Arts and Entertainment

Port Gamble festival: They’re all lumberjacks and it’s OK

What’s Up gets woodcarving wisdom from the Northwest Profile Roadside Woodcarver himself, who will be carving in Port Gamble, Sept. 25-27.

PORT GAMBLE — It’s of little surprise that the art of chainsaw carving has roots in the woods of the Pacific Northwest.

It’s an art form that’s been quickly growing across the world, combining modern technology of the chainsaw with the ancient art of woodcarving.

While some of the first documented origins of chainsaw art is attributed to a roadside carver named Ray Murphy, who carved in places like Wyoming and South Dakota in the early 1950s, it’s a tradition closely related to the old logging industry of the Northwest.

As the town of Port Gamble gets set to celebrate that industry with its annual Old Mill Days festival this weekend, What’s Up set out to find the wisdom on the old art of chainsaw woodcarving. And we found it in Steve Backus — the man featured as Northwest Profile No. 16, the Roadside Chainsaw Woodcarver, in those PEMCO Insurance Co. commercials.

Backus has been carving for more than 30 years, and making a solid living at it for more than a decade. He’s organized the team carving competition that is a part of this year’s festival.

We caught up with him by cell phone from his customary post at the Puyallup Fair.

“What we have is a really educated buying public,” Backus said of the chainsaw carving culture in the Northwest. “Everybody knows a carver. Or if they don’t know a carver, they know someone who knows a carver, or they know where they can find a carver.”

For Backus, it’s a family trade. Growing up in the logger tradition on the Olympic Peninsula, he learned from his mom — a single mother raising three kids as a chainsaw carver. She learned from her brother, Backus noted, who started making art with his chainsaw back in the 1950s.

“It’s what you did,” Backus said. “We could’ve been fisherman in Alaska, but instead we were artists with this big heavy industrial tool on the Olympic Peninsula.”

Back then chainsaws were not so conducive to making art. But over the years, the technology that’s went into things like motorcycles and airplanes has also been applied to chainsaws, making precision and delicacy parts of the equation.

“Nowadays, you can carve the pupil into the eye of a fish,” Backus said.

He began as a teenager in the 70s and has been carving ever since.

After 30 years in the trade, Backus has seen firsthand how the art of woodcarving has grown into an industry throughout the world, traveling to expos and competitions across the globe. He’s also written a few how-to books, but he started out, fittingly, as a true roadside carver.

“That’s why (PEMCO) used it as a stereotype, because any carver that’s doing it, for about 90 percent of them, it’s like ‘Man, what do I do now?’” Backus said. “So they go set up on the roadside.”

When he first started, Backus said he used to set up on street corners near Lake Union, carving bears and eagles among other things for the public to see, and hopefully buy.

Chainsaw woodcarving is one of those art forms that is nearly as much about the product as it is about the process — a performance art that yields a product of visual art.

Both sides will be on display at Old Mill Days as Backus and his “gang of merry pranksters” — the Wolfpack — take on the Cunning Rogues in team carving contests which will be decided by public vote throughout the weekend. The pieces created will then be auctioned off at the end of each day.

In addition to those competitions, individual carvers will also be working their magic and making pieces for auction amongst all the lumberjackin’, trail walking, classic car showin’, forest festival, live entertainment, beer garden, fireworks fun slated throughout the town of Port Gamble for this year’s Old Mill Days.

For a full list of weekend’s many events as well as schedules, directions and more info go to www.oldmilldays.com.

For more on the history of chainsaw woodcarving, go to www.chainsawcarvinghistory.com.

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