As a historically dry winter begins to pass it is hard to believe tree mortality’s end is in sight. At the end of 2017 the total number of trees dead due to drought and bark beetle infestation was at a historic 129 million and the Sierra National Forest was home to the most damaged acres with 32 million dead trees recorded.
In the midst of this devastating catastrophe there are two Mountain Area people hoping to inspire some light - property owner Michael Alonzo and chainsaw sculptor, William Thomas. The pair has teamed to turn Alonzo’s property into something inspiring and whimsical.
One of Alonzo’s properties is in Mariposa and like many other Mountain Area properties is beautiful but sadly hit by the ongoing siege of bark beetles and drought.
After taking down 100 trees Alonzo decided to do something unique to combat his feeling of loss. Breathing life into death Alonzo set out to hire a chainsaw carver that shared his concern and vision.
“I wanted to create something out of my heart break and I went searching for an artist that was doing something original, Thomas was the only one,” Alonzo said.
Thomas, 58, is a former Marine with an art degree from Kansas Art Institute. His medium is sculpture but with a chainsaw and dead trees. He is sickened by the area’s tree mortality but feels relief by working with families to turn their stumps into something immortal.
“Even though the tree is dead the wood is still good and it is exciting to work with families to personalize the design so it actually becomes apart of the family - I do what I do because I want people young and old to see a tree as more than just wood I want them to see it as art, God’s art.”
Thomas’ works dot the Sierras from Shaver Lake to Susanville and can be seen through out the Mountian Area in Mariposa, Bass Lake and North Fork.
His sculptural techniques are as old as civilization - he just has a modern mountain twist to them. Carving with his chainsaw in a subtractive sculptural process (where material is systematically eliminated from the outside in) there is little room for error, or a whole lot of room to be malleable depending on the temperament of the carver.
According to Thomas there are many variables at play before the sculpture starts and obvious ones like terrain, weather and height are only the beginning. Once the bark is removed there may be rot in small or large spots ultimately altering the design. Once at work, a tree may be hollow at its core, again altering design. And oddly, most trees contain pieces of metal, nails and barbed wire are the most common culprits, making it dangerous for the carver and his saw.
13 years ago while he was building a house, Thomas got on the roof and two yards away, at eyes view, for the first time he saw a man carving.
“ I saw him doing it and I just had to try it, Thomas said. “I bought a saw and have been doing it ever since.”
Thomas has been honing his craft over the years and it shows when he fearlessly attacks a stump with his mighty chainsaw and little hesitation - unless it is the first cut.
“The first cut… you do that one wrong and everything goes wrong, you get nervous, I get butterflies every time I do it, especially if it’s a one of a kind tree or next to the house, you can’t mess it up because it’s right there.”
He cut his teeth at Yosemite Sign Shop in 2007 on Highway 41 and remained there for two years. After his residency he began moving up and down the Sierra leaving his mark. Returning to Oakhurst he hopes to share his talents with more people. Thomas is not only for hire, he is also willing to teach.
“If I am working for someone who has an interest in learning I tell them to grab a chainsaw and carve next to me.”
Alonzo’s Mariposa property is now home to six pieces of Thomas’ work, making something horrible into something joyful and playful. Alonzo plans on hiring Thomas sculpting six more stumps at his Oakhurst home.
As Alonzo drives around Oakhurst and notices stumps in public view he thinks to himself, “what if Thomas carved that, this town would have something special to share with everyone.”
Details: William Thomas, (530) 816-2195.