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Otis man carves career as chainsaw sculptor

By Ned Oliver
The Berkshire Eagle / July 1, 2012
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OTIS, Mass.—In a few short years, Ken Packie went from being an overworked telecom technician to becoming a world champion chainsaw sculptor.

Today, with sweeps of the blade he can turn a hunk of wood into the fluid likeness of say, an owl or a fox -- all in about a day.

If you live in South County, chances are you've encountered his work; Packie said in Otis alone, where he lives, there are probably "two or three hundred" of his lively wildlife wood carvings.

"The majority of my pieces end up within 20 miles of here," he said, sitting on the deck of his small wood-framed home. "But it's really starting to stretch out. I'm starting to get calls from the Adirondacks and Vermont."

Packie's bread and butter are these kinds of commissions, but the work that's winning him international acclaim gets done at competitions. At the World Cup in Mulda, Germany last month, his team took first place for its life-size piece depicting a fifth century knight on a horse. And this month, he competed in the Canadian Nationals, where he took fifth place. (In the latter case, he explains -- without a hint of bitterness -- that a cracked log prevented him from reaching his full potential.)

Packie capped off those successes this month with the opening of a joint show with John Stanmeyer, a well-known photographer for Time Magazine and National Geographic who also runs a gallery in an airy barn behind his home in Otis.

Stanmeyer said he was drawn to the level of detail and lifelike realism Packie builds into his work. Stanmeyer, whose exhibition examines trees and how they move, said he also appreciates that Packie only uses recycled logs that would otherwise be left to rot.

"That he can bring new life out of these essentially dead things -- it's amazing," Stanmeyer said.

The story of Packie's rise is unlikely. Before he got into carving wood with chainsaws, he says he had no background in art. Instead, he was employed as a technician, managing fiber-optic networks for communications firms.

At a log home show in 2005 he came across a man demonstrating chainsaw-sculpting techniques. Packie said something just clicked in his head and when he got home he immediately sought out a sculptor who taught classes.

Packie took to it, and three years later, he decided he was ready to go pro.

"My wife said, `If you don't try, you never know.' So I dropped the day job," he said.

When Packie started, he said he point-blank refused to carve bears -- boxy, rough-hewn creations that proliferate at second-rate craft shows and serve as most people's introduction to the world of chainsaw sculpting.

"I said, `Really? Does the world need anymore of those?' " he said, describing a conversation with Jeff Samudosky, who served as his mentor.

Samudosky eventually was able to convince Packie that, yes, the world could use a few more wood-carved bears because that's what people like to buy.

"They said, `If you're going to do this full time, you have to carve bears -- they'll be your bread and butter,' " Packie said, adding that Samudosky assured him the figures would not compromise his integrity, especially if Packie imparted them with the same fluid realism he was achieving in his other work.

In fact, a carved bear is part of Packie's current exhibition at Stanmeyer's gallery, but like all of his other pieces, the bear is alive, and in this case, is pondering a dragonfly situated just below it.

Other pieces resemble totem poles that include story-telling elements that depict, for example, squirrels harassing a fox. In another, a wolf pup nuzzles its mother.

Packie is proud of how far he's come, but he said his first year carving full time was stressful. He worked more hours than he ever had before and his income was unpredictable. At the same time, he said he was happier than ever and can't imagine falling back into his old day job.

He credits his family and the town of Otis as a whole for making his success a reality. From his wife and kids willingness to cut back during those tough first years to the town's highway department, which drops off brush and logs they clear from roadsides.

"I always say it takes a village to raise a carver," Packie said.

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