Carving out a niche

It’s hard to miss Mark Kurtz’s sculpture gallery on I-94 between Albany and Avon. A row of statues fills the skyline.  Bears climb trees, golfers swing, cowboys ride, eagles soar holding fish or snakes, wolves howl, and sea captains scan the horizon.  They’re all carved of wood, but only the occasional hand tool is involved.  Instead they come to life in a cloud of sawdust as Mark roughs out their bodies with a chainsaw, then adds fine details, still using the roaring saw and his artist’s eye. A dremel, grinder, torch, or belt sander, and finally, paint or varnish make the pieces complete. Inside Mark’s log cabin studio are rustic tables, headboards, and signs for restaurants and cabins.  A deer hides in a gun cabinet.   Even the ridgepole depicts an eagle, Native American, and mountain man. Grinning bears are everywhere. “Everybody likes bears, but a realistic face doesn’t sell,” Mark says.  “Everybody wants a cutesy, happy, welcoming face, so these are inspired by the Hamm’s Beer bear.  It’s one of the hardest changes I ever made because you work so hard to get something designed and you have to re-design it because the people want something different.”  This dilemma arises because a lot of preliminary study goes into his products. For example, before he creates an eagle, he studies every detail of the eagle’s life. “I stop and think:  If I were that eagle and I was coming in from the west, and I had a big fish hanging from my talons, how would I react?  You have to be able to feel that, or you’re not going to be able to create personalities.  I have to look at the specific characteristics of that bird or person or whatever.  Look at that golfer.  Why does he have a little pot belly?  He’s a little older, he drinks a few beers, he hasn’t done as many sit ups as his buddies.  He’s out on that green to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery and have fun with his buddies.  We can appreciate him; he’s a unique man. “I go to the library and to the internet, and I study things.  But a lot of it comes from my clients.  Artists should listen to their clients.  A lot of artists say, here’s my product.  Buy it.  It should be the other way around.  This is a business.  You give the customers what they want, and that’s the key.” Mark has been in the wood carving business for most of his 42 years. His dad, David Kurtz, cut wood to sell, and Mark started helping him when he was a teenager.  He liked carving and running a chainsaw. At age 16, he heard about chainsaw art and was determined to make a bear. One bear led to another, and soon he was making items to sell at craft shows and art fairs.  The demonstrations he did at these shows helped him attract customers. “I did a couple of fairs, and they told other fairs that I was a good attraction, so that helped me get started.”  Deciding he needed a permanent location, he settled on his piece of property where highway traffic and word of mouth led more people to view his unique art. The road to success wasn’t without setbacks. The current recession has forced him to lower his prices a lot more than he would like. He doesn’t like to discuss in great detail the scar that runs from the corner of his mouth right down to his chin, although he does use it as an example to students of what can happen if you get complacent around a chainsaw. “I show them pictures of my face laid open.” At one point he became a pro wrestler, trained by legendary Minnesota wrestler “Precious Paul” Ellering.  As Chainsaw Man, he was the opening act, bringing a roughed-out piece into the ring and finishing it to the crowd’s delight, then wrestling in the last event.  Now he doesn’t wrestle, saving his strength for encounters with logs and saws. “It’s too hard on my body,” says Mark, who keeps in shape with regular exercise, rest, workouts, massage, and chiropractic treatments.  He still works fairs and other events, such as the Christmas craft show in Minot, ND.  He may bring 60 to 80 pieces of finished product to an event.   He spent 10 days at the 2011 motorcycle rally in Sturgis, SD. “I sold a fair amount of product. The main comment I heard a lot was, ‘Thank you for coming here.  You’re not T-shirts and the same old stuff.’”  Mark used to cut and process his own timber, a time consuming project considering he had to fell, trim and debark the logs, then let them cure.  Now his white ash, white elm and white maple come to him all processed.  He occasionally does a piece on site, when a former tree looks like it has the potential to be something other than an unsightly stump.  Lately he transformed an eight-foot tall white ash that had stood for many years on the grounds of Country Manor, Sartell, into an ascending Jesus Christ. He used the tree’s natural branches to create Christ’s outstretched arms.  He did the work at his studio, then put the 1,000-pound statue in place with a skid loader and bolted it to a concrete base. Mark says, “A gentleman asked me how I decide what I’m going to carve and how it’s going to be.  I said it’s got to make sense.  There’s a theme here and the theme has to be going somewhere and make sense when you get done.  Most of my customers find it interesting when I have to make a change because of the shape of the tree, and they do understand.  The fun part of my job is when I do stuff like Jesus.  It’s a one of a kind.  I’ll probably never get the opportunity to do another.” He says, “When you grow up in a big family, you find out who you are and what you’re made of real fast. I was an entertainer.  My dad thought I should be an auctioneer.   I’ve always known that I was an entertainer, and that’s why I did the wrestling venture.   I enjoy working with the crowd, carving kids’ names on a piece of wood, bringing Grandma up on stage and carving her a flower, talking about what her favorite things are to knit.  I enjoy that.  It’s a natural for me.” And so another opportunity, which he calls the most challenging thing he has ever done, has come Mark’s way.  Ten years ago, he thought up a concept for his own reality show.  Filming and marketing of a pilot followed, but without a lot of success.  Then a little newspaper blurb caught the eye of a New York TV producer, Bo Kapral, who famously produced “LaVerne and Shirley.” He encouraged Mark to remake the pilot, this time featuring his own school of chain saw art.  Mark assembled a class including an 18-year-old, a 70-year-old, and two women in their 30s.  When the pilot film is finished, he plans to send it to cable stations throughout the country. “I want to show people what it takes to make it through a day, the best day, the worst day, running this freight train at this speed.  My producer says I have the personality, he has the vehicle, and now we need the drama. They call it The Sizzle.” In a TV world where Alaskan truckers, deep sea fishers, cup cake bakers, dress designers, motorcycle mechanics, and bad -tempered brides have their own reality shows, a chainsaw artist should fit right in. Mark believes he has the talent, the drive, and a good core group of students to make his TV venture work.  Now he just needs The Sizzle.

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