How much wood would a woodcarver carve...? Eureka Springs rookie entrant takes top prize at War Eagle fair

Friday, October 26, 2012
Travis the woodcarver turns a piece of red cedar into a bear at the work shelter next to his cabin in Eureka Springs. Travis prefers to use only his first name. Photo by Jennifer Jackson / Lovely County Citizen

EUREKA SPRINGS -- Six years ago, he was Travis of Travis and the Flame Cats, a hillbilly-blues band based in Lincoln, Neb.

Having grown tired of the late nights and travel, he decided to give another art form a try, and he accepted a friend's offer to show him how to do chainsaw woodcarving.

"He said, 'You have a knack for it,'" Travis said, "and I took off with it."

Now he is Travis of Carvings by Travis, a chainsaw woodcarver who doesn't use his last name -- no one pronounces it correctly anyway, he said.

A four-year resident of Eureka Springs, Travis and his spouse, Becky, entered the War Eagle Craft Fair for the first time this year and brought home the fair's Best in Show Award.

"We were surprised," he said. "We set up our booth the day before, and left. When we came back, there was the award sitting on the little table."

Customers entered the booth by a gate guarded by a 5-foot-tall bear and an eagle on a stump. Carved owls topped the gateposts. An eagle soared over the crossbar. Rustic shelves on either side, trimmed with fir boughs, were filled with chunky cedar bears, a foot high, along with raccoons and owls. A finishing touch: Becky went out and gathered red fall leaves, which she scattered on the floor at the entrance.

The carved animals were also a big hit -- Travis sold almost everything he brought with him.

"We strive for something different," he said. "Our little 1-foot critters are easy to carry. People see them and buy them."

He did sell larger pieces, including a 5-foot bear with two cubs for $300 and a 7-foot totem pole.

But he tries to keep the smaller pieces affordable; they go for $35. Each one is different; each bears a different expression.

"That was the biggest compliment we got out there," he said of the War Eagle fair. "People just loved it."

Travis still has the first bear he ever carved, which he keeps in one of the cabins he built at Pine Top, his property on the east side of Eureka Springs. He works at a shelter outside, next to a stack of cedar logs with deep red centers that he gets from a supplier in Elkins. The pattern in the wood determines what it's going to be.

"I don't know what animal is in the wood until I start cutting into it," he explained.

Travis has sold his carved critters to people in 46 states through the internet, and he sells them wholesale to stores in Colorado, where red cedar carvings are unusual.

He also does large pieces and custom work. He carved the bears in front of Oak Crest Cottages in town, including one doing a handstand, and carved animals on stumps or standing pieces of timber.

One of his more unusual commissions was from a family in Lowell who had to cut down a large oak in their yard. They saved chunks of wood and let each child choose an animal for Travis to carve -- they wanted an elephant, a cardinal, and Snoopy in his doghouse.

"They wanted them to each have a piece of the tree," he added.

Travis said he has stuck with cedar because he likes the color and the fragrance -- and Becky, who works at Cornerstone Bank, doesn't mind when he comes into the house from Sawdust Haven, as he calls the shelter, smelling like his work.

He also has a finishing and drying shed, and a studio, where the bears, owls, raccoons and other critters wait to go to market. Most carvers don't like to do small pieces, Travis said, because they take as much work as a larger piece, but that's been in his niche.

"I spend a lot of time on the details," he said.

And every year, he has to come up with different things for his critters to do. At War Eagle, he sold out all his marshmellow bears, who hold roasting sticks. He also carves bears fishing, bears holding honeypots and bears popping out of stumps, one paw sticking out a knothole. He has carved natural-looking, wild bears on request, he said, but 99 percent of his models are smiling.

"A happy bear makes a happy customer," Travis said.

Travis said he is now working on owls to sell as Christmas gifts -- people like to put them in their gardens. He will be at Carving in the Ozarks next spring, and back at War Eagle in the fall. For more information, go to www.facebook.com/carvingsbytravis or http://stores.ebay.com/carvingsbytravis. To contact him, email carvingsbytravis@live.com.

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