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RANGELY I At first glance, master wood carver Ron Eye looks like just another guy wearing hunter-orange camo chaps and wielding a chainsaw.
It’s early Saturday afternoon and Eye, sporting trademark ear buds blasting AC/DC and a bandanna around his head, assesses the form taking shape before him. It’s rough, but the unmistakable bust of a Spartan warrior emerges from a stump in front of Colorado Northwestern Community College’s Hefley Gym.
Using a black Sharpie, Eye sketches a rough outline of the figure’s faceplate.
“As far as a stump carving, this is a dog,” he murmurs. “This stuff is hard.”
Eye doesn’t mean the Spartan, which he says was in the wood before he ever arrived. He’s referring to the remnant of the Chinese elm tree that once grew nearby. It’s not an ideal carving block, and if Eye is being honest, he’d rather be coaxing something out of a piece of ponderosa pine he’s hand-picked from a sawmill.
But Eye said he is up for this challenge, much as he was up for competing against 10 other carvers at June’s annual Whittle the Wood Rendezvous in Craig, Colo. After a four-day competition in which he completed an intricate bust of the Sioux grandfather who raised him, he emerged not only as the judges’ overall pick, but as winner of the artists’ choice and people’s choice awards.
He also understands the value of art for the college, for individuals and communities. His home above a wood workshop in Vernal, Utah, may have a blank wall or two, but only because they’re waiting for the right piece to reside there.
“Every piece you make has an owner,” he explained. “The kinetic energy will come out of that thing and it will come to rest somewhere. Sometimes, the customer shows up right when the saw finishes cutting. Or I might have to haul it around for six months until the right person finds it.”
The carvings Eye will have completed in Rio Blanco County in recent weeks have collective owners, not all of them living.
Last week, Eye completed a whimsical piece featuring forest creatures from a 16-foot-tall cottonwood stump for Meeker’s Highlands Cemetery. The tree had been dying for three years, and cemetery manager Art Cox, who attends the Whittle the Wood event most years with his wife, Lila, knew he wanted Eye’s work to transform it.
“Ron did a beautiful job,” said Lila Cox, the cemetery’s office manager. “Art has a degree in art and understands sculpture, so between them, they had a good time talking about what Ron could bring out of the tree.”
The impetus for the three CNCC carvings — the Spartan, a petroglyph wall carving and a bench, all of which will have permanent homes around campus — began more than a year and a half ago, when CNCC President Russell George and a committee developed ideas to celebrate the school’s 50th anniversary.
CNCC marketer Denise Wade stopped a facilities crew from cutting down the stump of a storm-damaged elm tree outside of Hefley Hall, then pitched the idea of a chainsaw carving to George.
George loved the plan, but he wanted students involved in the process. So the college’s Student Senate and CNCC residence life coordinator Kayla Lighthizer worked to gather student feedback for the carvings and commission Eye for the work.
Although Eye is never sure exactly how the forms beneath the wood will surface, five sizes of Stihl chainsaws, many fitted with custom blades, help the process along.
A self-taught artist, Eye first honed his skills by whittling and carving with smaller tools. The next and inevitable step was chainsaws.
From the Stihl 362, the “sweetheart saw of the Stihl line” to the seven-horse power 660 used to hew hunks from massive blocks of wood, Eye maintains that each tool has its own personality.
“It’s like having children,” Eye said. “Every saw here has its own thing. One chain will fit on this one and it looks like it might fit on that one, but, no, it won’t. When you first start carving, you don’t know that until the saws start smoking.”
Over the last six years, Eye has evolved from a fledging carver to an increasingly sought-after artist who attends 25-plus shows each year, contracts for high-paying custom projects and carves in three or four competitions annually. It’s a lifestyle and schedule he enjoys, but one that keeps him traveling at odd hours and set apart from the nine-to-five working world.
“It’s funny because my life is so much different than other people’s lives,” he said. “I can’t say that I have a job. My friend who’s an artist told me, ‘Ron, until you realize this is who you are, not what you do, you’re going to have troubles.’ And he was right.”
For Eye, part of the struggle is balancing the need to produce pieces customers want with art that satisfies his creative impulse. He dislikes carving the same images repeatedly, but people’s penchant for keeping up with the Joneses often has them asking for a rustic bear like the one they’ve seen on their neighbor’s porch.
“It ain’t very neat (carving a piece) the second time; the passion has died,” Eye said, grinning. “Some people have no understanding of art or literature, and some people do … Sometimes it’s tempting to say, ‘Maybe you just need to go to Wal-Mart and get yourself a bear.’”
Eye will finish the carvings at (CNCC) this week before traveling to North Dakota to carve a privately commissioned piece.