SALISBURY, N.Y. — Rembrandt worked in oils. Michelangelo carved marble. Mark Tyoe chainsaws big tree trunks.
At his home just south of New York’s Adirondack Mountains, Tyoe carves soaring eagles, grizzled mountain men and wolves from white pine. But he mostly carves bears.
Tyoe earns a living as a chainsaw artist, turning big logs into improbably fluid sculptures with nothing more than a tool that some use to cut firewood.
On a recent day, Tyoe worked on his rural property transforming a phone booth-sized piece of white pine into a woodland scene of a mama bear reaching for a honeycomb in a tree trunk with her cub at her feet. Over the whine of a two-stroke engine, Tyoe carefully zigzagged his saw tip to create the texture of the mama bear’s fur.
“I try to be realistic, a lot of details, correct proportion, anatomy, bone structure, posture,” he said during a break.
Bears are to chainsaw art what bowls of fruit are to amateur still-life painters: a lot of people try their hand at it with varying degrees of success. Many of the bears found at state fairs and roadside stands are rough-cut creatures with overalls or fishing poles that look like they could be plotting to steal picnic baskets at Jellystone Park.
Tyoe is more of a naturalist. He aims to capture a detailed essence of Northeast wildlife, especially bears.
“Bears always fascinate people. I mean, if I could have a real bear for a pet, even, for a model, for inspiration, I would,” he said. “But it wouldn’t be the right thing to do – for the bear.”
At age 54, Tyoe has Popeye forearms from two decades of chainsaw sculpting. He works outside across the road from the log home where he and his wife, Linda, raised their family. He prefers to work with white pine, a medium soft wood that resists cracking and rotting. The raw material for his current sculpture was a 19th-century white pine that towered in the Adirondacks until it was cut earlier this year.
Though always good at art, Tyoe only started chainsaw art in his 30s. Intrigued by a chainsaw carver he’d watch on family vacations at Lake George in the Adirondacks, he finally tried it himself after a seasonal layoff from welding.
Tyoe made more than $1,000 at his first show and soon started racking up awards in regional carving competitions. He never looked back.
His chainsaws are not much different from the ones used by weekend warriors. They’re stripped down to cut down on weight, and the metal bar the chain whizzes around comes to a rounded point to accommodate detailed carving.
Chainsaw art has been growing in popularity and Tyoe is among more than 100 artists nationwide who make it a full-time occupation, said Milton Lowden, an Iron River, Mich., man who runs chainsawsculptors.com.
Lowden, whose site lists artists who take commissions from Arkansas to Azerbaijan, said Tyoe is the rare artist who sculpts solely with chainsaws, avoiding other tools for detail work (afterward, his wife will burn off splintery bits, buff the char into the wood grain and help with the finish).
“He and a few others are purists that way, and that’s what sets them aside,” Lowden said.
Tyoe can turn out hundreds of thigh-high bear statues a year that sell for $225 and up. He doesn’t even need to plan them out.
“I just use my imagination,” he said. “No sketching. Stand up a piece of wood and visualize what I want and start on the tip of the nose.”
Larger, commissioned sculptures like the woodland scene of the mama bear and her cub take weeks to complete and cost around $3,500.