How A Pandemic-Grounded Chainsaw Carving Champion Found A New Audience Around Kansas City
A local chainsaw sculptor usually spends a lot of time on the road traveling to national and international carving competitions. But coronavirus restrictions put those events on pause. So Steven Higgins put his talents to work closer to home.
A sunny fall afternoon in Liberty, Missouri, finds artist Steven Higgins coated in sawdust — from the ball cap covering his dark hair to his sturdy work boots. His studio today is at the end of a winding driveway, outside of a large house at the top of a hill.
Higgins is getting to work on the seven-foot-tall trunk of an ash tree. In many circumstances, the stump would be a nuisance. For Higgins, it's material. Within a few hours the curves and lines of two great blue herons begin to emerge from the wood.
“I do a little bit of a rough sketch to get it in there, make sure everything fits right, and then you kind of slim it down," Higgins says. "The more practice that you've had, the less rough sketching that it takes and you're able to cut right toward where the detail is. I've had a lot of practice so I can do it kind of fast.”
His practice with wood carving spans most of Higgins' life. He grew up in Northport, Washington, near the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. Beginning at age 11, he served a seven-year apprenticeship with a master carver. Homeschooling kept him from falling behind in his studies. By the time Higgins was 15, he was traveling to competitions that feature chainsaw artists carving creations for judges and audiences.
To compete professionally, Higgins had to learn to work within time limits. Last year, he won the U. S. Open Chainsaw Sculpture Championships at Carson Park in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He makes a living from cash prizes for his large-scale sculptures, and by carving smaller pieces for galleries in New York and Los Angeles.
“I ain't getting paid hourly here," Higgins says. "When it's done, it's done. And I tend to do it with excellence and speed.”
Throughout his twenties, Higgins followed the carving circuit.
"I was traveling all around, I don't think I'd ever been in one place for more than three months," remembers Higgins. "And when you travel and people ask you where you're from and you don't know what to say, that's acceptable for a certain portion of your youth, but you start getting a little bit older and and it's good to know where you're from."
Higgins decided it was time to settle down. He got married and moved to Kansas City in 2008.
“It was a redheaded woman,” says Higgins. “Yeah, there's nothing like a gal that'll make you uproot your life and head in a direction. I think something that parents should give their children is roots and wings. And I definitely had the wings, but I needed some roots. Kansas City seemed like a good place to put down roots.”
He works out of a studio on a four-acre plot of land in Grandview, Missouri. Higgins continued to follow the chainsaw competition circuit and his work took him around the world — until COVID-19 curtailed travel and gatherings. That's when Higgins knew he needed a new plan.
“I do not do a lot of work in Kansas City, but one of the ways that we innovated with the lockdown was to do stump carvings, where I go out to people's homes and they might have a dead tree or something that they're interested in having transformed,” he said.
Gaye Stevick and her husband, Gary Foutch, got in touch with Higgins when their tree began to lean dangerously over the driveway. Stevick found examples of his carving online. When she discovered he was local, she says she knew she'd found the right person for the job.
"This tree was going to cause a problem for us," Foutch says. "It was tilting. It was going to take out the, potentially when it fell, this wall. So it has now moved from something that was a problem, to being something that's going to be a work of art for us.”
Collaborating with a customer, according to Higgins, is a three-way conversation.
"Part of the conversation is the wood and it telling you what it wants to do," he says. "Part of it is your experience and your artistic ability. And then also you involve the customer. With that, you can come up with some really interesting pieces.”
Foutch and Stevick's home backs onto a large lake and they often see herons fishing just off the shoreline. Now they have a pair of herons in the front yard.
“There's a couple of things that I really like about this piece," Higgins says of the ash stump. "The color of the wood is just beautiful. The outside has a nice white kind of cream color, and then the inside is a bit darker, almost a milk chocolate color. And so there's really some contrast that you can play with. But a lot of it is finding the beauty of the wood and then figuring out how to to let the natural tones play off of each other.”
A chainsaw may seem like a crude tool for carving. But this isn’t your dad’s chainsaw. Higgins owns more than fifty different models. They’re a mix of gas and electric and each carving bar serves a different purpose. Some make big cuts, others are good for fine detail.
"I've never seen so many chain saws in different sizes in my life,” Stevick says.
“A lot of it's about the technology that's available with the equipment where you can almost carve at the speed of thought with a lot of the ideas that come," says Higgins. "And then part of it's just doing it for so long. That's my natural habitat. You know, that chainsaw is almost an extension of my hand. And we like them sharp and running fast.”
There’s an element of performance art in his craft.
“A lot of times when I'm carving something in front of somebody's house, you know, they'll take the day off and set up some lawn chairs and watch it come together," says Higgins. "It’s pretty exciting.”
While Higgins works, he says he likes to think about the ways the sculpture will fit into the landscape.
"It seemed like some of the things that are important elements on this property are the water and the cattails and the wildlife," he says. "That's what I was thinking about as we were carving it."
Watching the birds emerge from the tree trunk reminded Stevick of a recent trip to Italy.
“In Florence, we've seen the Michelangelo prisoners, where they're trapped in the marble and they're partially released by Michelangelo as they work their way out of the marble," says Stevick. "It's like I see that heron coming out of the wood in that same way.”
By the end of the second afternoon, the carved herons appear ready to take flight. Foutch says they’ll be telling their neighbors about Higgins' visit to their home for a long time.
“The best art we have comes with a story," he says. "And we're going to have something here that's going to be really a signature point for the house, I think, for years to come, which we appreciate."