CLATSKANIE - Artist Susan Miller struggled with three others to wedge a 250-pound carving of Lewis and Clark into its resting place along the highway in Clatskanie.
She was forced to take a chain saw to her creation so the canoe and explorers would fit into the nine-foot-tall representation of the Columbia River. As she cut away slices of the river and as sawdust and chips flew into her curly hair and blue plaid shirt, Miller's grin grew wider and wider.
"I used to be really tentative, but now I just dive right in," said the soft-spoken chain saw artist.
Miller, who lives in Mist, has been a teacher, emergency medical technician and horse trainer, but now makes her living carving art with a chain saw. Her artwork is featured in a just-released book on the history of carving that also celebrates contemporary artists.
The statue was sponsored by the Clatskanie Chamber of Commerce and local citizens to add Lewis and Clark art to the city's landscape.
It started as Miller carved the rough hewing of the explorers and canoe from a spruce log in a four-day chain saw competition in Reedsport in June. Later, she refined the image of the paddling pair down to their fingernails and the fringe of their jackets.
"You can get an awful lot of detail with a saw," she said. "I really tried to get the motion."
TorchedMiller smoothed Lewis and Clark's faces with sandpaper for breathtakingly lifelike contours and chiseled out their eyes. She used an oil finish on much of the piece and "torched it a bit" to achieve the look she wanted.
For the frame, she carved a beautiful piece of cedar she'd saved for just the right project. "It's probably as old as Lewis and Clark," she said. She detailed winding river currents and small evergreen trees on the frame, trying to follow the shape of the wood. The huge frame nearly overbalanced her truck as she drove it from her home in Mist.
Clark's right hand proved to be a big problem, and the measuring-tape brandishing Leo Plas finally took a hand with the chain saw. Plas, Miller's partner, is a carpenter, but she often brings him into doing the moving mechanics for her artwork.
When Clark was finally jammed into place, Miller brushed at the sawdust on and around the structure with her hands and blew furiously. She seized a hammer and chisel to knock the block of wood carved into a waterfall into place at the base. Lewis and Clark were screwed into the waterfall - she winced as Plas drilled through a particularly nice bit of wood - and paddles were screwed into their hands.
"Usually there's not much of a vandalism problem," she said. "I've had pretty good luck." Still, she wasn't taking any chances of having Lewis and Clark stolen.
Many other charactersHer other creations include a mural of Columbia River history at Hump's restaurant and a children's storybook pavilion at the nearby park. Wrapped around the columns of the pavilion are pictures of Beatrix Potter characters, Rapunzel (with a spooky little witch sneaking around the base,) Alice in Wonderland and Jack and the Beanstalk.
Miller has been a chain saw artist for more than 30 years and made it her full-time occupation for the last 14.
"I saw someone carving in the '60s and it just looked pretty fascinating," she said.
So she quizzed the artist for tips, bought tools and got started. It was a money-making operation she could conduct on her own time, a major consideration for a single mother financing her return to school. After she became a teacher at Jewell School, it was a summer occupation. She taught art, music and kindergarten there, and has been an emergency medical technician and horse trainer. She is also an artist in painting, ceramics, clay and jewelry.
"I keep coming back to chain saw carving," she said. "Every once in a while I say 'I'm going to quit,' but I never do."
Temporary visit?Miller makes the best of her circumstances. When the Alaska house she was living in was sold, she and her three children lived in a teepee in a friend's yard for the summer. When she moved to Mist temporarily, she fell in love with the place and has stayed for 26 years. She now lives there with Plas, her horses and Jekyll the burro. The artist spends hours every day in her outdoor workshop, a requirement for chain saw art because of the gas fumes.
Miller is featured in the just-published "Art of Chain saw Carving, An Insider's Look at 18 Artists Working Against the Grain." She is a member of the Cascade Chain saw Sculptor's Guild and has attended several international competitions.
"It's catching on all over," she said. "There are a lot of women carving, good carvers too." Women originally brought more imagination to the craft and a willingness to break away from the traditional bears and eagles, but men have followed their lead in the last five or six years.
"A person can pick up a saw and in a very short time learn how to make things," Miller said. "It opens the doors to a lot of people." But many people give up the art when they can't handle the blisters, dirt and heavy lifting, she said.
The thrill for her is in creating an immense variety of art, lifting the wood and the physical aspect of chain sawing, spending time with her chain saw-carving friends and making special projects that have meaning for her customers.
"The wood itself can be so beautiful and satisfying to work with," she said. "It's kind of an interaction between whatever I'm thinking and the wood." Carving is an exploratory process, and even with a chain saw it is slow. She thinks about politics and what she's been reading or concentrates on the power tools and the art itself.
"Most of my pieces tend to evolve when I'm working on them," she said. "As the wood dictates ... they have flaws or knots or big chunks of metal."
Miller finds many of her ideas from what she reads, especially poetry. "I tend to get kind of off-the-wall ideas," she said. There is a Big Bird in Westport and a hiking frog with binoculars to attest to that; she just finished a cowboy riding on a salmon with anchors for spurs and a fishing pole.
"He's kind of a demented-looking cowboy; he's almost falling off the salmon," she laughed. The cowboy came from a strange piece of wood at a competition and sudden inspiration.
"I have a different personality than most people I know," she said.