CHRIS LETARTE

Interviewed in March of 2016 by Andrew Houle

CHRIS LETARTE

Hometown: Lunenburg, MA

Current town: Lunenburg, MA

Website: Click Here

1.) Hey there Chris, we always like to give our readers a little background on each artist at the beginning of these talks. Can you tell us a bit about growing up out in Lunenburg, MA and how that influenced your formative years and interest in art?

I guess I had the quintessential New England small town upbringing. I am the son of hardworking parents, a plumber and a nurse who always gave us what we needed and then some. My brother and I had lots of outdoor play in the yard and surrounding woods. We were lucky enough to spend a boat-load of time up in Denmark ME at a camp my Pepere built in 1956, mostly summer memories but we did a few fall/winter trips and spring was mostly out of the question (dirt roads and the mud season don’t mix). And of course the doodling, I’m told I’ve been drawing since I could hold a pencil.  

We were a small community where everyone knew everyone and we still are to an extent. It was the same in school and as it happened I just felt right in art class. There aren’t a ton of childhood memories stored in my brain just the milestone stuff and traumatic events like my first trip to the E.R. to get sewn up. But in school there was always the art room. I recall every art cart/station or room in all 4 schools growing up. That’s where I belonged and in fact Primary school was when my buddy Jesse made up the rhyme that followed me straight through to high school graduation. -Chris Letarte laid a fart in Mrs. Cormier’s art cart- It never really bothered me, that’s where I belonged and I still remember how I felt when I saw that art cart roll it’s way into the classroom.     

Those art rooms in school were full of budding artists. For one reason or another our little town spawned quite a few grown ups who call art a profession. From fine art painters to the illustrators, muralists, paint party throwers, sculpture folks, graphic designers and sign makers, and that’s just the ones I can remember. I was always recognized as an “art kid” in school but never felt like I was the best by a longshot. There was always someone who I felt could draw or paint better that I could and deserved more praise than they got.    

I had plenty of encouragement from everyone especially my mom who is a bit of an artist herself. I was lucky to always have art supplies and found myself asking for them for birthdays and the like. From a young age I kept things organized, now it’s grown into what we call “organized chaos” as the organization becomes more of an obsession and the supplies grow. Lets just say if I see a use for it in the future it finds a place and I keep it. 

So then I went to Art School where everyone was like me and those other weirdos from art class. It was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. 

2.) After graduating from Montserrat College of Art with a degree in illustration, how did you find yourself making the leap into chainsaw carving? Was sculpture always on your radar or was it just that chainsaws are totally badass? 

Well, after graduating I did exactly what we were warned not to do. I went to work outside of the art field. For the first few years, I kept on sketching, painting and applying for different art and art-ish positions while working some bullshit job that I despised. I sent out lots of promo cards to art directors never hearing back, eventually got frustrated and “settled in” to this ordinary boring idea of go to work for that Friday payday. I even tried to convince myself that the 50/60 hr. Mon-Fri  blue collar workweek was the place for me. But where was the art? I knew something was missing and in the back of my mind I would daydream about that a lot in the middle of nowhere on the way up to the camp in Maine that was full of these fantastic chainsaw carvings. I mean full size moose and 30’ tall totem poles, big impressive shit, not the same old roadside bears that are everywhere. 

So sometime in 2002 or around there I ordered a beginners chainsaw carving package from a catalog. What I got was a modified saw and a VHS tape titled “How to saw carve a bear”. Then I had the bookstore order me a book on the subject titled something like “Chainsaw Carving, the art and the craft” by Hal Macintosh. I messed around with it, made a couple of bears, a strange raccoon creature, a frog and a dog. That was probably one spring into mid-summer. 

After that burst of sculptural creativity, I went back to painting off and on, did a couple of shows and got the random requests all of us artists get. You know, like “can you paint a picture of my house” or my favorite “can you design my next tattoo for me”. Then art went dark for a few years, creativity eluded me and I lived the old party motto spoken to me by my Uncle Chuck who has had a little experience in the field :  There are 24 hours in a day, 8 for work, 8 for drinking and 8 for sleeping. This went on for entirely too long.   

Fast forward a bit, I’ve gotten married, moved into my Pepere’s house, beat cancer, and we’ve got 2 kiddos. Four years or so ago I was working one of the 10 or so bullshit jobs I tried like hell to convince myself I was happy doing. Of course, I wasn’t and my wife Melony knew it. She gave me the push I needed to get moving in the right direction, we got the business, and sign permits, and picked up a bigger saw (If I was going to carve I needed a saw that could tackle larger projects). Obviously quitting the job I was at didn’t break my heart, so I was off. Mel and I both agreed that there is a market for this type of thing here we just had to find it.  By setting up at fairs and events, pounding the pavement, passing out cards and talking to folks face to face and via all the available social media outlets the orders keep coming in.

For lack of a better term making things with a chainsaw came pretty naturally, of course, there is a learning curve that is mostly safety and small engine maintenance. The more I do it my dexterity grows and the saw really becomes an extension of the user, a real tool for art. I may have gotten off track here so to answer your question, yes chainsaws are badass and I kind of enjoy doing things people may see as dangerous. I’m kind of always trying to act tougher than I really am.

  3.) Your company, Whalom Painting and Woodcraft, is named paying homage to the now demolished amusement park “Whalom Park” that was based right in your hometown of Lunenburg. What was important about carrying that name over for you? For the community? History? Nostalgia? 

Yeah man, Whalom Park “For a Whale of a Time!”, for me, it’s totally nostalgic.  There’s also the fact that we live on Whalom Rd. in the Whalom district of town. I mean, our kids are growing up a quarter mile from where the park stood for all those years. From a business standpoint it’s a recognizable name with ties to the area, so whether I’m standing in line at the bank, doing AM radio, local access cable or in the paper it’s something people remember. 

4.) For those not keeping score, Whalom Park was the 13th oldest amusement park in the country, operating for over 107 years including the second oldest trolley park in the WORLD. The massive property was redeveloped into condos, just like every other patch of dirt here in the northeast. Was it just time for the doors to close at Whalom Park or something else? All good things come to an end? 

The loss of the park was a bummer for sure, our kids know all about it and have seen a locally distributed movie documentary about it. Waylon who is 8 says “I wish it was the 80’s, then we’d have Whalom Park right down the street”. Couldn’t agree with him more, about the park and the 80’s. So, yeah the park was a big deal, at it’s beginning there wasn’t a hell of a lot there but people would come from all over to check it out and ended up summering on lake Whalom. In fact, there was a trolley line that brought folks into the park from Boston. Quite a few of the little summer camps that popped up all over became the year-round homes that still stand today.   

The pisser of it is we now have 240+ cookie cutter pre-fab condos and townhouses we have to drive by everyday. That park was part of all of our lives whether we liked it or not and it helped build up this part of town, now all that’s left are some fun house mirrors and knick knacks at the Historical Society. Oh, and the developers put up a tiny kiosk on the lake with some pictures of the park behind plexiglass that drunks from the lakefront bars have pretty much destroyed. 

As far as I know, and it’s all hearsay is that the park went through a slow patch and a couple of lousy park managers. As I write this it dawns on me that I myself got fired for stealing, and the thing is, I didn’t do it. I wonder if the managers did that more often and pocketed some money here and there while 15 year old kids went home to get a ration of shit from their parents. The rumors of family in-fighting were the last thing that I heard and we all know that once families begin to fight over money and ownership everything goes to shit. In this case they sold everything of worth and the buildings rotted (at some point one of them caught fire) until the property was sold to a developer. The town blew it as they had the chance to buy and take over the property but as with everything the American dollar and tax revenue won out. Welcome to small town politics, we’ll spend millions on new municipal buildings but won’t preserve our history or at least keep the land from slimy developers who cut down every god damned tree so they can fit as many units as is allowed. 

5.) Jumping back to chainsaws and art, can you give us a rundown of your process start to finish? Are you sketching at first and then move towards carving? 

Generally, everything begins with a sketch. If it’s a special order commission I usually have a face-to-face with the client where we go over ideas, size, color and price. Then once start time is close they usually get a sketch emailed to them which I need a thumbs up for before I ever put saw to wood. Once I’m clear for take-off I make an Idea board with sketches and reference pictures to set up out in my work area. If it’s a piece rooted in reality and I can get a 3-D model I always try to grab one if I don’t already have it (I have quite a collection of animals and such). 

Now I find the right piece of wood, it can be a chunk of pine which I use for ease of carving (it’s easier on the equipment) or something else. I’ve recently got into using different kinds of milled wood that I dowel/glue and clamp to make a larger piece. I will mark and cut out the basic shape of the piece with the larger saws before re-evaluating and making some new marks then moving on to the “carving saw”. These saws can have shorter or longer bars, what they all have in common is a smaller quarter pitch chain that comes to a point at the end of the bar. Mine are dime-tips, meaning the part I use for detail is as small as the circumference of a dime. This set up allows for plunging and way less kick back than the bigger saws. Believe it or not a lot of the detail of the finished product is done in this step. By now I can usually see the finish line and start in with my angle grinder sans the safety with a set up that allows me to use sanding discs of various grits. Sometimes this will be the end of power tools unless I need to go into further detail with one of the Dremels or an oscillating multi-tool.

The piece is then cleaned up with the air compressor and the outdoor work ends with a controlled burn. I use what they call a yard or garden torch. It’s basically a hose with a regulator and igniter that attaches to a gas grill size propane tank and makes the nice big flame that I need. There are 3 reasons for this step. First is I like to burn shit, secondly, I like the effect of the paint over the burnt wood and thirdly it actually helps burn out the small burrs in the nooks and crannies of the piece. Then I can hit it with the air hose again and blow all those little bastards out of there which makes for a much more professional looking finished product.

I then move inside to what I call the Batcave, my sanctuary, the basement studio/paint lab. If the piece is to be natural than it ends up in the garage for urethane, I like Helmsman Spar because it holds up well outside and looks pretty rad by the 3rd coat. But if it is to get painted it’ll stay in the paint lab where it really comes to life. I use all water based paint, house paint, acrylic art paint of varying qualities and some water based clear coats too thin out my layers. I always start dark and work my way to light layer by layer, this really makes the texture pop. It is lots of carefully placed dry-brushing. Once I’m happy with paint and any accessories have been added or lettering done the piece will move out to the garage. I use so many cans of Krylon crystal clear it’s ridiculous. This finishing clear coat not only protects the piece but slows drying time to help with cracking and makes it look “done”. 

6.) Your clientele is all over the place; from major corporations to private commissions and even exhibiting in galleries all over the northeast, it can be hard finding a balance. What is a normal work-week look like for you between finding materials, carving, answering emails and being a family man? (Shout out to Melony, Waylon & Reesa!)

With the kids at 8 and 5 now it’s tricky to get the schedule to run smoothly. I generally keep the outside work to between 9am and 3pm Mon-Fri (the hours where the house/shop are all mine). I can paint at night after dinner and bath/bedtimes if I need to finish a project. I try to keep weekends and holidays/school vacations wide open so I can spend all the time I can with these kiddos while they are little. 

My raw materials come from a few different sources anywhere from straight purchase to trades or freebies (gnarly pine isn’t worth much to anyone). Usually, time is set aside to section, debark and move the logs up off the ground. I usually have quite a bit ready to carve as well as some chunks under cover that are slated to be used for the next few projects. 

So a normal workweek can be making a bunch of smalls for fairs or concentrating on an ordered commission. I give myself a week or 2 on specials depending on the size, sometimes it is a month if it’s a giant outdoor piece. A normal workday starts at 9am with coffee in front of the computer while I check e-mails. Once I get on a roll I kind of do all the social media stuff during the day as I hit certain points where I take a break, or if I just like the progress I’ll grab a pic and throw it up on Instagram or Facebook. I know I should post at more opportune times but I never can wait, if something is done at 2am then you can bet by ten past two there will be something up floating around the web. 

Outside of my work and normal house upkeep I am involved in the kids lives with Cub Scouts, coaching soccer and volunteering at their schools (chainsaw carvings have hung out in both of their classrooms). We also take these 2 on lots of adventures from Mass MOCA to the Museum of Science and everything in between. They also get to come to all the craft fairs, festivals and cons I attend as Whalom Painting & Woodcraft. 

7.) Your versatility and ability to meet any client’s needs lends itself to carving just about anything imaginable. A quick visit to your website or workshop and you can find storm troopers, cowboy boots, dolphins, totem poles, pumpkins, American flags, snowmen, wooden swords and on and on all carved and painted. Would things get boring just making the same thing over and over? The challenge is in taking on such varied subject matter? 

Making new things is what it’s all about, that’s why when I go to events I’ll bring my frames full of pics for folks to check out. I’m always trying to explain that I can and will make them whatever they want, it’s never just a few things I have set out on the table. The fun is in the challenge, hey I never really know exactly how something is going to turn out and there’s some kid-like excitement in that. The diversity is definitely growing as just in this past year I’ve made furniture (a hostess podium), tiny replicas (a functioning roll-off dumpster), some signage and a 5’ tall menorah for a Hanukkah lighting as well as my many sculptures. I’ve been told a few times this past year that I wasn’t chosen for my quote price but rather because I was willing to work with them to create an idea of what they exactly want before I even start. I also return every e-mail, message and phone call, you never know what something is going to lead to (it’s also just good business practice). 

The hurdle of custom stuff is always time. Let’s face it, making something new takes longer and costs more to do. The old adage time=money is true but the absolute hardest thing to figure out as an artist making a living at it. It would be different if I made the same thing over and over, sure I could figure a day rate or what I want to make weekly and price accordingly but I wouldn’t be happy. I’m not built for repetition so much so that if I get a repeat order I make damn sure the customer is aware that it won’t be an exact replica of the picture they’ve seen of the last one I made. Everything is one of a kind here and I love that. 

8.) As pieces get bigger and bigger, it’s safe to assume the heavier and heavier they become in your line of work. What’s been the most challenging wood carving commission you’ve ever taken on?

To be honest, bigger isn’t a huge deal. I can always find a way to manage the logistics of size and weight (I’ve got friends with heavy equipment). The challenging ones are the orders that I can tell have meaning to the customer, those are the ones that I pine over and worry myself sick over because I want them to be dead nuts perfect. I have to give you two recent examples. The first was done for a woman who ordered a piece to be a present for her boyfriend and his 2 kids. It was to be a depiction of their given Native American names. I spent hours researching and looking up pictures as well as sketching. Long story short, everyone loved it even though I was worried all the way through I wouldn’t do it justice. My harshest critic has always been myself. 

The second example is a customer who is a history buff and is writing a book on the Civil War. He ordered a carving of his great great grandfather who survived the war and came home to Saugus, MA to join the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal order of veterans that decorated graves and helped out the wives and children of the dead and injured. They say he shook the hand of President Lincoln while in hospital after a battle. Heavy shit right?  Well, it was for me, so we had a couple of meetings and he even entrusted me with some pieces of the uniform that I was to add to the finished piece. We decided on a classic bust and since I was working from a grainy washed-out black and white photo I decided to paint it a monochrome B&W. It came out to everyone’s  liking but was another that was tough all the way through simply because I was asked to create an heirloom for this man and his boys of their proud brave ancestor. 

9.) Workshop/studio space: it’s total chaos in there right? Is it a constant struggle of making a mess than trying to clean up? 

The outdoor carving area is set up and broken down daily as to not have anything stolen. That’s no biggie, a couple of saws, a crate of corded tools, the compressor and my Jawhorse (a 3 legged vise to hold the piece in place as I carve). Everything sort of has it’s place at this point. The Batcave is where my organized chaos theory comes into play. Everything has paint on it and it’s packed with supplies, memorabilia and the like, the walls are covered with goodness and all the shelves are filled. More than once customers have walked in and said, “so this is Santa’s workshop”. Projects come in and go out and at the end of every piece, brushes are washed in the slop sink where they sit to dry until the next thing finds it’s way in.

10.) American illustrator & caricaturist Al Hirschfeld famously hid his daughter's name “Nina” somewhere within his finished pieces. It became synonymous with his work and fans of his work loved searching and searching to identify its location. You have a similar element to your work in a way hiding your signature of “CJL” which you’ve made into a decorative shape easily hidden amongst your work. In earlier pieces, your signature is recognizable and clearly placed…..but as the years go by you’ve found ways to disguise it more and more. What’s the deal?! Can we expect this to get harder and harder?!

First off, love Hirschfeld. And yes when I do hide my initials nowadays it’s not easy to find. There have been some I can’t find myself but am pretty sure they’re there somewhere. As more orders started rolling in I began carving the CJL into wherever it fit and sometimes I lazily just carve it into the bottom with the calendar year next to it. Recently it has been brought to my attention that CJL looks a lot like the #5 when turned on it’s side so lately I’ve been hiding it vertically…

11.) The best way to listen to music while in the studio? Vinyl, cassette, CD, MP3 or streaming? 

I need music to properly work so this is an easy one. Outside while carving or using anything that makes noise it’s my hearing protection with either the iPod if it’s working (it hates the cold) or the good old fashioned radio usually set to classic rock. In the garage, I do CD’s or radio since the boombox out there only gives me those options. The basement sanctuary is a different story, that’s probably 80% vinyl, 15% cassette tape, and 5% CD. Once in a blue moon I’ll stream something like Slacker or do a podcast or two. 

12.) Alright man, you can only pick one. Who ya got? Willie, Waylon or Johnny?

Waylon God Damned Jennings, that’s who.

13.) One thing we always want to know here at Tryptic Press is what artist or artists are you following out there that we and everyone else should know about? Who should we stop what we’re doing right know and look up? Anything goes!

Since we’re on the chainsaw art subject and I’ve been following a ton of these fine men and women for a while now there is only one guy who I feel is doing something no one else is and it’s all his own. He is so. Damned. Good. Ladies and gents, check out Hikaru Kodama of Tree Spirits Art in Japan.**