Whidbey Island’s Steve Backus comes from a long line of chain saw artists

WHIDBEY ISLAND — This isn’t a “What’s up with that?” column.

It’s a “What the hell’s up with that guy?”

That’s what chain saw artist Steve Backus says people wonder when driving by his gated 4-acre compound along a woodsy road in Clinton.

A motley mix of carved faces, figures and signs line a fence the length of a football field. A giant pierced ear here and blue teddy bear there. A cowboy in red long johns.

“It’s a couple 300 feet, and I’m not done yet,” Backus said. “The fence is a very good example of an artist with attention deficit disorder. ADD run amok. It’s a strength, not a weakness, as it turns out.”

Drivers brake to ponder the strange gallery that suddenly appears in the forest.

“It’s like this hillbilly hideout and I look like a friggin’ Sasquatch,” Backus said. “There’s been more than one time I walked out the gate when someone’s looking at the fence and they take off. If the gate is open, only the very brave enter.”

No reason to fear him, though. “I’m a gregarious person,” he said, “even though sometimes I might be carrying a chain saw or packing a tool of some sort.”

Backus, 55, has carved for 40 years. His mom, Judy McVay, is a chain saw artist. So are his brothers, sister, uncles, cousins and daughter.

“It’s a real indigenous folk art,” he said. “A lot of this stuff isn’t necessarily fine art, but it’s cool. It has its roots in roadside carving.”

Backus first took to screwing misfit carvings to the fence about 20 years ago.

“I really started doing it a lot more adamantly 5 or 6 years ago. Basically I was standing here on a sunny day and the screw gun happened to be charged up and I happened to have some screws and I started going crazy,” he said.

“I thought it looked pretty cool and apparently everybody else thought it is pretty cool. We get what we call ‘fence watchers’ all the time. I can tell by how they are driving by. It’s like, ‘Oh, what the hell’s this? Oh, that guy has a sense of humor. Oh, (expletive), look at that!’ ”

The fence has castoff carvings from family and friends. Not all make the cut. Only those that are “fenceworthy,” as he put it.

“Being a folk artist there’s a lot of experimentation going on,” he said. “Some of this stuff, you get a cool idea but it’s got to cater to someone’s thoughts, which is why we see so many bears. Everybody can figure out what to do with a little bear. Bears pay the bills. Bears are buying the food. They’re paying for the gas and the electricity.”

Bears sell better than, say, ears. The giant lobe is from a stump that was riddled with bolts. “When I cut the hunk of wood off the stump I thought, ‘What the hell can I make with this?’ because I didn’t want to throw it away. Then I probably saw somebody with a bunch of piercings. I couldn’t sell it and it’s heavy and I kept packing it around.”

It was proclaimed as fenceworthy.

The fence isn’t a marketplace.

“People say, ‘Do you sell the stuff on the fence?’ Some of it is dear to me that my friends have made and are like snapshots of time,” he said. That stuff is not for sale.

“Some is crap that I take to shows and I can’t sell and eventually get sick of loading them, so on the fence she goes,” he said. These you can buy, if you can find him.

“I am not a gallery that is open on a regular basis. By appointment only, unless they catch me in the open.”

It happens. “I sold a bear to a guy on a 10-speed who came by one time,” he said.

The grounds used to be home to a sawmill where he worked as a teen. He nabbed it 30 years ago when it came up for sale.

“When you’re a chain saw carver you have all these logs and trucks and tools,” he said. “I made a deal and bought the place and raised the kids. Some pretty good kids, too. My daughter can grab a chain saw and slap a carving out. She brings that feminine touch to it. Lot of flowers and butterflies.”

Backus carved stumps in people’s yards for 30 years. “Hundreds and hundreds of them.” In early years, he’d sell carvings by Lake Union, near where MOHAI is now. This fall will be his 40th year at the Puyallup fair.

He organizes competitions around the region and invites visiting carvers to stay at his compound equipped with the tools of the trade. After all, it’s not like you can carry gas-powered tools on an airplane.

“I’ve got 40 chain saw carvers in my cell phone just in the Js,” he said. “And there’s a lot of Dougs and Daves and Matts in the Ms and Ds.”

The locals enjoy the roadside attraction.

“We slow the car down to about nothing and sit there and admire the work that this guy does. It’s incredible,” said Langley resident Olav Valle. “At first I had no idea who was doing this work and our neighbor knows him and pointed out, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s the guy in the Pemco commercial.’”

Oh, yeah. The Pemco commercial.

Backus was featured in the 2008 Pemco Insurance commercial campaign of “We’re A Lot Like You. A Little Different.”

“I carved a little bear holding a toilet-paper holder,” he said. “They still run it. I still get residuals.”

Watch it at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5MdSw3Dfu4

For more information, email Backus at bigshot@whidbey.com.

Send What’s Up With That? suggestions to Andrea Brown at 425-339-3443; abrown@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @reporterbrown. Read more What’s Up With That? at www.heraldnet.com/whatsup.

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