Townsend, Wis.—Celestial. Whimsical. Cosmic. These aren’t the words we reach for when describing rural Wisconsin roadsides. But in the case of Oconto County’s Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, roadside scenery is anything but typical.
Here off of Highway 32 in Townsend, settled in a grassy area between the Old Town Hall Restaurant and Powers Service Center, local artist Ben Christianson’s work is bringing these words and more to mind. He’s made his studio here, outdoors, creating chainsaw art that is quite literally “out of this world.”
Massive stumps become majestic eagles nestled in twisted branches. Realistic black bears sit ready to guard your front step. You’ll find floral bouquets, and life-like portraits. And occasionally, when the mood strikes him, Christianson’s work even takes on an otherworldly tone. Aliens unexpectedly take shape.
He didn’t have chainsaws in mind when he studied painting in art school.
“For a long time I was a painter. I did paintings for galleries,” he explains.
Paintings, sculptures, and even digital creations amass an impressive portfolio of “otherworldly” works. His talent graces the sides of many area buildings, including one restaurant mural depicting a cheeseburger being sacrificed to the heavens.
He admits, “It’s hard to live with some of those murals after they’ve been there a while.”
Christianson still paints. But for the last three years or more, an old beater pickup and a few chainsaws have become his brushes. And some of his larger works are garnering thousands of dollars each.
As his skills developed, wood was a medium that came naturally to Christianson. He comes from a long line of lumbermen. His father, grandfather, and many of his great uncles once roamed the woods of Oconto County, where like much of northern Wisconsin, logging roots run deep. He finds it fitting that he too now makes his living almost exclusively with wood.
His raw materials are discarded from local sawmills, too knotty and imperfect for lumber, but just right for making art. Some are too massive to move himself. They need to be completely dry to carve, and often the weather is less than cooperative.
“I have problems not being able to make stuff fast enough sometimes,” he says. “I’ve got a shed inside with a battery saw, and sometimes I’ll work indoors with that.”
How does he decide what each piece of wood will be? Does he see visions in each knotty stump?
“Sometimes I’ll draw lines and plan it out, in clay, map out the dimensions and proportions. Other times I’ll just wing it.”
Like many artists, Christianson struggles with the balance between creating the art he loves and creating pieces that customers will buy.
He admits that there isn’t much about eagles or bears that speak to him as an artist, necessarily.
“If it was up to me I’d have a bunch of aliens and stuff, but if I take it too far that’s a problem.”
In his experience, people just aren’t willing to pay as much for aliens. Who knew?
“I still have to make a living.”
He’s also done custom pieces on commission, some of which are on display at local businesses. Memorial portraits painted to look like a wood burnings are also something he enjoys.
“Doing orders for people is super tricky as an artist,” he adds.
“I could get like ten orders a day in the summer, and they’re very specific. There are so many times I have in my head something that’s way different than the customer. [He or she] might say ‘I didn’t know the bear was going to have an angry face.’ It’s hard when I have to spend an extra day or two on something.”
In keeping with the state’s logging heritage, Christianson explains that Wisconsin has become something of a breeding ground for chainsaw carving enthusiasts.
“There are some world champion sculptors in Wisconsin. We’re pretty well known in the chainsaw carving culture,” he says.
Christianson hopes to get more involved in competitions, but he’s working on getting some better equipment first.
“You can make better money and get to travel. But it’s not something you get rich doing.”
Until then, he’s bringing a little bit of the heavens to Townsend, and there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.
Chainsaw in hand, noise-cancelling headphones cupping his ears, an unknown song inspires his cosmic work. He’s reluctant to tell anyone what he’s listening to. We can only imagine.
“It’s natural for me, working with wood and power tools. I feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. It just feels right.”