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From computers to the chainsaw: Artist takes leap of faith

by Ethan Therrien

Contributing Writer

Colin Vale’s journey from Sherwood High School graduate to professional chainsaw artist came via worldwide travel and an abundance of soul-searching.

The soul-searching came in the years after he graduated from the University of Maryland in 2013. He traveled to San Francisco for his first full-time job — as a computer programmer — but the work left him unsatisfied and searching for answers.

“I kind of had a quarterlife crisis where I realized that this wasn’t ideal,” said Vale. “So, I switched and started to look for soul happiness instead of bank account happiness.”

The switch got him to thinking about the trip he took before his move to San Francisco. After graduation, he bought a $5,000 around-the-world plane ticket, which took him to roughly a dozen different countries in a span of a year.

Despite visiting countries like South Africa, Thailand, Australia, Japan and Brazil, the stop that ended up igniting his career change years later was his visit to Easter Island, a remote island 2,200 miles off the coast of Chile.

It was there where Vale witnessed the Rapa Nui people carving pieces of firewood into wooden moai, miniature versions of the signature stone statues of Easter Island.

“It was literally firewood,” Vale said. “You were going to take this object and throw it into the fire for 10 minutes of warmth. Instead, you just put 10 hours of intention into it, change the shape, and now nobody in their right mind would throw it into the fire.”

Vale moved back to Olney in 2019, wondering if he could adapt his interest in art into a new career. But not long after he began, he was quickly introduced to the economic struggles that artists tend to experience in the industry.

“I carved a really dope skull,” said Vale. “I went around asking people how much they would pay for it. And everyone said, ‘Wow, that’s really good, maybe like 20 bucks, 30 bucks?’ I was like ‘Oh, well, it took a month to make.’ So, this was not sustainable.”

A magazine Vale read would then change his career for the better. It featured a profile of a chainsaw carver in Virginia named Andrew Mallon, who Vale got in contact with to ask if he would teach him the art.

“Colin came to me, extremely excited to learn how to be a chainsaw artist,” said Mallon. “He was enthusiastic and excited to learn. We went over the chainsaw and other tools, and talked a lot about the business and the different ways to survive as a chainsaw artist. He listened intently and carved with passion that I knew would drive him to be successful.”

For Vale, learning how to chainsaw carve only took about a week. And according to him, he is not an outlier to typical learning curves.

“It is not an innate skill,” Vale said. “I’m not magically more talented than you or anybody else. I’ve simply quit my job to become a chainsaw carver. And if you did the same, you’d get good too.”

After his training, Vale was left with a new skill – and not a lot to do with it but practice. The COVID-19 pandemic presented a prime opportunity to do so. While quarantine kept most people inside, Vale was often in his backyard hacking away at a log with a chainsaw.

“It’s creation through destruction,” he said to describe the process.

“I enjoyed using my body instead of computer programming,” Vale said. At his previous job, “I found I was getting carpal tunnel on my wrists just from sitting at my desk all day and not doing any exercise.”

Eventually, Vale started doing public work, which helped amplify his presence in the community. One of his defining projects came when he carved and put up a Black Lives Matter fist near the Olney post office.

The fist was later stolen. But Vale did not let that stop him; he had a new fist up at the same location in short order.

“I made a new one on site to show people that you can’t beat an artist at their own game,” said Vale. “I can turn any log into a fist. So, you thought you stole the one fist, but actually, I can make as many as I want. You can’t stop me.”

The managers at Brookside Gardens, a public botanical garden in Wheaton, noticed Vale’s public carvings in Olney and reached out to him in need of a chainsaw artist. Vale was hired to create a sculpture there — a tree stump that he turned into a big pine cone, with a hanging acorn and maple seeds wrapped around the piece.

“My first impressions of Colin were of his creativity and his passion for art,” said Stephanie Oberle, director at Brookside Gardens. “There is also a technical side to art, the hands-on skill to use hands and eyes and tools to let the sculpture free from the big block of wood. We get so wowed by the final product, the artwork, that sometimes we forget the technical skill necessary to make it happen.”

According to Vale, this project jump started his carving career. While his previous carvings were more isolated and local, a public carving at Brookside Gardens really got his name out there. And for a chainsaw artist, that is imperative.

Vale is now 32, and these days, you can find him next to the basketball courts at Ken-Gar Palisades Park in Kensington, where he is completing his carving of the historic Linden Oak tree. He had estimated the final product to be done around or shortly after Thanksgiving, and at press time we were waiting to hear if it was completed.

The project will act as a new highlight to his young carving career.



In photo:

Colin Vale “introduced” himself to the community in February 2021 when he began showing his chainsaw-carving skills in a field along Olney-Laytonsville Road. Now he is making a lasting legacy to the county’s oldest tree, the Linden Oak.


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