BIGFORK — Art has been part of Todd Coats’ life for just about as long as he can remember.
He was in grade school when he first learned to draw. Back then, he couldn’t have guessed that art would take over his life.
“I just always knew I had for a knack for it,” Coats said.
Even when he left his childhood home of Bigfork to work in the lucrative oil fields of Texas, his sketch pad was never far away. When the welders, iron workers and concrete finishers discovered his ability to draw, they sought him out to do portraits for family members back home.
And when he came back home a quarter century ago, his creative side found a new niche that had a way of making people stop and stare.
It happens all the time now as folks drive by his roadside studio just off Montana Highway 35 near Woods Bay where a variety of creatures carved with his chainsaws watch the traffic go by. On this morning, he’s working on a life-sized grizzly bear caught in mid-stride that appears to be walking through the middle of his yard. Underneath a nearby canvas canopy, a huge ponderosa pine log is slowly revealing the pair of bear cubs clinging to a tree that apparently have been hidden there all this time.
Lined up along the highway are a pair of white mountain goats perched on a pile of rocks and a crouching mountain lion seemingly ready to pounce.
While most people might look at a log and see firewood, Coats’ imagination and his unique skill with a chainsaw helps him create things of beauty that are sought after by both locals and those who just happen by.
“I can’t keep up the demand,” he said. “There’s always someone stopping by who wants to take a part of Montana home with them.”
Coats’ journey into the world of chainsaw art started nearly a quarter century ago when he grew tired of the Texas heat and felt Montana calling him home. Not long after returning, someone asked him if he thought he could turn a huge pine log into a nine-foot-long bear using a chainsaw as his main tool.
That first carving that slowly unfolded in front of a business just off U.S. Highway 93 changed his life.
“By the time I was done with it, I already had tons of work lined up,” Coats said in between sips of coffee at the diner just across the road from his outdoor studio near Woods Bay. “That was 25 years ago and I’m still behind.”
This upcoming weekend, the well-known Flathead area chainsaw artist will face one of his most daunting challenges when he goes head-to-head with some of the best chainsaw carvers in the world at the first-ever Kootenai Country Montana Chainsaw Carving Championship in Libby. The competition begins Friday, Sept. 15, and wraps up Sunday.
During those three days, Coats will join two other Montanans to compete against 12 other chainsaw artists from around the country as well as a father and son from the United Kingdom and a champion from Japan.
It will be the first time Coats has ever entered a chainsaw art contest.
“It’s a big competition that is going to draw some of the best chainsaw artists in the world,” Coats said. “It’s the first time that I’ve done something like this. I just really haven’t been interested in traveling all over the place to compete.”
The fact the competition is almost in his own backyard was a draw that Coats decided he couldn’t pass up.
Besides Coats, Les Smith of Cut Bank and Libby native Ron Adamson will represent Montana in the international competition.
“It was important to us to have Montana carvers represented in this championship,” said Kootenai Country Montana Managing Director Bob Henline. “Everything we do is about promoting the greater Lincoln County area, and by extension, all of Montana. Ron was an obvious fit. He brought the idea to us and his art speaks for itself. Todd and Les are both well-established artists and will help us put on one heck of a show.”
The event is free and open to the public. It will include carving demonstrations, vendor booths and opportunities to meet and talk with the artists as they work on their competition sculptures and several smaller quick-carve pieces that will be sold at the event.
The competition was organized by veteran chainsaw artist Steve Backus of Bigshot Wood Carving from Whidbey Island, Washington.
“Libby, Montana, is preparing to enter the chainsaw carving game with a world-class competition,” Backus said. “This hardworking community with a rich timber history will now be known as a chainsaw carving hub. Collections will take notice as this unique American art form that is fast becoming contemporary takes western Montana by storm.”
To prepare for the competition, Coats has made a mock-up in clay of the piece he plans to carve. It includes a bear standing atop a waterfall with another bear peeking through the cascading water while fish swim in the stream below.
He’ll have an estimated 18 hours to turn an 8-foot-tall, 3-foot-round log into the intricate piece of art.
“Hopefully I’ll get the log that I need to be able to accomplish it,” he said. “If I don’t, I’ll just have to do something different. I won’t know until I get there.”
The 57-year-old Coats knows that many of the competitors he will face have age on their side.
“I know that many of them are going to be younger than me and stronger than me,” he said. “I think they’ll be able to outwork me. I’ll have to out carve them.”
When carving something as intricate as Coats has planned with a chainsaw, there’s not any room for mistakes.
“This will probably be one of the most challenging pieces that I’ve done,” he said. “When you are chainsaw carving, you can’t accidently cut something off and then put it back on. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m looking forward to seeing how I do.”
For more information about the upcoming contest, go to carvemontana.com. The competition will be held on the north end of Mineral Avenue in downtown Libby.
“Our goal to create an event that not only casts Libby in a positive light, but that also involves the people of this incredible community,” Henline said. “We want everyone to have fun here, visitors and locals alike, and we’re confident that the show these carvers, our organizers and announcers have planned is going to make this event something you won’t want to miss.”