Oregon man carves second career out of tree stumps

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — On the final Thursday of August, David Hillesland and his yellow Labrador retriever Loki rolled up the gravel driveway of a rural West Salem home to put finishing touches on a job that's been a year and a half in the making.

It's a nice area with nice homes; a living environs consistent with the clientele Hillesland envisioned serving 10 years ago when he studied finance and initially plied a banking trade, selling insurance and investments.

The job ahead of him on this day though requires sharpened chainsaws and chisels, along with a keen eye; they are the tools of sculptors, not bankers.

For the past three years, Hillesland has carved out a new career, literally, having sculpted about 50 tree stumps into works of art. The work before him stands firm and jets forth beneath a gently warming, clear-blue sky. It is among the larger of his projects, reaching 15 feet from its fixed base. There have been about 10 others this size and dozens of smaller fixed-stump projects and hundreds of loose-wood carved sculptures.

It's an art, an occupation and the upshot of a dream that he thinks was divinely inspired.

"In school, I thought art was useless," said Hillesland, 31, who grew up in West Salem, attended Walker Middle School, Willamette Christian Academy and Portland Community College. "I studied finance and wore the suit and tie. I thought I wanted the kind of job where you get paid well."

Nearly a decade ago, he became licensed to trade and worked five years with investments and insurance, endeavors which in hindsight he thinks precluded living a life.

But Hillesland did endure two life-altering situations: a fall down a 30-foot staircase that broke his neck and laid him up; and an economic downturn in 2008 that staggered his company, which laid him off.

Between his recuperation and the quest for an occupation, wood carving came to him, in an almost ineffable manner, and he absorbed it.

"People ask me all the time how I started wood carving," he said with an almost bewildered expression as he scratched a fine-tuning file over a Chinook salmon near the statue's base. "I say I don't know. I didn't really pick it; it picked me."

With finance work, Hillesland said he felt like the focus was just about making money. It was a path that felt empty, devoid of a soul. Faith, he said, is important to him.

"What I was doing was not fulfilling - it bothered me," he said. To take the office stress off, he would fold paper and make origami, a nervous-hand occupier, but also an activity that provided him and unconscious outlet and learning tool.

Within months after leaving finance, he apprenticed with Toby Johnson of Aurora, a seasoned woodworking artist, who has among his pieces the statue on Monmouth Avenue and Third Street in Independence. The work, adjacent to a church, is carved from a towering redwood, and is an iconic statue of Jesus Christ among children.

Under Johnson's tutelage, Hillesland progressed quickly. Within months, he was released out on his own, with Johnson's blessing, and he's been carving ever since for his business called Oregon Chainsaw Sculptures. His work can be seen primarily around the Mid-Valley in Monmouth, Sheridan and Dallas.

"A bunch in Dallas: Dallas has been very receptive to my business," he said.

While money is not the main focus now, it still plays a vital role.

"My clients are what make me a really strong artist," Hillesland admitted. "Once they give me the money, I know I have an obligation to create the best I can and impress them."

It's also his duty and job as a breadwinner in his family of four: wife Heather and toddling daughters, Hannah and infant Lydia.

"It was my dream to build a business, family and pleasure within the same thing," he said. "If we're doing that, then we are rich."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press