Saturday, June 6, 2009

Carving Creations

Published in L Magazine, June 2009
Copyright 2009 by L Magazine, used with permission
(This is my original, unedited copy)

While driving along Vine Street by Wyuka Cemetery, it’s hard to miss Mark Rexinger’s home. The first thing you notice is a bald eagle high in a nest, so realistic it’s fooled people. Turn the corner onto 38th Street and you’ll spot other birds of prey, whimsical faces, bears, Native American figures and welcome signs, all carved out of discarded pieces of wood. His carving tool? An ordinary chainsaw.

Rexinger first got the idea to try chainsaw carving while he and his family were vacationing at his mother-in-law’s cabin in Park Rapids, Minnesota. He stopped to watch chainsaw carver Scott Henderschot on the corner of the highway. For the rest of the vacation Rexinger spent as much time with Henderschot as he could.

“I hung around there and moved logs around for him,” he said. “I just asked him not to spin around real fast because I was going to be right behind him watching.”

About a week after he got home, a storm destroyed about a hundred trees in Wyuka Cemetery. Rexinger pulled his truck up to the sign marked “Free Firewood” and loaded it up. He took out the eagle he’d bought from Henderschot and set to work trying to copy it.

His only previous experience with carving was making a small dog out of pine in seventh grade art class (he got an A) and creating larger-than-life snowmen with his daughter. But he bought a few books on chainsaw carving and began experimenting with his new hobby. Like most artists, he threw away the first pieces he made, but after a while, he finished some carvings that he was comfortable displaying, and his outdoor gallery began to grow.

One day a woman drove by his place, circled around the block and finally stopped.
“Is this eagle for sale?” she asked. He told her he wanted $250 for it. “Can you load it up right now?” she responded.

Since then he’s sold a few hundred pieces for as little as $5 or as much as $750. He doesn’t advertise, but instead relies on word-of-mouth, business cards, and his high visibility location. He rarely accepts commissioned work; he prefers to create something he likes and hope someone will appreciate it enough to buy it. He especially enjoys carving eagles and other birds of prey, but many people prefer the ever-popular bear.

“At first I didn’t want to carve bears, because everybody does it,” he said. “But other carvers told me, ‘You gotta carve bears. You’re losing half your income.’”

He gets his wood from local tree services and has carved nearly every kind of wood. His favorite wood to carve is cedar because the red heartwood creates unique patterns. He’s used the same chainsaw for seven years and usually starts with a regular bar and moves to a tapered bar for finer detail , then finishes the piece with a sander. Sometimes he uses a blowtorch to add a burned look; other pieces are left plain; and occasionally he paints a carving. He gives every piece a thin coat of varnish for protection against the elements, since most of his work is displayed on people’s yards or decks.

His bald eagles are painted to make them look realistic. He anchors the eagles in an upside-down tree, using the roots to depict the nest (a technique he learned from Henderschot, whom he visits every year.) Once a wildlife conservation officer knocked on his door and said a friend had told him to check out the bald eagle out on 38th and Vine. They both had a good laugh over that one.

The main expenses are the gas he uses to get the wood and the cost of replacement chains. Nails in the wood are his “biggest enemy” because they can easily destroy a chain. He’s considered getting a metal detector to inspect the wood before beginning a carving.

He does most of his work in the yard of the duplex he and his family share with his mother-in-law. The neighbors have never complained about the noise. He makes sure not to start before 8:00 a.m. and he puts the chainsaw away at sunset. To give his wife, Bobbi, and daughter, Brandi, a break, he sometimes carves at friends’ houses.

Rexinger loves the feeling of taking an old tree limb or weathered board and creating something new out of it. “It’s like giving it a new life,” he said.

He’s demonstrated at a few public festivals. He and Rick Burgess, a North Platte carver who’s become a good friend, demonstrated at the steel chainsaw booth at Grand Island’s Husker Harvest Days. Rexinger was a guest carver at a contest in Hackensack, Minnesota, and competed in the “Whittle the Wood Rendezvous” in Craig, Colorado.

So far he’s kept his “day job” as a bricklayer, but his goal is to carve full-time, traveling, doing demonstrations and competing in shows. “That’s what chainsaw carving is about—drawing a crowd,” he said. “It’s a performance art.”

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