From the archives: studio visit with chainsaw sculptor Joel Palmer

Joel Palmer is Swamp Bear, a sculptor who wields his chainsaw with the precision of a scalpel and the flair of a paintbrush. He is self-taught and continually honing his skills, mastering the challenge of using such a large tool at arm’s length to bring to life what he pictures in his mind. Joel is inspired by nature, carving mostly animals as well as imaginative creatures, doing as much of the sculpting as possible with the chainsaw. He works in his yard with the gas chainsaw then brings the pieces inside for the finer detail work with the electric chainsaw. The winter months are a challenge, particularly with the huge snowbanks we had this winter, but this guy just dresses for the weather and keeps on trucking.

I visited Joel at his home in Browns’ Flats, NB on a cold day in March. Just a little too cold for the little girls I brought with me… But we still had a lot of fun and got to bring home slices of logs to paint on. It was a very interactive visit and lots of fun. Definitely worth seeing these majestic sculptures in person! If you ever have the chance to see him carve live, go!

How did you get started with sculpting?

I’ve always been an artist and I guess I just started out because I was curious about the art form. As a kid I always played with whittling and playing around with wood. Once I tried it I was addicted. I never would have imagined myself becoming a chainsaw sculptor down the road, but it just happened! I am a full-time artist now since 2012. I started selling at the Fredericton Market, and since then have been expanding into as many venues as possible. Many organizations and associations like Ducks Unlimited will use my sculptures as auction items. I can do so many things with the chainsaw, not just wood sculpture. I’ve done snow and ice sculpture and architectural detailing. I really enjoy exploring it, whether it brings in much money or not.

Do you show anywhere? How do people find you?

I advertise, I’m on Facebook and I get a lot of interaction that way. Often I get people who are looking for a unique gift for a wedding, anniversary, Father’s Day gift. A chainsaw sculpture is something people can add to their collection that is unique and has that wow factor. I’ve definitely created a name for myself in the Atlantic provinces, I did a home show in PEI, I have people from all over who request stuff.

How do you decide what to do with a piece?

The bears and eagles are popular, but some of my favourite pieces are ones that I just make up on the spot. Sometimes the log has certain characteristics, and just tells me what to make. Sometimes I’ll pour my emotions into it, other times I have a specific subject that I want to work on and challenge myself to practice and continue learning. I always want to keep pushing myself to improve my control, flow and stylizing with the chainsaw.

Tell me about your workspace:

I start all my sculptures outside, in the parking lot because of the fumes. In the winter I get dressed up and work hard to keep warm. For the minor details I use the electric chainsaw inside. I have a pretty good set-up, and have lots of ideas to improve it. I’d like to put some cedar shingles on the outside to pretty it up a bit, beautify the property to make it more inviting for customers.

How do you find your wood?

I find all my own wood, mostly salvage what would otherwise be wasted. When people are having trees removed from their property, or if the hydro guys are clearing away from lines I’ll get the big pieces. There is a lot of wood out there that doesn’t get used, but instead gets wasted, buried, burned… I also work with local timber suppliers when necessary, to order bigger logs if I haven’t found any. As an artist I’m big on the trade system, so sometimes I’ll do a partial trade where I’ll give them a good deal on a sculpture in exchange for a piece of wood.

Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?

I hope to be recognized worldwide and competing in more international events. I want to expand my shop, to improve on my workspace and add a studio gallery. I hope to maintain my standing as one of the best chainsaw sculptors in Atlantic Canada.