Carving Out a Job

While driving on the winding backroads of Platte County, look out for bears in trees. Eighty and more brightly painted wooden bear heads peak through branches and leaves to smile and stick their tongues at the people who have discovered their presence. 

TJ Jenkins, resident of Platte County, carved the wooden bear heads with his chainsaws. “Lately, it has turned into a little bit of a job,” Jenkins said of his desire to make chainsaw carving a full time work. 

“There are a lot of mistakes made, and mistakes usually hurt,” Jenkins said. He pivoted his quiet chainsaw, the tip of the oiled bar made an easy arc to bisect his face, an eye visible on each side of the black and silver saw chain, to show how a blade kicking back is a short distance from the carver. 

At the completion of carving a bear head, Jenkins uses his smallest chainsaw blade to carve an identifying number, then applies bright paint. Bear head 68 is lime green with a purple muzzle. Lime green polka dots bubble to the tip of the purple muzzle like fizz ascending a freshly poured soda. Purple polka dots invade the lime green bear face like colorful lichens growing on tree bark, adding dimension of depth as seen from a passing vehicle on a country road; to Jenkins, a reminder of Appalachian folk art. Bear head 68, like all of his kin cut from logs, shows a protruding red tongue. 

Knee high logs, waist high logs, and shoulder high logs lean against each other and sun bathe in Jenkins’s yard, waiting their turn for chainsaw carving. The grass is strewn with chunky first edition bears, trial carvings of morel mushrooms and an oversized pineapple with caricature crown; evidence of his beginnings in chain saw carving and progression to his signature bear head design. 

Jenkins started his white Ford truck. The guttural growl of the engine, the heavy weight of the door, the bench seat covered in wood carving tools and a light sprinkle of saw dust gave away the era of the truck. Jenkins turned the steering wheel hand over hand as if he were drawing up a bucket full of water from a well. The wide and shallow turn of the truck wandered into the on coming lane, but there is no traffic, and no exacting lines along the country road to make it clear where one lane ends and another begins.

“There was one here, but it got stolen,” Jenkins said as he pointed through the passenger window. “It had a David Lee Roth kind of face paint.”

Jenkins grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri, and graduated from Northwest Missouri State University. His career in TV production and a love for outdoor work took him around the country where he took on a liking folk art, much of it on display from the road side and on hiking trails. “You can go drive the hills of Appalachians as see all kinds of stuff,” Jenkins recalled.

The truck leaned through another turn. “There's one in that tree, right there. There’s a white one. It’s an early one,” Jenkins said, pointing through the windshield. 

Care for his ailing mother brought him back to his home state. Going for hikes to relieve stress, Jenkins noticed the lack of road side and trail side folk art he had learned to admire while living in the Appellations. 

With a claw hammer and a flat chisel to carve a log, Jenkins went to work on his first attempts at folk art. “I was able to sell what I carved, which was pretty crazy, I thought at the time. Every single cent I put back into the tools,” Jenkins said of his early work. When he sold enough carvings, he switched to a modified angle grinder to carve out faces until he saved enough to move into chainsaw carving. 

“There’s a blue and gold one back there,” Jenkins said as he pointed through the glass of the back Ford window. “Right there; gets covered over.” The truck slowed as Jenkins took his foot off the gas. “There’s three on this corner up here.” 

Full body bears are a staple of chainsaw carvers, but on his emerging artist budget Jenkins could not afford large logs. So, with the tools he could afford, he practiced making bear heads on smaller logs. The affordable, repeatable subject for learning his craft gave him a stock of heads for display around Platte County. 

Bearheadroad.com tells the story of the carving and painting of some of his bears, but he does not divulged the locations of his folk art. He intends for the location of a bear head to travel from person to person, shared between friends; a moment for traveling companions enjoy as one points and the other discovers the face among the branches and leaves. 

“The woman that let me put it on this tree moved away,” Jenkins said as the white Ford rounded a bend in an arc slightly wider than the radius of the road. “I went to talk to the new owners and they love it, so it stayed.”

Putting up more bear heads around Platte County depends on the sale of Jenkins’s other chainsaw carvings. His goal is to fasten one hundred and twenty bear heads to tree trunks before the summer is over.

But Jenkins is a reluctant salesman, still getting used to people exchanging money for his chainsaw carvings three years into his craft. Jenkins is also reticent to call himself an artist, never formally trained nor apprenticed, deflecting the term in conversation. 

Jenkins frowns at the lack of crossover between ingenuity, carving something other than a bear, and sales; customers admiring other animals and subjects, but always coming back to the familiar bear for purchase. 

The majority of his sales happen during chainsaw carving demonstrations at grand openings, festivals, and fairs. Jenkins loads the bed of his white Ford with finished pieces bearing price tags, uncut logs shaken from sleep, three chainsaws, and a supply of gas and oil. 

To keep down the cost of his artwork, Jenkins learned how to repair his chainsaws, ferocious but sensitive machines, opening them to tinker until he understood the nature of their systems. Standard chainsaws are designed to cut through branches and trunks, so it takes some modification to the chain and teeth to make detail carving smooth, and blade length and shape lend themselves to different types and levels of detail work. 

It takes some nerve wracking practice to learn which cutting angles on a log and touch points on the blade will make smooth cuts, and which will cause dangerous kickback. 

With a jerk of the pull handle, Jenkins’ STIHL, orange and white underneath a thin layer of fine sawdust and oil, woke up hungry. A diagonal cut through a log prepared it for two bear heads with little waste. 

Down stroke, down stroke. Jenkins stepped through the spreading layer of sawdust; wooden noodles smelling of fresh cut tree and a layer of fine slivers.

Down stroke, down stroke. Jenkins stoped the saw, set it on a bench. The abrupt silence echoes between the chambers of the inner ear and shell of safety ear muffs. Carpenter pencil in hand, he sketched guidelines. 

A short pull on another chainsaw from the bench. Side stroke, side stroke. Jenkins pondered momentarily, looked at the carved log from another angle. With the underside of the bar tip he cut curves, grooves, carved out pits, channels, waves — everything that makes chainsaw carving dangerous. 

Jenkins shook the smallest chainsaw from sleep. Curiously stubbed nosed, the bar, a short triangle that looks like it came from a scale model of a chainsaw, gently touched the fine details of the face. Cutting gradually into the bear head, removing the final excesses, caused it to grow soft hair on its muzzle and shaggy chest hair under its chin. Small strokes enlivened a listening pair of ears, furrowed a brow and placed curiosity in the eyes. 

In a birthday candle puff, Jenkins removed the last resting saw dust; the number eighty-nine in relief.

Cory MacNeil