When we are asked to define what great art is, it’s easy to fall into snobbery and only offer highfalutin examples. We all know that the Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa, and Sistine Chapel ceiling comprise the best of the best of what mankind has created in the past — but great art needn’t have been made centuries ago by some long gone genius to be deemed as such. Great art may very well have been chainsawed into the form of a jovial bear by a Fargoan in his garage one afternoon. This is exactly the case for Jay Ray.
Jay grew up under the auspice of a father who always had him busy fixing up the house. “I didn’t appreciate having to work when I was a kid, but I sure do now,” Jay recalled. “The old man taught me how to be handy, which is one of the most important things anyone can be. It’s thanks to him that I get to remodel houses as a contractor now. It’s the best kind of life because you can set your own hours, and it’s only your own fault if you ever get bored.”
About 10 years ago, Jay read an article about chainsaw sculpting. He couldn’t quite place his finger on why it sounded so appealing to him. Being at a loss to explain your attraction to something is the most certain way of knowing that you genuinely love it, however, so Jay spent the better part of that day in his driveway with an old log and an even older chainsaw.
Jay first sculpted a bear, which seems by and large the preferred subject of chainsaw sculptors around the country. “I can’t really tell you why they’re bears so often,” Jay explained. “It might be because logs translate best into their blocky shapes, or that their fur is just the right texture for a chainsaw to sculpt. It’s probably mostly because people like bears.”
Jay immediately found chainsaw sculpting to be a fun and relaxing pastime. Possessing a newly hewn bear felt good as well. Soon Jay’s lawn was home to a troop of bears, eagles, and game fish, a regular wood menagerie, and his neighbors took note.
“I didn’t plan on selling my art when I started doing this,” said Jay. “But pretty soon people were knocking on my door, asking if they could bring one of my animals home with them. Word of mouth spread around after that, and I became Fargo’s go-to guy for chainsaw art. I made a website, started taking my sculptures to art shows, and now I’ve got a nice sideline to my contracting business.”
“In all this time, I’ve never had a mishap,” said Jay. “I wear kevlar pants and take things slow. I have cut myself a few times, but that was only when the saw wasn’t running. You have to keep those blades razor sharp in order to get the fine details.”
“I don’t work with live models. I imagine that bears wouldn’t like to sit still for that long, so I’ve plastered my garage with dozens of photos for reference. I did once sculpt a paddlefish for a man who had just caught one and brought it to me for inspiration. I put it on the snowbank when I was finished with it, and quickly forgot about it. The paddlefish reminded me that he was there in the spring by turning into a stinky mess. My wife loved that.”
“Logs are different than other mediums because they change as they age,” Jay explained. “Even though I dry my logs for a year or two, they’re always going to retain a little moisture. In addition to sculpting cuts, every piece I make gets a release cut right along the line where I see it’s most likely to split. That drives most of the splitting toward the back of the sculpture, but even with that precaution all log sculptures are going to chip and crack a little with time. I believe that only adds to their character. If you want your statue to look perfect forever, you can go and buy a concrete or fiberglass one that was made in a factory somewhere. But where’s the heart in that?”
To learn more about Jay’s charming folk art and how you may adorn your own lawn with it, visit jayraycarves.com. Jay can remodel your house for you too, if you like, but he won’t use a chainsaw for that.
By David Scheller