Artist Deftly Wields His Brush: A Chainsaw

Ray Murphy claims to be have invented chainsaw art back in 1953 when, as an 11-year-old, he inscribed four-letter words on the woodpile behind his dad's shed. Since then, Ray has sawed 50,000 sculptures. But even more notable are his mind-boggling chainsaw feats. He has sawed the numbers one through 10 in a toothpick, and the entire alphabet in a No. 2 pencil.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

Okay. Here is a story with a lot of buzz.

Ray Murphy is considered one of the founders of something known as chainsaw art. But he's mostly known for his amazing feats with a chainsaw, some of which are recognized at Ripley's Believe It or Not museums nationwide. This summer, Ray is performing some of these tricks in a nightly stage show on his property in Hancock, Maine.

Josh Gleason reports.

JOSH GLEASON: Ray Murphy says he made the first ever chainsaw art when at the age of 11 he carved four-letter words into logs. Only he doesn't call it carving. In fact, whatever you do, don't refer to anything he does as carving.

Mr. RAY MURPHY (Chainsaw Artist): I do know carving it all. Period. I just absolutely refuse to pick up and be a wood carver. Doing real chainsaw art is done with a chainsaw. And these people that are out there now - there's a whole bunch of them - they have every power tool in the book. And there's a place for them, and they should be calling themselves power tool carvers.

GLEASON: Most of Ray's art is your typical chainsaw fare - bears, eagles, that sort of thing. By his count, he's made over 52,300 sculptures. And he prides himself on being the fastest sawyer around.

Mr. MURPHY: Basically, you get a log up there and you look at it and start running through your mind what you might want to make. I can make two or three things out of that. I'll think about that for about two minutes and then I'll go for it.

(Soundbite of chainsaw)

Mr. MURPHY: As far as artwork goes, you know, doing the sculptures, well, to me that is a very simple process. I'm so far beyond that mentally.

GLEASON: What Ray really likes is a challenge. And for decades now, he's put his saw-wielding ability to the test by doing things that seem physically impossible.

It all started years ago when he was in Colorado, renting a cabin from the local livestock breeder.

Mr. MURPHY: And I'm out there working away, and one evening his daughter and him come out and they - I've wrote her name on a pencil and gave it to her. That was one of my things. I always (unintelligible) and he says you're so good at that. He says you should write the alphabet on it. Click. About one o'clock the next morning, yup, there she is.

GLEASON: A few years later Ray's alphabet pencil is featured in a Ripley's Believe It or Not cartoon. And overnight he became a kind of celebrity. Ray went on to achieve other chainsaw feats, like sawing a chair in 10 seconds and sawing 10 numbers on a toothpick.

Mr. MURPHY: It takes mentally a big strain to be able to put a lot of these things together and it takes that years and years and years of practice.

GLEASON: Ray is on his 60s now and his eyesight is starting to go. So last year he decided to start showcasing some of his talents before he loses them altogether.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man: Here's value entertainment like you've never seen before. The World's Number One Chainsaw Sawyer Art Stage Show in Hancock.

GLEASON: That's the ad Ray's been running on local TV stations. He says he's already invested a quarter of a million dollar since the show. He's built a 4,800 square foot theater which seats 400. He's built a soundproof booth to shield the audience from the rattle of his saw. And he's installed a video monitor to project magnified images of his tiny - uh - sawings. But other aspects of the show are more low-tech. The MC, for instance, is his grandson Cody.

CODY: Now ultimately the hardest thing to do with a chainsaw is to saw 10 numbers on a toothpick. Ray has practiced this for 10 years and still has trouble with it.

(Soundbite of show)

GLEASON: The show lasts 90 minutes and Ray stays cooped up in his booth pretty much the entire time, sawing diligently, rarely making eye contact with the audience. So far, attendance has been slight, but Ray is hopeful. He figures he just needs time for word to get out to Maine's summer tourists.

For NPR News, I'm Josh Gleason.

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