|Chainsaw Sculptor: The Art of J. Chester "Skip" Armstrong. By Sharon R. Sherman. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. Pp. 72, preface, 17 black-and-white illustrations, 43 color illustrations, notes.) Sharon Sherman's study of sculptor). Chester "Skip" Armstrong of Sisters, Oregon, born of six years of dedicated fieldwork and preceded by a videotape (Spirits in the Wood: The Chainsaw Art of Skip Armstrong, 1991), documents well the multiple contexts and processes of creation in chainsaw sculpting. It should raise questions about how we, as folklorists, see emergent art forms such as chainsaw art and how we think about the twisty terms art, folk art, and outsider art.
In this study, Sherman details how Armstrong came to find his life's work. Readers see him growing up in Berkeley, California, marveling at his mother's collection of wood carvings. We then follow him as a young man, influenced by the 1960s back-to-the-land movement, as he settled in Vermont and began to repair old barns and clear fields by cutting down trees with a chainsaw. It was as a YMCA camp director back in Washington that he first sculpted with the saw, hoping to get children interested in carving-by using power and speed. From there, we watch Armstrong discover his delight in carving, move to Sisters, Oregon, and begin to carve for tourists on the main street of town before moving on to other venues.
Sherman's presentation of Armstrong's process is a model work. She details how he creates a sculpture, from acquiring wood (primarily from California), to conceiving of the subject, to executing the design. She also wisely includes much of Armstong's commentary; his compelling, thoughtful talk runs like a rich refrain throughout the book. She shows how Armstrong moves from a larger chainsaw to smaller ones, then on to the grinder, router, air tools, belt sander, and small power sander. His assistants often complete the final stages: light hand sanding and the application of ten to 12 coats of oil. She explores how Armstrong creates on multiple levels, linking his sculpture to his modification of tools and his work on the family's wooden boat and house. After presenting the local character narratives told about Armstrong, Sherman details the multiple contexts in which he performs and proposes that the artist interacts with the consumers and their aesthetics to create sculpture. High-quality color photographs, crisply reproduced on glossy paper, enable readers to see what Sherman and Armstrong describe.
My concerns with this study lie with Sherman's discussion of Armstrong in relation to other chainsaw artists and with her presentation of him as a folk artist. Sherman sets up a value laden dichotomy between Armstrong and other chainsaw sculptors. Speaking of his signature eagles of black walnut, carved to swoop down on their prey, she explains, "this is not the wooden, stiff, block-like form one might expect in an eagle carved with a chainsaw" (p. 9). Armstrong echoes her assertions, claiming that Pacific coastal chainsaw artists do "the same kind of thing, rather than . . . doing really what you want to do from the inside, what feels right" (p. 16).
From my work with chainsaw carvers in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and especially Maine, I believe this dichotomy is a mistaken one. Many chainsaw artists, such as Dennis Chastain of Washington, talk about the process of creation, their ardor for animals, and their inner aesthetic impulse; interest in movement and line is also visible in their work. Dividing chainsaw artists based on the appearance of the art (blockiness versus movement) and the supposed lack or presence of aesthetic impulses is not as productive as asking about the percentage of carving time given over to the chainsaw in the process of creation. Of the artists with chainsaws whom I have encountered, all show a marked preference for one of three techniques, though a few artists occasionally employ two.
First, some artists such as Emilie Brzezinski use the chainsaw minimally and do not refer to themselves as chainsaw artists. Second, many people who identify themselves as chainsaw artists and speak about the power saw's importance in their creative process will rough out a sculpture with a larger chainsaw and then move quickly to smaller chainsaws and other power tools. The surfaces of their sculptures are usually smoothly polished. Because the artists-I include Armstrong here spend a great deal of time finishing the work, their carvings often command high prices: three to five figures and above.
Third, others who present themselves as chainsaw artists use the chainsaw for almost all of the work on a piece, using chisels, routers, and sanding tools in decidedly minor ways. Some such as Rodney Richard want to show what a skilled practitioner of the chainsaw can do. Often these artists are loggers or skilled wood-related tradesmen, such as carpenters, who use local wood almost exclusively. Few would say, with Armstrong, that the chainsaw is "but a tool" (p. 35); the chainsaw, rather, is the tool of their generation-the tool that came into being when many were young men just entering the woods, the tool that is receding in importance as they retire. They want their sculptures to retain the traces of the chainsaw's raking teeth. Requiring less time to produce, these creations often begin in the two-figure range and rarely exceed four figures.
Given these categories of chainsaw art production, I question Sherman's proposed single "framework for chainsaw art" (p. 33). Recognizing the several kinds of art that emerge from the power saw leads us into the complex discussion of art, folk art, and outsider art. Clearly, it is this larger discussion that Sherman has within her sights, but she refers to Armstrong unequivocally as a folk artist because he is "working solidly within the tradition [of chainsaw art], learning such art informally" (pp. 32-33). 1 would like Sherman to interrogate the positioning of Armstrong as a traditional artist. Also, a more detailed focus on him as part of the Sisters, Oregon, nonnative community that earns its livelihood by producing high-quality artworks would be helpful.
Sharon Sherman's study of Skip Armstrong raises many valuable questions for our discipline and, in the hands of an experienced folk life instructor, Chainsaw Sculptor can offer a provocative learning experience.