LUNENBURG, Vt. -- It is loud, it is dirty, and it is dangerous.
And it is art, say chain-saw carvers who can use their noisy saws to turn logs into bears, benches, eagles, and just about everything in between.
"You've got to be mechanically inclined to do this," said Mark Fontaine, who started carving with a chain saw three years ago and now sells bears and other pieces from the front lawn of his house in Vermont's northeastern corner. "You've got to run power tools without hurting yourself."
It helps to be strong enough to control the chain saw without cutting off a limb in the process. A logging background also is useful -- as is artistic ability.
Fontaine, who grew up in a longtime logging family in Groveton, N.H., has all three going for him. He never wanted to go into logging. "I knew I was going to make my living off my artwork," he said. "I just wasn't sure how."
Before he started making that living from his art, Fontaine, 34, worked in construction, drove trucks in Alaska, was a laborer on the local railroad and was part of a dynamite crew.
He said he started carving wood with a knife "as soon as I was old enough to cut myself," but he only picked up a chain saw and tackled a big piece of white pine about three years ago. As soon as he did it, he was hooked.
The chain saw is a fast, unwieldy tool, and it takes a special skill to turn out pieces that look like art. The archetypal chain-saw creation, the bear, often comes out looking crude and rough-hewn.
But Fontaine brings a delicacy to his work, and his bears, which cost from $50 to $550 and more, really are cute. They are stained with porch stain and linseed oil, and they have black hematite stones for eyes.
Fontaine does not want to make bears for a living. He also does eagles, benches, and trees, and he has carved on commission diverse items such as newel posts, a Mack truck, rainbow trout, a caricature moose, and a host of other animals.
He just delivered an 8-foot-tall beaver to a convenience store in Lancaster, N.H. He has done several dragons and was recently commissioned to do a gargoyle. He would like to do more human figures.
But bears are the bread and butter of the chain saw-carving business, Fontaine said.
"Ninety percent of my orders are bears," he said. "I can carve anything to order."
Fontaine does all the carving in the garage of the home he shares with his 6-year-old son. He wears shorts, sandals, ear and eye protection, and thick gloves.
"You've got to be able to run the saw without cutting yourself," he said.
He has nine chain saws with different sizes and different blades -- one painted in the colors of the American flag. He said he only uses Vermont pine, and he signs and dates every piece he makes. He sells retail from his front lawn, and from Marshall Enterprises, a large dealer of chain-saw art in Stowe that sells the work of about 15 chain-saw artists.
Fontaine has never been to a craft show and does not plan to go. He just lines up his wares on the front lawn of his house and waits for travelers passing by to stop in and buy something.
"I don't need to go anywhere," said Fontaine. "I can stay right here."
Chain-saw art is popular all over North America, especially in areas with a tradition of logging. Doing the work is popular, and the pieces fly off Fontaine's lawn.
"Sales isn't a problem," said Fontaine, who refused to say how long it takes him to carve a bear.
"I take pride in my bears," he said. "I'm not trying to do production. It's an original piece of artwork. Some people want a special piece of Vermont they can bring home with them."
Chain-saw art has not won the respect of the mainstream art or craft community. While there were metal artists and woodworkers among the potters, glassblowers, weavers, and painters on the recent Open Studio Tour put on by the Vermont Crafts Council, there were not any chain-saw artists on the tour.
Part of the problem might be the subject matter that chain-saw art often takes -- such as trolls and gnomes. But Martha Fitch, the executive director of the Vermont Crafts Council, said chain-saw art should not be treated any differently from other sculpture.
"The whole art of sculpture is seeing the form inside the material, and cutting away the part that doesn't belong," she said. "People using chain saws to do that are doing the same thing as people using tools to cut away a part of granite."
It takes considerable skill, and it is dangerous, she added.
"Underlying some of the interest is that it's scary," Fitch said.
The Vermont Folklife Center recently held a show with the work of a Quebec chain-saw artist, said the center's director, Jane Beck.
Beck has not bought any chain-saw art for her home or garden.
But "I don't have flamingos either," Beck said. "I don't tend to decorate my yard."
Fontaine is not concerned about the opinion of the mainstream art community. He has always known chain-saw artistry was not a highbrow undertaking.
"We're not really considered real artists because we use a chain saw," he said. "We're the hillbillies of the artist feeding chain."
But he does not care.
"The people that do buy my product . . . their appreciation is enough for me," he said.