Bob and Cindy King remember the day he announced he was now a professional chainsaw artist.
Cindy nearly killed him.
“I’d lost my job at Boeing and spent two years teaching myself how to carve with a chainsaw,” Bob said. “When I told Cindy it was what I was going to do, there was an awkward silence.
“Then she said, ‘Are you out of your mind? We have three kids to raise!’ ”
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That was 15 years ago, and Cindy can call it up like it was yesterday.
“I remember thinking, No job? No 401k? No insurance? You’ve got to make a lot of money to make up for what we’re losing,” Cindy said.
She accepted, eventually, that it was what her husband felt he had to do.
“Bob is a determined person,” she said. “He would clean stalls at horse farms between carving jobs. He was willing to do whatever it took to be able to do what he wanted to do. He followed his heart.”
The tale of a man driven by his art might be filled with sacrifice, but most people still don’t consider what King or his fellow chainsaw woodcarvers do as art.
Making small black bears standing on tree stumps?
“Everybody has a gift,” Bob said from his Edgewood home. “Mine is sculpture with this loud, obnoxious tool.”
He’s carved life-size soccer players for an All-Star game in Portland, and after 9/11 he carved Christ standing behind the Statue of Liberty.
He has created giant rays and armadillos — upon request — and says his favorite pieces are Norman Rockwell-type stories.
“Our son’s rat died,” Cindy said, “but Bob didn’t want to carve a rat. So he carved a little boy praying over a homemade cross, and above him was an angel playing with a rat terrier puppy in heaven.”
“I loved that piece — and Bob sold it! He used to sell everything, because he didn’t believe I’d want a lot of his stuff around.”
Trying to get name-recognition, Bob entered competitions throughout the United States, Canada and Europe.
In 2010, he and Cindy were in Germany when the Carvers Walk of Fame honored him for winning more woodcarving contests than anyone in the world.
Bob was stunned. His garage shop was full of trophies he’d stuffed onto shelves, ribbons he’d thrown on a nail in the wall.
Cindy put an end to all that.
“She created my ‘I-love-me’ room,” Bob said. “Our rec room became a shrine.”
It bothers Bob and his fellow woodcarvers that the general populace thinks what they do is folk art. To him, it’s richer, more complex than that.
It might surprise some, but Bob is an environmentalist.
“I buy the wood I use from a company on the Tacoma Tideflats,” he said. “We recycle wood, logs, tree stumps destined to be ground down, or slash pile not suitable for the market.”
Once he trucks it home, he cuts the wood to a size he wants and studies it.
“I can visualize in three dimensions,” Bob said, “and though I don’t see it, I can visualize the backside, what has to happen back there, before I make a cut. I have to fit my idea into that cylinder — carving in the round.”
Once he begins carving, he’s usually working from a sketch, but often simply follows the image he’s created in his mind.
“If I’ve seen an animal, I can usually carve it,” he said. “I’ve looked at books — taxidermy textbooks are good — that show the muscles below the skin. I can’t draw, but I can sketch out an idea. I’d never show anyone my sketches, though.”
An artist now making six figures a year, those three children grown, Bob is available for more competitions. And more commissions. He bid for and was awarded the project that created “Big Washington” for the Washington State Fair this year.
It’s a nine-foot-tall Sasquatch, and it will be a staple of fairs to come.
Much of the art he creates now is larger than life, from angels to Viking warriors to wildlife scenes. Asked what’s the most popular commission request, he laughed.
“Something someone can pick up with both hands, put under their left arm while they pay you with their right hand,” he said. “ A small bear, a bear head poking out of a stump. I’ve made lots of stuff like that.
“If I’m going to carve a bear, I’d love to capture the anatomy of the bear, make it realistic — but the bear holding a ‘welcome’ sign will outsell it eight to one.
“What’s cool is I have work all over the world — Austria, Italy, New Zealand and a lot of states. People will see it and send me a photo of themselves with an arm around whatever piece it is.
“I love that.”