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‘Wood speaks to him’

Chainsaw artist Jesse Green carves a swath across the state

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By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / October 30, 2010

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Two tugs on the cord ignite a roaring wail. Sawdust flares in wide arcs. Hunks and slivers of white wood cascade off a 6-foot-tall log. The chainsaw — 12-inch blade slicing, shaving, paring — bellows in a range of octaves. {bull} Rough outlines begin to materialize, mere hints at first. Eyes, perked ears, a muzzle, curled legs, wings, a tail. {bull} Chainsaws aren’t known for subtlety — they’re meant to hack, slash, and tear stuff up. For Medway’s Jesse Green, though, they’re precision tools, chisels for whittling mammoth logs down to life-size sculptures.

“I free-hand draw with the chainsaw,’’ said Green, 34, who, bearded and burly, isn’t exactly working against the Paul Bunyan lumberjack stereotype.

He started chainsaw sculpting full-time just a few years ago, but his goal is to be omnipresent across the state. This year he launched “Project Eco-Art Massachusetts,’’ an ambitious plan to create a unique carving for each of the state’s 351 communities. By the end of this year, he’ll have completed nine — just 342 to go.

“We’ll see how many years it takes to get done,’’ shrugged Green, who goes by the nickname “The Machine.’’

Already he’s crafted hundreds of public and private commissions for clients around the country — he has a waiting list of 46 projects, which he works on 10 at a time. Likewise, his sculptures have become ubiquitous throughout the MetroWest suburbs, scattered across yards, and in front of businesses and other public places.

So far, he’s done several pieces for Medway and his hometown of Holliston, as well as Sturbridge, Spencer, Fall River, Millis, Randolph, and Raynham. They’ve all been covered in part by small cultural council grants averaging about $700. His private projects fetch more — $1,000 to $2,000 apiece.

Each carving represent the community’s heritage, setting, or local celebrities. A panther in Holliston honors the town’s football team. A caricature of Emeril Lagasse in Fall River pays tribute to the city’s famous chef.

The idea is to create landmarks and a sort of “tourism path.’’ But Green says there’s a green component as well. In a way, he’s recycling — making art out of something that might otherwise be chipped, burned, or piled up in a landfill. (Green elaborates on this by noting that just five gallons of gasoline last him a month.)

“It’s taking something that grew from nature, and making it into art,’’ he explained.

His public projects are often spectacles — performance art done before crowds that gather to watch him work. It takes him four to six hours to do the rough cut; the finish work varies depending on the complexity of the piece. The sculptures don’t come fully alive on-site, however; Green, who is a trained artist with a bachelor of fine arts in sculpture/3-D studies from the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, brings the pieces back to his studio to finish them, which includes painting them by hand.

People are often struck by his nimble, almost graceful use of his rumbling machines.

“How he can take chainsaws in varying sizes and do these intricate designs is fascinating,’’ said Judy Niles, chairwoman of Raynham’s cultural council, which recently paid Green $500 to carve a 6-foot-tall statue of King Philip, the native American tribal chief who launched his namesake 17th century war in the area and is believed to have lived in the wilds of Raynham before it became a town.

In Hudson, Green is expected to carve six animals over the next several years that will line sections of the Assabet River Rail Trail. He started with a hawk (the school mascot) last year, and he plans to carve a frog at the town’s Pumpkin Fest Oct. 23.

“You think a chainsaw just chops wood, but he’s moving it in every which direction,’’ said Steven Santos, Hudson’s assistant director of recreation. “He’s a great artist and great performer.’’

Green’s diverse thicket of characters includes a plumber wrangling a gushing, backed-up toilet in Ashland; a cartoonish turtle and an English-inspired bobby guarding the police station in Medway; a swelling wave in Newport; and a family of hedgehogs, snouts protruding from holes in a real stump, in Walpole. The princess of Jordan even sought out his talent; for her, Green detailed a princess in a tower with Rapunzel-like hair, a suitor on bended knee below.

When it comes to his palette, he mostly works with pine. “I shoot for the biggest and baddest I can handle,’’ he said.

Often, he gets logs free-standing from tree removal companies, which set aside prime chops. Other times they’re still rooted in the ground and carved on-site, with the aid of scaffolding.

That was the case with a 10-foot-tall stump looming in a Brookline backyard. Mark and Susan Irvings had to sacrifice the branches and top 30 feet of the tree when it encroached on a neighbor’s property. They heard of Green through word of mouth, and last month he turned the tree into a stylized, geometric woman with an undulating skirt. The $1,700 sculpture is based on totem pole designs from the indigenous Mapuche people of Chile, where the Irvings recently vacationed.

“He makes these fine, gentle cuts with this massive chainsaw,’’ Mark Irvings said. “It’s incredible to have someone be able to visualize three-dimensionally. Very few people have that capability.’’

Indeed, the process is mostly spontaneity and improvisation. Even Green’s father is amazed.

“He picks up a chainsaw and just goes,’’ said Jay Green, who stands by at his son’s events, gassing up and sharpening the chainsaws and helping clean up chunks of wood and swaths of sawdust. “It’s all in his head. As he says, the wood speaks to him.’’

Jesse Green’s foray into the trade was just as impromptu. Several years ago a discarded log on the side of the road enticed him. Driving by, he thought, “I can carve that.’’ He’d never used a chainsaw, but he went to the store immediately and bought one.

At the time, he was working as a truck driver. His father eventually encouraged him to quit that job, offering up his greenhouse for his son’s burgeoning, cacophonous trade.

Now, Green has a dozen machines he uses throughout the process; they vary in their horsepower, chain thickness, and bar length. Typically he starts with a 36-inch monster to start, then works down to a 12-inch and an electric detail saw.

There are maladies that come with the work — muscle freezes, cramps, and sore joints from holding the vibrating saw for hours, as well as clothes that have to go several runs through the washer to get embedded sawdust out.

At the Pingree School in South Hamilton recently, a semicircle of sawdust was caked under one eye, and a thin coating of woody flecks coated his arms, legs, and his typical work outfit of a black sleeveless shirt, khaki shorts, a wool hat, sunglasses, and yellow, noise-canceling headphones (playing anything from the Grateful Dead to Snoop Dogg).

The day’s work: carving Pegasus — the Pingree logo — for the school’s 50th anniversary. Working behind a cordoned-off area, Green started with a 6-foot pine slab, first slicing off large bits to rough out the horse’s features, then slowly, shave by shave, defining the face, body and wings, manipulating the chainsaw tip straight, diagonally, sideways, upside-down, or flat to the surface.

As intimidating as the howling, ferocious tools of his trade might be, he’s had no significant injuries.

“It’s dangerous,’’ he acknowledged. “I know I’m being as safe as possible with every move I make. But at any given moment at any given day, there is a chance that I could find myself with a chainsaw embedded in my face.’’

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.

Green's chainsaw art
Photos

Green's chainsaw art

See photos of his work, like this caricature of Emeril Lagasse.