(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — On Route 6 near Elgin, Zombies climb a support beam beside sprawling eagles, bears and posed sasquatch. Beneath an awning, two wooden sasquatch are taking form, the carving process well underway. A medium-sized, black, curly-furred dog on a long tie-out cable greets visitors. Well beyond the length of the cable, traffic passes. It’s difficult to hear with the sound of the passing vehicles, but the birds that call the awning home have no problem singing over the noise as the cars and trucks pass.
A sign on an exterior wall beneath the awning says “Deaf Bird Area.” Probably not far from the truth — the birds live under the awning of a chainsaw carving studio. Animalistic Chainsaw Carving Studio is the product of local artist Scott Dow’s hard work. Dow gently scolds the happy, excited dog for attempting to jump up on a visitor to the studio.
“Her name is Nadia, but I call her ‘Dudley,’ because she acts more like a Dudley than a Nadia,” Dow says. “I had worried about the sawdust getting stuck in her curly hair, but it comes right out. Now she’s my companion.”
The parking lot is a collision of visions; commissions, Dow’s own passion projects, completed works, works in progress — they’re all in the parking lot. Traditional carvings of bears and eagles meet carvings from fantasy imagery like dragons and zombies. It’s not all just what the artist wants. He has some commissions where he’s hired to carve and the customer provides a picture of what they want. On May 10, Dow mentioned he was working on a piece where the customer had allowed Dow his artistic vision, but also had asked to have it custom to the customer’s own style while still having universal appeal.
“I know what he (the customer) like’s personally, but it’s going in a public place, so he’s a little concerned that other people are going to like it. So I’m trying to tie together this artistic tornado,” Dow said.
But this is Dow’s livelihood. And other people rely on his success — he’s a father of three and he’s been married for 28 years. Initially, he had wanted to go to art school, but his parents dissuaded him (“And they were right because I would have not done as well in art school if I hadn’t been a little older,” he said). Instead, he joined the marines. He had a whole plan involving time in the military police and then onto a career in the state police. It all ended with a medical discharge.
“So I went, ‘Jeez, I should go to art school,'” Dow said.
Starting and growing
Dow attended Edinboro University and graduated in 1995 with a Master of Fine Arts Degree in sculpting. From there, he worked building furniture. At some point, he learned about chainsaw carving and thought he could do it. He started making money doing it.
About 13 years ago, Dow opened Animalistic Chainsaw Carving Studio so that he’d have a way to sell his art without traveling from art shows to farmers markets throughout the commonwealth and the country. And after about a year, he was turning enough profit to make the studio his full-time vocation.
“It’s kind of a chainsaw carving shop where I take custom orders and make whatever you want. But I also treat it as a fine art shop, because with my art background, I have sort of a bend toward fine art stuff, not bears and eagles and that sort of thing — so I kind of do both,” Dow said. “It wouldn’t be fun if I didn’t always go after what I want… If I strictly followed making money, then it wouldn’t be fun. I might do three pieces that are focused on making money, but the fourth one is going to be either trying to learn something or solving an anatomical issue, or whatever… you take the time to get better at it, otherwise you get bored and you might as well be working at a factory.”
Dow showed off some of the many chainsaws inside the studio. About a dozen chainsaws were readily visible in the studio, and other specialized power tools were on hand as well. One saw was fitted with a gouging tool — essentially two chisels on a wheel made to remove massive chunks of wood at once. Another tool is one Dow made to grind wood away. The chainsaws are standard professional grade chainsaws with specialized bars to minimize kickback.
“There are certain chains you might choose for safety — some of the finer, narrower chains don’t kick back,” he said. “For carving you’re always using the end. When you buy a chainsaw, the first thing in the manual says never use the end of the tip of your saw, and with carving you’re always using the tip of the saw, so it always wants to walk up.”
On May 10, Dow had long hair tied back in a pony tail. He was wearing a black “Animalistic Art” hoodie, and it was covered in sawdust. The studio and gallery are modest structures, and if it weren’t for the massive carvings around the parking lot, it would be easily missed by passing motorists. The studio smells like one would assume — like freshly cut wood, a smell that lingers on the clothes long after you leave the studio.
Dow started with just one chainsaw.
“When I started I had one chainsaw. Then I had two chainsaws. Then I realized I needed to be able to move logs, so then I had a hand dolly. Then I had a pickup truck. Then I had a table that raises and lowers so I wasn’t working on the ground,” Dow said. He mentioned several other upgrades that gradually happened over the years.
During his time at Edinboro, he hadn’t used a chainsaw. The oil and smoke and noise were all new additions to his artistic endeavors. But Dow learned as he went along. He learned different ways to keep the blade sharp (in fact, Dow said a lot of the conversations between friends in the industry center around sharpening chainsaws). He learned to not pull dirt through the wood as he cuts to protect the chain (he removes the bark when he can before he begins cutting).
“It’s harder than you think when you get right down to it. I struggled for years figuring out how to keep the saws sharp,” he said. “There’s a big technical curve to it. There certainly was for me when I was a beginner. Now it’s just a great sculpture tool.”
It isn’t just bears and eagles, truly. From the road, the dragon is towering and impressive. Across its body are multiple skulls, though some are more abstract than others (the nostrils of the dragon are the eye sockets of a skull). The zombies also are eye catching. But past the parking lot, through the doors and into the gallery, customers can browse a varied collection, a collection that employs Dow’s MFA while honoring the medium and the method.
Dow said he grew up without modern-day on-demand TV and Internet. He had two books — a collection of the works of Michelangelo and a book on World War II history. In the gallery, the Michelangelo influences are evident. The human form was highlighted, polished and perfected by the Italian artist (think: the sculpture of David, and the scene from the book of Genesis painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel). And while much of what’s outside in the parking area of Animalistic is traditional chainsaw sculpting art (aside from the dragon and zombies), inside includes works that are more reminiscent of Dow’s fine-art influences. Several pieces highlight the human form, either with lifelike details or in abstract.
Naked angels adorn several walls in the gallery — they’re female and detailed. In a piece Dow said he was most proud of, the feathers are layered, legs are crossed, and the outline of ribs, hips and ankles are showing. Near that work are small human figures, in magenta and green, in various poses. They’re more abstract, and though they’re individual pieces, they could serve as a single series on the human form.
One of the human figures — a single piece — is a rough shape of a female holding a cellphone. Dow said his teenaged daughter served as the model for that piece.
Other works include cityscapes or skylines. Some are more abstract than others. The base is standard wood, some of it altered (rounded or jagged), but not really sculpted beyond basic shapes. In the middle, towers of wood rise out. Some are left natural, others are stained.
Still the gallery includes additional pieces with traditional chainsaw sculpting themes. The immediate entryway is stocked with bears and eagles (and a giraffe). On the wall are long rectangular pieces with three-dimensional woodsy scenes inside, (like a shadow box meets a menagerie). Dow said the pieces can be used as shelves or as a mantle piece.
While the themes may not entirely match for every piece in the gallery, the medium matches and they all were sculpted by the same artist. The gallery is filled with the faint smell of freshly cut wood, and the sweet, chemical smell of wood stain.
Dow has competed in art competitions, and in carving competitions. He was part of team at a carving competition in Germany three separate times. Chainsaw carving has become a defining piece of Dow’s life.
“I just love doing it. And most of my carving friends do, too. When we get together, we’re chainsaw carving. We don’t get together and go fishing or something,” he said.
When Dow recounts his journey, one event has seemingly led to another. Before joining the military, Dow had worked in the construction industry. He said that had helped prepare him for life in the service.
“You grow up working on a construction site with men picking on you, you learn how to not whine about it and not get picked on and how to get along with everybody,” Dow said.
Now, his upbringing with the works of Michelangelo taking centerstage, his passion, his talent, his training are being combined to create interesting works of art. It’s easy to simply drive past the studio and gallery (in the winter, most motorists do). Dow doesn’t haven’t a sign that specifically says the business name — he said he relies on “having cool stuff” out front. But those motorists who choose to stop, browse the gallery and meet the artist see pieces that marry the elegance of technical training with the rawness of chainsaw art. From a distance, it’s an odd mix, but when Dow has a moment to tell his story, it all starts to make sense.
“It was just natural (to combine fine art with chainsaw carving),” Dow said. “The chainsaw carving paid the bills. I used that opportunity to put some money away so I could invest time into the other. I still feel that (fine art) is another direction that I can go to, especially when I’m old and I can’t do 10-foot bigfoots anymore.”
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“September and October may be the busiest two months. Then hopefully by October I have orders for Christmas, and that keeps me busy right through Christmas. Then I like to hide away for three months and work on some inventory and some personal fine art — if that’s the right word for it, and I don’t know that it is.”