For more information on Blue Ridge Bear Sculptures, visit its Facebook page.
Small chips of wood flew through the air as the buzz of a chain saw could be heard on a cool fall morning in Cumming.
Handling the chain saw like a painter with his brush, sculptor John Robinson added details to his latest wooden carvings. Emerging from the statuesque logs were an 8-foot-tall bear and a 9-foot-tall bigfoot.
The large grizzly bear with an arm extended will situate himself on a vacation property in Blairsville.
The bigfoot is for Sharp Tree Service owned by Robinson’s friend who allows him to use his Cumming property to work on his larger creations. Large swinging arms will be added to the sculpture, which swallowed four hours of Robinson’s time Monday.
Robinson does not describe himself as an artist, though. He said he has some artistic tendencies. When he was younger, he could draw fairly well but preferred building furniture and working with power tools.
Then Robinson saw a man sculpting with a chain saw at a state fair in Minnesota, where he lived previously. He thought he’d give it a try.
“I thought that’s pretty cool. I could try it,” he said. “(I started with) just a little bear and then I wanted to go more epic, big.”
The owner of Blue Ridge Bear Sculptures now has been sculpting with his chain saw for six years. Robinson works on small projects in his home shop in Cleveland.
“I started doing this in my spare time and it just started to explode,” the nuclear medicine technologist with Northeast Georgia Health System said.
Almost all of Robinson’s work is commissioned. He is supplied with wood from a friend who owns a tree service.
Another part of his business is stump work. Robinson sculpts ordinary tree stumps in the ground into works of art.
Such was the case outside of The Corso Law Center at 431 Green St. in Gainesville, where a sculpture of late local attorney Dan Summer waves to traffic from the front lawn.
Summer died in January at age 55 after a battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
“It’s a piece of art that everyone can enjoy,” said Arturo Corso, who owns the firm.
An oak tree on the property had been damaged when power company contractors attempted to trim the limbs away from electrical lines. After years of trimmings, the tree died.
Corso said the city of Gainesville gave the office a certificate of appropriateness to cut down the tree. The law firm and tree are located in the Historic Preservation Overlay Zone downtown, and a certification is needed to alter such sites.
Corso, who loves trees, didn’t want to remove it. Instead, he hired a professional arborist to cut it and then reviewed portfolios of chain saw sculptors to change it into a work of art.
“We wanted it to be a full-sized, 360-degree sculpture of Dan,” Corso said, indicating he wanted to memorialize his friend. “Losing Dan was a big blow to his family, to the community and even to me. I admired Dan very much. He was like a mentor to me since I first moved to Gainesville.”
Corso chose Robinson for the job because of his enthusiasm.
Robinson said it was an honor to sculpt such a well-known person in the community.
“Trying to do a human likeness is a difficult task as we all have our own visions as to how things work or people look in our minds,” Robinson said. “When sculpting a person, the piece morphs on a daily basis as you keep chipping away and refining the features you deem important or characteristic to that individual.”
Robinson examined photos of Dan to devise a plan.
“We came up with a carving of him in a suit — he’s a lawyer — just waving at people,” Robinson said. “And it was joyful.”
Corso said the idea would have suited Dan. He and his wife, Chandelle, were advocates of public art, restoration and beautifying Gainesville, Corso said.
Robinson spent about two weeks working on and off on the Summer piece. It was completed in September.
Robinson said it usually takes about 20 hours to finish large sculptures simillar to the ones he was working on this week.
The first step in creating a chain saw sculpture is to block it out, Robinson said. For example, Robinson starts with a regular cylinder-shaped log for a bear.
Next, he hones in on the muscles, making cuts with a larger chain saw. Then he carves out shapes such as triangles for the sculpture’s appendages such as arms.
He switches down to a smaller, quarter tip chain saw blade for detailing — carving facial features, hair or fur and other more intricate parts. To add color, he torches it or uses a spray can to darken the wood.
When complete, it’s not uncommon for his large sculptures to weigh more than 1,000 pounds.
Robinson said sometimes the carvings will evolve as he goes. If the wood has a hole or other flaw, it may change the project. For example, an owl turned into an eagle because of the wood.
But bears — which Robinson described as simple and straight — are the most popular sculptures.
“Bears sell 20-to-1. That’s my bread and butter,” said Robinson, who also makes furniture.
But his clients choose their own subjects, whether it be wildlife or people.
“I like doing wildlife. That’s my first love — things like birds, ducks,” he said, pointing out he’s made turtles for bars in Florida.
A majority of his work ends up in cabins in Blue Ridge or Blairsville or homes on Lake Lanier.
Chris Ford has purchased several of Robinson’s sculptures. He owns a 2.5-by-2.5-foot large mouth bass and a 4-foot-tall bald eagle, which was originally done for his father. The bass is inside of a log turned sideways. Ford says the 3-D piece is a neat addition to his show room.
Ford, who used to live near Robinson, said his sculptures have evolved over time.
“He’s got natural talent ... every carving that I’ve seen that he’s done since then gets better and better,” Ford said.
And Robinson wants to grow as a chain saw artist.
Since moving to Georgia five years ago, Robinson met Mal McEwen, a well-known chain saw carver. McEwen took him to Chaptacular, a chain saw carving event in Gray. There he met several other well-known sculptors.
“I got to meet these people and they inspired me to keep going and try new stuff and expand my repertoire,” Robinson said.
Robinson is participating in Chaptacular this year. The event will be Nov. 11 and 12 at 541 Hungerford Road in Gray and benefits the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.