SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Chainsaw carver continues to create, amaze
Anchorage Daily News


November 15, 2007
Thursday AM

WASILLA, Alaska -- At 6 feet 4 inches, Mike McVay almost stands as tall as the life-size bear carvings in the front yard of his shop north of Wasilla.

On sunny days, passing motorists can see him using a chain saw like a butter knife, slicing huge logs into totem poles, 3-D carvings and the ubiquitous bears.

It's been almost 50 years since he first carved a face out of wood salvaged from the bottom of an Oregon lake while working for his father's diving company. His dad gave him the idea to try a chain saw, probably, McVay said, because he wanted his son to quit wasting time on the clock messing around with chisels.

Back then, he knew of no one else using the heavy, gas-belching machines to carve, but McVay figured he'd give it a shot. He collected a pickup load of carvings and headed to a Portland art fair, where he was bowled over by the fact that people actually wanted to buy his stuff.

"I never thought of making a living at it," said McVay, who today is counted among the nation's first in an ever-growing pool of chain-saw artists. "I got quite a few sales that day and that night had a snootful of beer and got in a car wreck that practically wiped me out physically."

The wreck and its physical aftermath were just the start of a life of adventure that's spanned 69 years so far.

McVay has traveled the world, usually pursuing some form of art. He carved Oregon's history on six panels at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, done totem poles in Willow, a rain gauge for Quinnault Lodge on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula.

Married twice, a father and grandfather of four, these days he spends summers in Alaska, where he first moved in 1985 to eventually set up shops all over the state. His winters are spent in Whidbey Island, Wash., where his prolific, woodcarving family lives, or moving from job to job.

"The McVays are well known as a carving family throughout carving communities in the nation," said Jessie Groeschen, whose 2005 book "Art of Chainsaw Carving" features McVay and his sister Judy.

Groeschen discovered McVay through her association with the Cascade Carver's Guild, which McVay helped found years ago. He was instrumental in organizing the first World Championships for chain-saw carving, held in Puyallup, Wash., in 1981.

Younger carvers, like Jamie Rothenbuhler, look up to McVay as one of the founders of their craft.

"(McVay) pretty much started carving pretty much before anyone else did. He'd use those 70-pound saws, the dangerous ones," said Rothenbuhler, who's been carving for seven years.

"He's a wealth of knowledge and always happy to share it to better other people."

McVay is also full of stories. They're as numerous as the carvings covering his shop walls, and pour out of him as if his brain is brimful.

He will tell you about the 30-foot Paul Bunyan he carved in Oregon, or the 14-foot Viking he created for the Healy High School mascot.

Several order books are crammed with names of customers who wait years for their own custom carvings. Wasilla resident Linda Prior has waited 18 months for a replica of her late pet, a schnauzer.

"The wood and (McVay) have to have a connection and he has to be 'into' that when he does it," said Prior, who has had several carvings made for her by McVay.

"I think most people that deal with him understand that it's nothing that you can put out in an hour or two."

Although McVay said it's his job as a professional to make the wood do what he wants, his skills can only go so far. The wood -- its grain, its size and type -- must work with his design logistically and artistically.

"The chain saw is just one of a dozen steps in this process," he said. "What you don't see is the logistics of what goes into it -- the getting and preparing of the logs, the drying, the sanding, the painting, the finishing. You can't just go to the lumberyard to get a 24-inch-wide board. You have to make it yourself from a log big enough to turn into the board and then make sure there aren't any cracks."

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Ketchikan, Alaska