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Published April 12, 2009, 10:52 PM

Unbearably beautiful

Tree sculpture of grizzly turns heads in Grafton
The commotion began last Tuesday, when Walter Keller, a chainsaw carver from rural Elma, Man., set up some scaffolding and started transforming the trunk of a century-old elm tree into a work of art.

By: Kevin Bonham, Grand Forks Herald

GRAFTON, N.D. — McHugh Avenue is becoming the new Main Street in Grafton, with slow-moving vehicles causing temporary traffic jams throughout the daylight hours.

Drivers parade past the home of John Tweten and Cathy Sando to get a closer look at a giant 11½-foot tall chainsaw sculpture of a grizzly bear holding her catch — a large salmon that appears about to become a meal.

“You can see they’re just in awe,” Sando said of the local tourists. “I can’t quit staring at it either.

“It’s like an addition to the family.”

The commotion began last Tuesday, when Walter Keller, a chainsaw carver from rural Elma, Man., set up some scaffolding and started transforming the trunk of a century-old elm tree into a work of art.

The evening before, he sat down with Tweten and Sando to get their ideas and to sketch out the sculpture in a small notebook.

He carved the tree in sections, starting from the top, using a variety of chainsaws and hand tools to create an intricate pattern.

“I have found a freehand kind of sculpting,” he said, “releasing the spirit of the wood into the visible world.”

40 hours
It took about 40 hours over four-plus days, from concept to completion.

“It was a little bit of a challenge at times,” Keller said.

Someone asked him what he would do if he cut too far, perhaps cutting too much where an ear of the bear should be.

“Then we’d have a bear with a floppy ear,” he said.

There were no such miscues on this project.

The fate of the tree had been in limbo for a couple of years, since the city of Grafton rebuilt McHugh Avenue. City officials said the tree should be removed to make way for a new sidewalk.

Tweten persuaded city leaders to spare the tree by putting a small curve in the sidewalk. Everything seemed fine, Sando said, until last year, when they learned the mammoth tree had contracted Dutch elm disease.

Rather than lose the majestic tree, Tweten and Sando decided to search for a chainsaw artist. Tweten, who often hunts and fishes in Canada, found Keller through a fellow outdoorsman in Canada.

Keller, who is 63, was born and raised in Switzerland. In 1967, he immigrated to Canada, where spent 30 years as a logger, forester, firefighter and log builder, working in both North America and Europe.

He lives in a log home in the woods about an hour east of Winnipeg, with his life partner, Alexa Hoerster, a carver who specializes in relief, or three-dimensional, wood carvings. He has a Web site: www.thetimberman.

net-profiles.com.

Tallest bear

He started chainsaw carving about 12 years ago, after watching a chainsaw carving video produced by Jerry Faber, a renowned carver from Minnesota.

“Carving with chainsaws and hand tools, I always strive to incorporate the natural features of the trunks, stumps, logs or driftwood into the emerging carving or sculpture,” he said. “You can only do what the wood will give.”

Travelers along the shores of Lake of the Woods in Manitoba and Ontario are likely to see his work outside of private homes, resorts and other businesses.

The 11½-foot tall grizzly is the tallest bear he has sculpted. And it’s one of just a couple of his works done in the United States.

Sando said the week with Keller was a special treat. Evening meals turned out to be two to three hours of food and conversation, with their new friend sharing fascinating stories about his life and career, not only in Canada but in Europe.

Keller said he never imagined his short stay in Grafton could have been so rewarding.

“John and Cathy aren’t my clients, they’re my hosts,” he said. “I’ve never witnessed such an outpouring of support and hospitality. The town has really come out for this.”

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to kbonham@gfherald.com.

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