From tacky to trendy
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Clay Cunningham remembers a time when the city of South Lake Tahoe asked businesses to remove wooden bear carvings from outdoor areas because they were “detracting from the ambiance.”
And then the city replaced them with the Bears on Parade, a colorful display of fiberglass bears Cunningham said were “pretty tacky.” So Cunningham teamed up with a number of local citizens and got 5,000 signatures – many from tourists – in support of wooden bears.
“It’s what the people like,” Cunningham said. “Everybody in Tahoe seems to think it just draws people near.”
The chain saw-carved wooden bears are featured as decorations around the lake and sold at numerous gift shops. Cunningham works at Alpaca Advantage, a store in South Lake Tahoe offering chain saw-carved bears from six different carving artists. The store buys 100 to 150 bears at a time to sell to customers, Cunningham said.
“People like bears and it’s art, man – goes with the rustic cabin decor,” he said.
Each different carver shows a unique style, Cunningham said, with different shapes and sizes of bears coming from the various artists. The artists whose work is sold at Alpaca Advantage come from New Mexico, Northern and Southern California and the Tahoe area. The resulting bears vary in size from one foot to five feet and are made from different kinds of wood, Cunningham said.
“In our store, we try to have diversity,” he said.
One of those artists is Jon King of South Lake Tahoe. King uses a chain saw to carve between 200 and 500 bears every year, selling them to stores and to individuals. He learned his technique several years ago and has perfected it since. He said he enjoys the excitement of carving bears and other animals. Later this year, King will be carving the wooden pole outside the Park Tahoe Inn on Highway 50 in South Lake Tahoe.
“I love it. I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” King said.
In Kings Beach, the Robin’s Nest also sells chain saw-carved bears. Owner Carolyn Nixon said the challenge of creating art with a rough tool like a chain saw makes the bear carvings such a special treasure.
“This just seems like such an art, to take a big chain saw and make something,” she said. “I just wish we had more people around who did it.”
The wilderness around the lake and the presence of numerous bears in Tahoe add to the popularity of the creations, Nixon said.
“We love our bears around here,” she said. “They just fascinate me.”
“You know, people come up here to see the bears around the lake,” he said. “It’s got the wilderness appeal to it.”
For the artists, the chain saw turns into an extension of themselves, Cunningham said. He said the artists move quickly and aggressively while shaping the sculptures with the saw.
“The chain saw, it’s like a lightsaber. It’s like an extension of themselves,” Cunningham said.
Ron Ramsey of Carved by Ramsey has done carvings of many types since 1973. He began working on chain saw-carved bears in 1995 when he saw some in a studio in Kings Beach. He completes 10 to 12 custom chain saw-carved bears each year out of his studio in Grass Valley.
“I think they really fit well with the mountain atmosphere,” Ramsey said. “People view them almost as a mascot for the Tahoe area.”
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