Chain-saw sculptor sees the art beneath the bark

Motorists zipping along N.C. 150 often tap the brakes when they see the guy with a chain saw outside the former Terrell Country Store.

Roger Sharpe is usually carving another of his intricate bears, eagles, wood spirits, turtles, fish, frogs and other creations. Not with a chisel, but with one of his trusty chain saws.

Sharpe has taken chain saws to tree trunks and branches outside the historic 19th-century building since Amantha Gilreath invited him to ply his trade there in May 2009.

Gilreath operates Memories of Marie at the Old Terrell Store. She knew Sharpe's artwork - and chain saws - might get more motorists to turn around and stop at both their businesses.

Memories of Marie is inside the old store, while Sharpe saws in the backyard within a rusted 6-foot fence. He displays his carvings in a wood building attached to the old store. His pieces range from $30 or $40 to $850 and up for larger custom works.

Sharpe, 44, is from rural Olin in north Iredell, where he grew up on a farm that his dad, now 75, once managed.

Friend Eddy Hoots of Union Grove got him into carving with a chain saw when both were 30 years old.

"I credit Eddy," Sharpe told me in the backyard of Gilreath's store recently. "He started before me, and we'd share ideas and watch each other carve."

Chain-saw carving was a hobby at first. Sharpe labored full time on the farm before working for a Statesville explosives company from 1989 to 2001, the year he decided to carve full time. He calls his business Bearfoot Chainsaw Carving.

He has sold his carvings over the years in such tourist destinations as Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Maggie Valley.

The day I visited him, Sharpe stood on a two-step ladder to carve a 41/2-foot-tall mama bear and cub out of a 43-year-old piece of white pine a neighbor gave him. He wore a baseball cap, a T-shirt, shorts and protective glasses.

A 1985 North Iredell High School graduate, he is so well known in the northern part of Iredell that folks are always stopping by with wood from trees felled by storms.

Bob Crane of Stumpy's Tree Service in Sherrills Ford also gives him wood, and Sharpe buys other wood from local sawmills.

Sharpe typically lets the wood dry for several weeks. He then uses a blowtorch to burnish the wood; that colors the wood and rids it of splinters.

Then he applies two or three coats of varnish to protect it from the weather. He uses a drill to put marble eyes in some of the creatures.

He figures he produces about 100 works a year. He carves mostly with white pine and red cedar, he said.

Carving with a chain saw can be physically draining.

"An 8- or 10-pound steel saw sometimes feels like 100 pounds at the end of a day," he said with a smile.

He spends at least three days on larger carvings, but he can produce turtles and other smaller works more quickly.

Experience helps, he said.

"When I first started carving, I'd carve for 5 minutes and sit and look at it for 10 minutes to see what I'd do next with it," he said. "Now I kind of more or less go at it" without having to stop and study it every few minutes, he said.

When he began carving, he developed tennis elbow after a few weeks. The condition lasted six months, "but finally my body got used to it," and he never got the condition again.

His carving outside in the yard has attracted neighbors such as Sandi Shear and motorists including Darrell and Patti Dumont of Mooresville.

"I couldn't cut a tree down with that thing," let alone create a work of art with it, Darrell Dumont said about one of Sharpe's saws.

What Patti Dumont admires is Sharpe's attention to detail in his animals.

As Sharpe said of his carving, "It's like bringing dead wood back to life."