Lakeport man’s wood carvings receive attention on HGTV, in nationwide competitions

Some might refer to Lakeport’s award-winning chain saw artist Mark Colp as “a chip off the old block” since his dad, Don, was a pioneer in the art of chain saw carving.

Since graduating from Lower Lake High School in 1981, carving is the only kind of job he has ever had.

“My resume is pretty straight forward,” he says. “All I have on it is that I’m a wood carver.”

The elder Colp, who originally had run a lumber mill and logging operation in Alberta, Canada, inherited a love of whittling from his father. He started this artistic phase of his career in the late ’50s and early ’60s, coming in to work early each morning to practice. It wasn’t until 1972 that he decided to quit the mill and take up carving full time.

Believing there would be more work opportunities for him in the United States, specifically in the states of Washington, Oregon and California, he relocated with his family to Lake County. He chose the location in part because he wanted to live near a lake and because of the county’s proximity to the Sacramento International Airport.

While all three sons followed him into the carving business, it was his son, Mark, who has gained the most notoriety. In addition to showcasing his skills at different events all over the country, Mark Colp has also appeared on television.

He was featured in seven of the 13 episodes of the reality show “Carver Kings” on HGTV and seven of the 10 episodes of “Saw Dogs,” which aired on OLN and in Canada, Latin America and Mexico.

Colp says he prefers working with redwood, which he usually gets from tree services around the North Bay, as well as other soft woods like cedar and pine. He occasionally uses walnut as well.

His primary tools are an assortment of chain saws with blades ranging in length from 8 inches to 48 inches.

“Every piece of wood has a hundred possibilities,” he says. “It’s really a blank canvas and the end result is only limited by the artist’s imagination.”

Most of his designs take shape in the workshop of his Wood Creations store on Soda Bay Road, where he turns out several hundred sculptures per year and also trains budding chain saw artists.

Visitors might see Colp and some of his fellow carvers at work on one or more of their current projects, while inside, they can expect to find a wide assortment of one-of-a-kind wildlife and other figures for sale. Varying in size from large to small, favorites include owls, eagles, deer, wolves, bears, squirrels and whimsical sea creatures, as well as sculptures inside of sculptures.

Prices range from just under $25 to more than $5,000. His smallest carving, which he usually gives away during demonstrations, has been a 1½-inch bear he can turn out in less than a minute. His largest to date is a 26-foot northwestern totem pole that stands in Gold Beach, Oregon.

Anyone who has traveled Highway 101 through Garberville in Humboldt County since the mid-’80s has no doubt seen some of Colp’s creations. Many years ago he was somewhat of a traffic stopper for tourists as he demonstrated his craft in front of either the “Legend of Bigfoot” or “Grandfather Tree” roadside stores.

Since 1998, Colp has been competing professionally in carving competitions throughout the United States. As a member of the Echo Chainsaw Carving Team, he has won numerous awards, but the one he is particularly proud of is from a West Coast competition named for his father, the Don J. Colp Championship.

Professional contests usually take place over a two or three day period, with carvers generally putting in about 23-24 total hours on their entry. Contestants are all given the same design theme to develop, with the end result limited only by their own talent and creativity.

Sculptures are judged solely on their individual merit, not on the name or reputation of the carver. Judges use a specific set of criteria, like whether the final design meets the designated theme or tells a particular story, to make their decisions.

Colp says a carving’s “wow factor” plays a significant role in how the winners are chosen.

“If people make a fuss over a piece, as opposed to just commenting that it looks nice, that can help influence a judge’s choice, too.”

Besides taking part in competitions, he also puts on demonstrations at county fairs and similar events, including the Redwood Regional Logging Conference, the largest timber-related trade show that takes place each March, alternating between Ukiah and Eureka.

Thanks to Colp, an old dead pine tree in front of Cloverdale’s Cal Fire headquarters was reborn as a larger-than-life figure of Smokey the Bear and, in the process, became one of the town’s premier landmarks.

Cal Fire Cloverdale Fire Capt. Scott Rohrs says the 60-foot tree became a hazard when it started turning brown. After he had Battalion Chief Justin McNulty from Cloverdale Fire, who is also a Certified Timber Faller, remove its limbs, PG&E crews cut it down to about 11 feet.

Capt. Rohrs wanted to turn the stump into a recognizable landmark for the community, as well as pay tribute to all of the past firefighters who worked at the station through the years.

Chain saw carving combines the modern technology of a chain saw with the ancient art of wood carving. It is one of the most dangerous of all art forms and carvers have not always been deemed artists. Today, their demonstrations are described as performance art and their sculptures are considered folk art.

Carving events are being welcomed by a growing number of community leaders because they attract visitors to town, which in turn, means more business for local merchants.

Colp says his carving and his shows are really about the people in the audience.

“I enjoy what I do, but when I look out and see people smiling and happy, that’s really the best part. I’m pretty fortunate I’m good enough to make a living at it.”

Wood Creations is at 98 Soda Bay Road in Lakeport. 707-263-6515.

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