Chainsaw art

The Master Chainsaw Carver's workshop is a clearing in Washington's Whidbey Island woods. There's a cluster of open-sided sheds, a carpet of cedar sawdust, and a motley menagerie of half-finished eagles, turtles, crabs, bears, and gnomes lounging about. Only the power cords tell me I haven't stumbled into some medieval Norse legend.

Steve Backus, who founded the annual Westport Chainsaw Carving Competition 15 years ago, looks plenty medieval, with a looming barrel chest and a great black halfmoon of a beard. He's an articulate advocate for his cause, which is to nudge the chainsaw craft toward art. He wishes, for one thing, that he could abandon the carver's cliché―bears.

"The bears pay the bills," he sighs. "They're what the public wants, but they're not what the artist wants to do. Anyone can carve a bear―I could have you making a bear in an hour."

Why the demand? "It might be humankind's inference of dominance over a once-threatening predator," Backus muses. "Every culture that knows bears has some kind of cuddly image of them, like teddy bears."

I watch Backus deploy his chainsaw on an eagle―a shape demanding far more finesse―and understand why he relishes the challenge. He thrusts and slices, then flicks to another side for a new attack. "It should look like a dance," Backus says, and it does. It also looks like art, and spectator sport as well. The Westport Chainsaw Carving Competition will be Aug 3-7. Westport-Grayland Chamber of Commerce (www.westportgray land-chamber.org or 360/268- 9422). ―Lawrence W. Cheek