by Chris Chase
Coastal Journal staff
TOPSHAM — Driving along route 201 in Topsham, heading past a little side street named Bradley Pond Road, there’s a bit of an unusual sight: A bear, roughly five feet tall, standing on its hind legs and holding a chainsaw – or possibly, if the mood strikes, a baseball bat.
The bear (and the chainsaw) belong to Josh Turner, a resident of Maine and an artist who uses a chainsaw for a brush and huge logs for his canvas. Although he never went to art school and isn’t a “professional,” his pieces quickly convey a mind full of creativity and hands skilled at the manipulation of a saw.
The story behind the carvings is a long and interesting one. Growing up in Cumberland, Turner first saw the art form at the Fryeburg Fair around the time he was in fifth grade, when some local artists put on a demonstration. The next year, for a school project, he made a makeshift dug-out canoe out of a log.
“I had my dad run the chainsaw and carve it out, then went in behind him with the ax,” said Turner.
It was years before he picked up the art again. Turner left Maine at a young age, and traveled across the country. Eventually, he ended up in Florida, where married and raised a child.
While in Florida, he began working for a fencing company. A log that had fallen at a job location seemed inviting to Turner, and the owner of the property mentioned that they were thinking of getting it carved into something.
“I said, ‘I bet I could do that,’” said Turner. “I carved a bird out of it, with its wings folded. It was a little blocky, but it was all right for a first-timer.”
Later, Turner got another job working for a power company, trimming trees along their lines. He was so proficient at trimming trees that he could meet his quota in a few days, leaving him with plenty of free time, ample material, and a saw to work with. The work had been seasonal, and during a month break, he started carving in his free time.
“I never went back, because I started carving on the side of the road, and it gave me enough money to meet my needs,” said Turner. “I discovered that I had a talent for it, and people liked what I was doing.”
He had always planned on moving back to Maine, but his wife had been reluctant for a while. After they visited the state briefly, his wife agreed that living here wouldn’t be too terrible.
Turner moved back here a few years ago, and met up with John Good, who allowed Turner to use the land he owned, and even bought him insurance. Now Turner is there frequently, carving a vast array of images. Sometimes they are commissioned pieces, and sometimes he sees a log and an idea pops into his head.
The logs he uses are typically taken from the detritus left behind by the power company after it moves through an area cutting problem trees. Most of the time, the smaller logs are taken by locals for firewood, but the really large pine logs are typically left behind, as they are too cumbersome for most people to deal with. For Turner, they are a statue in the rough, albeit very heavy ones that must be heaved into his truck.
“Leverage is a key thing to have,” said Turner with a laugh.
The equipment he uses for the carving is almost entirely stock. His chainsaws have no special chains or attachments to make the carving finer; it is all done with the tools anyone could buy at the local hardware store. However, there is one modification. His smaller chainsaw has an added handle put on the blade end, to allow him finer control of the saw. Although some people see it as a safety hazard, Turner sees it as a safety boon, as it allows him to control the saw and prevent it from jumping off of the carvings toward him. The only risk is to his thumb, and a large guard prevents accidents.
Turner plans on sticking to carving as long as he is able to make a living off of it. His current projects include a rat that is eating a wedge of cheese, commissioned by someone who owns rats and wanted a statue of one. In addition to that, he’s carving a large mural out of a massive log, and has a few large logs that already form an image in his head.
“All of the work I do is mostly freehand,” said Turner. “With the rat, I drew it out a bit before hand, but once I started carving, I decided I didn’t like what I had drawn and just did it by eye.”
Turner is willing to carve anything the customer asks for, and is even willing to barter for it. Just recently, he traded a snowboarding bear for lift tickets.
If you’re interested in a carving yourself, or just want to watch him work, head up Route 201 until you see the carvings; they’re hard to miss. You could also call him at 449-9135, or visit his website, joshturnerchainsawarts.com.