As any school kid knows, if you chop a tree down, you can determine its age by counting the circles.
Aldo Leopold described it neatly in “The Sand County Almanac,” when he wrote of the saw cutting into an old oak, “Stroke by stroke, decade by decade, into the chronology of a lifetime, written in concentric annual rings of good oak,” and he described key things that happened in each of those years.
Dendrochronology, they call it.
I don’t know what they call it when Dave Bartels is involved.
Bartels is a chainsaw artist from the Shawano area, and when he’s doing his thing, he’s cutting deep into the past in one place, leaving a bunch of the present in another and then back again into the distant past with a swirling barber pole of erratic time travel that ends up looking like a fish or a bear when he’s all done, or a fisherman in a sou’wester standing in front of a lighthouse.
Dendrochaos, I’d say.
First off, let me say that, to me, the words “chainsaw” and “artist” go together like the words “melody” and “nuclear waste.” I don’t know how someone can take such a roaring piece of handheld mayhem and violence that is a chainsaw and apply it to a stump or a log or a whole tree and end up with anything other than severed body parts strewn along the forest floor. Sure, you or I could probably carve some decent-looking firewood, but Bartels manages to produce living, breathing figures, fish, fowl, flora and fauna.
He ends up with high art. And by “high,” I mean sometimes as much as 22-feet high, like the hard maple tree near the Shawano airport that he carved into a pole depicting a string of animals, including an eagle, a jumping fish, a fox and a bear reaching into a beehive.
He’s been at it for 17 years. He carves stumps and logs and even blocks of ice, but he’s made about 200 trees into decorative poles around the state.
“Some carvers won’t do poles, because they’ve got to use scaffold or ladders,” Bartels says.
His last tall one was just a week ago, at the Department of Natural Resources office in Howard, at 2984 Shawano Ave. A big white spruce was blocking the solar collector that lights up the office’s parking lot. The DNR topped the tree, but rather than removing the whole tree, they called Bartels, who instead removed everything that wasn’t a turtle, eagle, fish and a bunch of other things.
Twenty-one things, actually. He carved 16 animals, two plants and some DNR-type logos. It took him about 10 hours, but he took a break to whip out a giant Jeremiah the Bullfrog for the local Bullfrogs baseball franchise.
When it comes to making money, Bartels is no chiseler. He did the bullfrog in exchange for tickets, and he did the DNR pole for free. Did I remember to mention his wife, Jean Romback Bartels, is the DNR’s regional director?
Mostly, it seems, Bartels does live shows. Chainsaw sculpture as performance art. He does around 700 shows per year. People watch him chop and cut and slash and saw and then, when he’s done, they buy it, or it gets auctioned off. He’s got shows like that coming up at the end of the month, with the Calumet County Fair on Aug. 30 and the Manawa Bear Lake Corn Roast the next day.
You could go to one of those to see his stuff, or visit the Bullfrogs stadium or the DNR office. Otherwise, check out Bartels Chainsaw Carvings on Facebook.