Organizers hope chainsaw carving event will put Libby on world map

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The sawyer-artist overseeing September’s chainsaw carving contest in Libby believes the event will put the city on the world map of such competitions.

“If everything bears fruit, in three years this will be international destination for chainsaw carvers,” said Steve Backus of Big Shot Wood Carving in Clinton, Washington.

Backus was tapped by Kootenai Country Montana to organize the event, billed as a championship, which takes place Sept. 15 through Sept. 17 at the north end Mineral Avenue. Admission is free, and spectators will be able to watch competitors work on their more time-consuming competition sculptures as well as so-called “quick-carve” items hewn from smaller pieces of wood.

Though official judges will determine the event champion, spectators can vote for the winner of a “people’s choice” award.

A seasoned organizer of chainsaw carving competitions and a second-generation chainsaw carver since he was a teen in the 1970s, Backus treats Libby’s inaugural contest — Montana’s first officially sanctioned chainsaw contest, he said — as an “opportunity to put on a world-class event.”

Through connections he’s made over the years, Backus helped convince 15 fellow chainsaw artists to come to Libby to compete. Most are from the United States, though a father-son team is coming from the United Kingdom and one competitor from Japan.

Three competitors hail from Montana, including Libby’s own Ron Adamson, who met Backus in 1996 at a chainsaw carving event in Westport, Washington. Holding a chainsaw carving contest in Libby was Adamson’s idea and he was originally slated to be its organizer until he and Kootenai Country Montana had a disagreement. Adamson still figures prominently on event posters.

Backus said a chainsaw carving contest judge doesn’t have to be a chainsaw carver. An art background helps, he said, and it’s good to have a mix of backgrounds among the judges.

Adamson said judges focus more on outcomes than technique, looking at a piece’s degree of difficulty, anatomy and proportion, and what he calls the “wow factor.”

One of the crucial aspects of pulling off a successful chainsaw carving contest is treating the carvers “like the rock stars they are,” Backus said.

Carvers, he said, appreciate good wood, good judging, good prize money — more than $10,000 is at stake in Libby’s event — and, above all, good food and friends to share it with.

“The food and camaraderie and sense of welcome and appreciation is 90 percent of what it is for carvers,” Backus said, citing their strong sense of family.

Dining together is “a bonding thing, it’s a family reunion,” Backus said. “We all speak the same language when we’re eating.”

Backus said chainsaw carving’s roots are in the 1950s in the Pacific Northwest. One of his uncles began carving tikis with a chainsaw in 1957, and taught Backus’ mother how in the late 1960s.

“(My) family worked and carved together in early 1970s,” said Backus, who started carving when he was in his mid- to late-teens.

He describes his uncle, Mike McVay of Langley, Washington, as “probably one of first documented (chainsaw) carvers” and said he carved Oregon’s history across 50-feet of panels at the 1964 New York World Fair.

The chainsaw-carving family was invited to be the entertainment at the 1976 Puyallup Fair. It was at that fair five years later that McVay helped establish the first world championship for chainsaw carving, Backus said.

His family became well-known in chainsaw carving circles, and Backus and his uncle Pat McVay helped found the Cascade Chainsaw Sculptors Guild in 1987. Backus — currently the group’s president for the sixth time — said the guild was formed in part to encourage better judging and to allow carvers to keep control of their carvings after an event rather than surrender them to organizers.

In those pre-internet days, the guild’s newsletter was an important networking document that helped spread the popularity of chainsaw art, Backus said.

Though the chainsaw is “a brutal tool” and traditional wood carvers “viewed us as barbarians” in the early days, Backus said chainsaw carving has evolved into “an art form that cuts across all the social strata” and chainsaw art “is the only art that America exported.”

“We invented it,” he said. “I think it had a lot to do with the rugged individualism of those first loggers.”

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