cut to this cut to this cut. Oh yeah, I need to go over here. I need to do this. This is now the piece. Now, ah, this is the piece, that that idea was the seed beginning of. So there's a discovery process going on. My idea in the head is random, it scatters out, it has no defining boundaries. Whereas the log, the wood, has a definite defined boundary, so that piece obviously has to be in that log. In the circle of that shape.
Armstrong: That's it. Anybody know what it is?
Crowd: A bear.
Armstrong: I can just see the kid coming up to that trick or treating, wondering what's on the inside. It was fun to do. Now I'm all inspired. I want to do a life-size, or a three-quarter, about this big, standing dragon--wings out--an animated beast.
Woman: Oh yeah.
Armstrong: To me, the chainsaw applied to wood, which is a resistant media, just speeds up the creative and the doing process. There's no stale time there. It becomes a dance. It's, it's an active happening, it's an event, and it captures your whole focus. I mean the drama of it, the speed, and, just, you are totally a hundred percent focused in the now. Right there you're focused on that piece of work. I'd like to be able to dance inside the log...[saw sounds] to be unbounded. However, the media of wood inherently is bounded. It's bounded by a finite mass, and so if my feeling is to be unbounded, I wanta pull the media to its own limits and beyond those limits.
Armstrong: This is a contraption. This is my automatic oiler. This tool I'm usin' uses up a lot of
[High pitched saw sounds]
Armstrong: I've adapted everything. There's nothing that comes standard out of the hardware store anymore in my workshop. They're all modified. Modified tools to do modified jobs. In a sense what I am doing, I think, really defines what man is. We, as humans, are tool users. I mean, that's been our final defining characteristics--we use tools. And I get a real sense of fulfillment from that when I'm in the workshop, surrounded with my tools, I feel I've become, in a sense, what the human is--the tool user. And I use tools, and I adapt tools and change tools, in order to do what I need to have them do. So, um, ”Man the tool user,” I like that label.
[High pitched sound]
Armstrong: This is the router, it's a dye grinder. High speed, 32,000 rpms, it moves wood. I've adapted the bits to do what I want them to do.
Armstrong: This was a great little discovery. Fine toothed sanding belt. As you see, it progressively gets smaller and smaller. You start with a big thing and then the cycle goes down from the big disk to the smaller belt sander to a tiny little belt sander and finally by hand.
Armstrong: This is one of the real breakthrough pieces in my career. When I was able to conceive and execute a three-part one...one piece, three part sculpture. And it was only an afterthought that it became a, a mobile.
[Talking in background]
And it worked out just perfectly for a mobile form.
McIntire: Well, we had to build the house to, uh, fit the sculpture...and so we had to uh, keep in mind high ceilings, so the room was designed with 24 foot ceilings. It's a subject theme that fits the rustic nature of the country.
Armstrong: Did justice to that one, John. You were the right owner, that's for sure.
[Car driving sound]
Armstrong: Yeah that was definitely insights. Inspiration's there. I think that's a job well done, more than well done. That was all the way to inspired.
Goodman: It look's like they were made for the place.
Armstrong: Well, it was collective energy too.
Armstrong: I think they're just marvelous. You wouldn't want any more detail in 'em
Goodman: uh hm
Armstrong: or any less. It's just, nice touch all the way around.
Armstrong: It came out of the Willamette Valley. It's a piece of English walnut.
Armstrong: The wood is black walnut primarily. Cedar, juniper, maple, a little oak. So there are a lot of varieties. I think my preference of all woods is black walnut. It seems to lend itself to sculpture. A fine finished piece of black walnut has a lot of color and depth. It has a soul, and it's a hard wood, it's durable, you can do intricate things with it that you can't do with, for example, soft wood. Ya know, I live in a forest, but I don't want to use those trees. And ponderosa really isn't a good wood. It’s a soft wood and it splits. But the junipers...I do use juniper, and this is juniper country. It's my reference to the high desert, and juniper's an elegant wood.
Every trip I took, I'd be looking both sides of the road for, for wood. And if I saw something that was interesting I'd stop by the side of the road and go find the farmer that owned the tree, and if it was a dead tree, if I could have it, or how much it would cost. But lately I've come to know various wood merchants that live, for example, in northern California where a lot of the black walnut comes, and so I could go by their places and see if they've got a stockpile.
[Hhigh pitched sound]
Estep: That is the fuel that keeps him going-- is, is that tie with people and with people that buy his work and appreciate his work. And it gives him the opportunity in his own community to share what he's doing and to get the feedback, ya know, from local people. And he loves it, he loves going down there and, and talking to the local people and finding out what's going on for them as much as he does showin' everybody his work.
Armstrong: . . . came up with this.
Man: Where's the price tag?
Armstrong: Can’t you just appreciate them for what they are?
[Background talking through conversation]
Armstrong: Ultimately, though, it's just people connecting with people. And I think it's important to connect wherever you can with people. There are people at the local craft shows that would never consider going into a gallery. And I think what I'm doing is exciting and it warrants being shown in all different kinds of contexts--if you put it in a gallery and call it fine art, it becomes fine art. If you put the same piece in a local show where arts and crafts are the dominant theme, then the pieces become more folk.
Armstrong: There's a large number...Oregon, Washington, and northern California, of chainsaw wood carvers. And I'm part of that. I'm branching off and going in a little different direction with it, but I'm certainly part of that bigger group. So, on surface detail, immediately, if these pieces are in the park and I'm doing a chainsaw demo, the immediate assumption is its chainsaw art, blah, blah, blah. Immediately, you hit all of the norms for chainsaw art...until you come close, you really start to see the piece, the piece moves for you, it becomes alive, and then it gets catapulted out of that into something else.
Armstrong: I would label it sculpture, even though it's wood and it's carved. When you utilize line and form as your dominant subject, rather than strictly subject, then it becomes sculptural. Sculpture utilizes line. I think that's what differentiates me from, let's say, the other chainsaw sculptors.
I was told in New York...years and years ago, that a guy felt, a gallery owner--I went in and talked to him, showed him some pictures of the work I'd done. He said it was good, but it was a little naive. Now I didn't know what that meant at the time, but since then I've kind of glimmered that naive is simplistic, not relevant. You see, in the end, after I thought about it, I recognized that wasn't bad...that naive, that the earth is, in itself, inherently simplistic and naive, if you will. It's organic. Everything organic, in that sense, is naive.
Armstrong: Every piece is a unique piece. It isn't just the same repetitive process. The creative process is exciting. Even though it's still a horse, there's something about the randomness, you don't really know exactly what that horse is gonna be in the end, which movement it's gonna have, what expressions it's gonna have. I'm always willing to try the piece again and again and again just to see what will come of it, and I've noticed, in the course of doing that over
and over, the process grows--there's a growing process. There's more animation, there's more life-likeness...there's a livingness comes out of it. That's the beauty of doing wildlife. There's so much variation and diversion, and I really see altogether the harmonic balance that it represents--not that there isn't violence and death everywhere..."eat or be eaten" seems to be the major thrust of this life plane--but, taken as a whole, there's something beautifully harmonic about it.
Armstrong: I feel that there's an energy charge in me. That idea happened just last night when I took a chainsaw to this ice sculpture, and there the media had no resistance. As fast as I could think, the saw could execute, to the point where the whole process [snaps fingers] occurred in a short span of ten minutes. I mean it was a blitz, it was an energy blitz--and–it was like a dance and, um, that's what the chainsaw allows. It allows you that creative moment of thinking translated immediately into the act of, of creating. There's no delay.
Arnstrong: I feel like I'm part of the elemental forces that this world has in it. I'm tapped into those forces--like the wind is a force, you know, the wave action of the ocean is a force, you know. There's an elemental earth force energy that's working through me.
Armstrong: Taken altogether, there's a point where all of those things coalesce and you suddenly become an explosive force of energy that can basically do anything.
Other voices: That is gorgeous . . .
Armstrong: The focus shouldn't be on the chainsaw. The chainsaw is but a tool. And what the man does with the tool, that's the point.
Permalink (Permanent link to this page.)