Busby finds livelihood, joy in chainsaw art

By Robin Intemann

Art, fire mitigation and nature collide in the best way possible when Johnny Busby shows up with a chainsaw or two.

Whether it’s a few feet off the ground or one that extends much higher, tree stumps are Busby’s primary artistic medium. “I can carve into anything,” he said, “but most often it’s trees.”

Fire mitigation has led many homeowners to remove trees situated too close to a structure. This was the case for Kathy Thatcher and her husband in Cascade. “We had two big old pine trees right outside our kitchen window. We hated to cut them down, but needed to for fire mitigation,” she said.

The Thatchers have lived in their house since 1985 and the trees had gotten to be “gigantic” she explained. They had seen the work he did for a neighbor and decided to consult with Busby about their own yard. He provided an estimate, ideas and set a date to begin the work.

Thatcher said it took Busby four days to craft the two 8-foot pieces: one a realistic-looking bear, the other with a wolf face peeking out of a cave on one side and an owl on the side. “They’re very cool,” she said. “They’re about 10-feet away from the house. We have two windows we can see them really well out of.”

Busby hasn’t always been a sculptor, but his ability to create realistic or whimsical pieces from a tree stump grew from several things: an interest in chainsaw carving, his deep sense of faith and unemployment. He is now in demand fulfilling commissions from individuals, businesses and community organizations. He also participates in competitions and offers demonstrations.

“I always had a knack for art,” he said. He used to draw and make posters but never knew how to make money with it. After moving to Woodland Park in 2005 from Texas, Busby said he saw someone doing chainsaw carving. “I used to go over to his house and just watch,” he said. “I started playing around with it for a while and began making little bears. That paid some bills, so I kept making ‘em. It was a progression for me. I was able to make my hobby my job.”

Although he has begun exploring other mediums, he said most of what he works with is pine and some cottonwood.  He said it’s important to “go with the flow of the tree” since each variety has its own unique features.

“Usually people request some kind of Colorado wildlife. Nine times out of ten it’ll be bears, eagles, owls or wolves,” he added. He has carved a dragon and a large ape, though, upon request, as well as school mascots. One of his favorite pieces is a clarinet-playing bear made for retired band teachers in Woodland Park. He described it as fun and different from his other work.

“I always give people ideas and having artistic liberty helps me a lot, but a lot of people will also have something specific in mind” he said. “Everything has to fit inside the tree. The process is only about taking away, not adding to. I like to make it all one piece so it is more solid, durable.”

The carvings are sealed with Spar polyurethane, a marine quality product, to help ensure the life of the sculptures. Regular maintenance is necessary since wood expands and can split. Busby said he is able to do some repair work if needed. “This is something to enjoy for years to come,” he said, “so it does need to be cared for. The tree was beautiful on its own, so instead of just cutting it all down, this is a way to turn it into something beautiful again.

“I’m a religious guy. I believe God moved me to use what I have in my hands,” he said. “I hope what I do inspires others to do whatever they have in their hands.”

Costs and time depends on several factors, such as location and weather. Busby works with three different size chain saws and a dremel.

Thatcher said, “He offers free estimates, is personable and there were no surprises. This is an extremely efficient way to keep something from an old tree. It’s a reasonably-priced cool idea. Ours are just beautiful and he told us how to preserve them. It’s a way to extend the life of the tree in a different form.”

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