He is a crafty artist who uses a gas-powered paintbrush and tree trunks as his canvas. We recently caught up with Eric Widitz, a Chicago-area entrepreneur who has been using chainsaws to make wood sculptures for nearly 40 years.
Marc Vitali: He can turn an old tree stump — into a bird of prey.
Or a wildcat.
Eric Widitz, Art in Trees: Pretty much a sharp chainsaw will cut any kind of wood, so every wood has its own beauty, its own advantages, some hold better details, some require more sanding and so forth.
The goal is to remove wood to create whatever subject I’m going after. A chainsaw is just a great tool to remove wood quickly, and with a steady hand you can actually do quite a bit of detail with it as well.
I’m always making adjustments because it’s easy to make an overcut, and that’s actually what’s so hard about it is to hold the chainsaw real steady and to not take off too much.
Vitali: Since the early 1980s, Widitz has carved up a forest full of wooden wildlife and all sorts of things.
Widitz: I’ve done thousands of sculptures.
I’ve done so many different subjects over the years. Done lots of totem poles and done a few Bigfoot. Primarily seems to be squirrels, owls, raccoons.
Vitali: Some works display a rustic artistry — others are more fun than a Bears winning streak.
Family pets are a popular subject. Or a customer might want a character from the Star Wars universe.
Most are made in front yards and backyards.
Widitz: Primarily it seems to be standing trees in people’s yards, trees that got broken off by windstorm or disease.
Typically I ask for people to send me a picture of their tree and give me a trunk measurement, and then I can superimpose a sketch over the top of it, you know, digitally. Proportion-wise I’ll make whatever theme that the people are interested in. I can put that into the log.
Vitali: We visited Widitz at the Red Tail Golf Course in Fox River Grove. It was the last day of his “outdoor” season and the chainsaws didn’t seem to bother the golfers – too much.
Widitz: It’s probably 90-95% chainsaw most of my work, and then I refine it with whatever the customer wants. More detail costs more, takes more time so.
Vitali: His creations can take as little as an hour to make — or as long as weeks.
They typically survive the elements for a dozen years, sometimes much longer.
Prices range from a few hundred dollars into the thousands. And they usually come with finishing touches.
Widitz: Most of the time I do a little burning, and that burns off some of the fuzzy stuff, brings out the woodgrain, highlights the texture, dries the wood a little bit.
And then on the outdoor sculptures I put a siding and deck preservative.
I studied horticulture in college and I didn’t actually finish because I really didn’t need to. I was managing a tree nursery in Lake Zurich and I was actually training people that were college graduates, so the college of hard knocks taught me. And then I went off on my own and have basically been pretty much self-employed since 1979.
I always have a backlog.
I never really had a problem staying busy, so there seems to always be a demand for good quality sculptures and trees keep dying.
As you could tell, our visit took place on one of the last warm days of the season. During winter months Eric Widitz focuses on indoor sculpture and woodwork.
Follow Marc Vitali on Twitter: @MarcVitaliArts