"It's a little bit of an odd story," said Isaac Bingham.
That's a little bit of an understatement.
Because the tale that finds Bingham revving up a chain saw to carve giant squirrels and fish at the Kentucky Horse Park begins in Vermont, winds through Dartmouth and Berea colleges, and takes a detour to study boat building by indigenous peoples in Asia and South America.
"I never imagined I would do anything like this," said Bingham, "this" being, among other things, carving a Canada goose the size of an RV out of a tree trunk for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
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Carved animal figures have long been used as jumps or beside jumps at equestrian cross-country events, but it wasn't until January that Bingham tried his hand at the unusual artistic endeavor.
The 32-year-old has a habit of diverting from a path to try new things.
After growing up in Vermont, he went to Dartmouth College to study engineering. A few years of studying left him restless, and he was off to travel the globe, including spending time in Morocco. Because he wanted to get into the arts, he came to Kentucky and Berea College, graduating in 2005. He was then awarded a $25,000 Thomas F. Watson Fellowship to study native boat builders in places like Bolivia, Peru, Vietnam and Malaysia. Boat-building skills in those countries have evolved over thousands of years.
"I'm always up for a new adventure," he said.
Bingham had been making jumps at the Horse Park for about three years when Nick Costello, who oversees their building, realized he needed some new duck heads for this year's Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. His previous carver had moved to Australia, so Costello gave Bingham and two other workers a chance to see what they could do.
Bingham had never created art with a chain saw, but he had created art and he had used a chain saw. So he figured he probably could do it.
It turns out he could.
"Isaac is just wonderful. It was quite a surprise" said Costello, who's been working at the Horse Park for more than 20 years. "He's the best ever."
The cross-country course was created by world-renowned designer Mike Etherington-Smith, who is based in London, England. He maps the route that horse and rider will take and what sort of critters should inhabit various jumps.
Etherington-Smith dictates the height, width and depth of the sculptures and the types of animals, say "fish" or "frog," and then Bingham takes over.
It all starts with the right piece of wood. Costello said local tree services sometimes provide logs, but he also buys tree trunks or uses wood from trees at the Horse Park that need to come down.
Somehow Bingham can see the animal within the log. A burr oak could be a rainbow trout that is seemingly in motion or an orange and brown northern leopard frog that is both native to Kentucky and brightly colored so as not to blend into the grass and cause the horses to hesitate before they jump. (Bingham also paints the animals.)
"You free the animals from it," he said.
He sometimes uses the traditional sculpture skills he honed at Berea to make clay models for the wood works. But, he said, all the carving on the animals is done with chain saws of various sizes.
"I am never interested in doing that same thing that everyone else is doing," he said.
Bingham, whose father was a carpenter, said he grew up with sort of a blue-collar work ethic. "Being an artist," he said, "was never something I could wrap my mind around."
He's still a little amazed by his newfound skill and understands what a rare opportunity he has. It's not every emerging chain-saw artist who has access to the tools, including heavy equipment to lift and move the logs, needed to turn a tree trunk into a trout. But he think's he's found his niche, for now.
"Maybe I really am what I can call an artist," he said.
That, too, is a little bit of an understatement.