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Never met a Stranger: Art that bites back or, Art any way you slice it

By T.W. Burger

(MOUNT DESERT ISLAND, Maine) The burly man grinned as his chainsaw snarled into life.

"Now, hold real still," he said as he swung the whirring blades toward my midsection.

There must be an easier way to get a belt buckle, I remember thinking.

I had just seen Ray Murphy take a chunk of log and cut out a valentine for a newlywed couple from Upper Black Eddy, Pa., and toured through Ray’s 1960 model bus/museum, complete with clipped out newspaper stories about him, and samples of his work.

My personal favorite was a saucy, scantily clad, female form, hewn out of a solid chunk of pine. The piece was entitled "Knotty Lady,” naturally.

"Wild Mountain Man" Ray Murphy was 46 at the time I met him, and a chainsaw sculptor. He claimed to be the very first one.

He got the nickname after he dressed a deer using a chainsaw. I’m glad I missed that one.

On Sept. 12, 1960, the Crowheart, Wyoming, native decided he needed a bathtub. Having no money but possessing a chainsaw and a large log, he carved himself one on the spot.

Murphy had come far since then, and paid his dues. By 1989, he had carved more than 31,000 sculptures, some of which have been owned by Ronald Reagan, the Smithsonian Institute and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

On the way, Ray has lost parts of two fingers, a lot of flesh here and there on arms and legs, and suffered one vicious gouge to the face. That one missed his jugular by a quarter inch.

This is art that bites back.

But Ray obviously thinks the show is worth the price of admission. It’s obvious when he talks about his work, part artisan, part kid, perhaps part con artist, and enjoying every moment. He has one of those faces that smiles all over, even up into the wild-man blonde-and-gray hair, speckled with wood-chips.

"I’ll always be learning about this," he said outside the bus, as a group of elderly tourists gawked at an indescribably buxom four-foot mermaid, just carved and gleaming with linseed oil.

"There’s always a new life experience when you do art like this.”

At that point, we got into a discussion about belt buckles. Ray sells walnut belt buckles, on which he will write one’s name at no extra charge. But there is a catch. I had to be wearing the buckle while he carved my initials.

Yeah, right, Ray.

He was serious. I tried to come up with all sorts of reasons why it wasn’t a good idea to have somebody writing my initials with a chainsaw, only half an inch from my navel. Ray pooh-poohed all my nervous arguments.

Such a deal.

I agreed.

Such an idiot.

I shouldn’t worry, I kept telling myself. This was the man who carved two sculptures at once during a performance, holding a chainsaw in each hand. This was the man whom, on television, no less, carved all 26 letters of the alphabet on the sides of a wooden pencil with, you guessed it, a chainsaw. A very small chainsaw.

So, I agreed. So, he did it, with a crowd of typical tourists standing around watching, probably hoping that something spectacularly gory would happen so they could tell all their friends back home.

I stood, as Ray suggested, very still. Do you have any idea how long it takes to write a "W?" Every red blood cell in my body paused, wondering if it was time to pack.

When it was over, a young kid came over and looked at the buckle, a beautiful piece of black walnut from Kansas.

"Weren’t you scared?" the kid asked.

"Who, me?" I squeaked. "Nah, the guy’s an artist. You should try it yourself.”

The kid rejected the idea. Kids today have no backbone.

T.W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.

He has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, mostly in Gettysburg, PA, with various stints at other publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg.

He is the author of "The Year of the Moon Goose" is currently writing “Never Met a Stranger.”

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