By Linda Bruch – published in the Cut Bank Pioneer Press, Sept. 13, 2018

A carver is one of those artistic, remarkable people that can take a log of any size and transform it into an incredible piece of art. Les Smith is one of these amazing artists, having been at this craft on and off for over 20 years.

“It is something I really enjoy doing,” Smith said. “And I really enjoy the carving competitions.”

Not everyone gets invited to the carving competitions. It is usually the best of the best carvers that are invited. Les is one of those–the best of the best carvers. Later this month he is headed to the Kootenai Country Montana Chainsaw Carving Championship in Libby on Sept. 21-23. Carving begins Friday morning at Libby’s Mineral Avenue and concludes at noon on Sunday, Sept. 23.

“Les Smith is an incredibly talented artist who has earned his place among the world’s best. He did fantastic work in last year’s inaugural show and I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does this year,” said Bob Henline, Director of Kootenai  Country Montana. “If you have any interest in this unique American art form, you should pop over to Libby and watch Smith go head-to-head with the world’s premier competitions.”

“There are guys at this competition from all over the world,” said Smith, who lives just north of Cut Bank. “There are some really great carvers coming to this. It is quite an honor to be asked to participate in this event and carve alongside some of these amazing carvers.”

This year, 20 carvers were invited to the competition out of the 100 applications submitted. Smith and Todd Coats are the only two Montanans in this year’s competition. There are others from the United States, Argentina, Ireland, Scotland, Zimbabwe, Slovakia, Moldova, Lithuania and Japan.

“The first day is the big day. We get to choose the log we want to carve. Most of them are Ponderosa Pine, Spruce or Douglas Fir. The log is usually about three feet or more in diameter and about six or seven feet tall. We are given two and a half days to finish the carve,” Smith explained. “In the middle of the big carving, we break for a one-hour event called a quick carve, where we have a smaller piece of wood and we carve something smaller. There are three, one-hour quick carve times in the competition.”

All of the pieces done over the two and a half day event are auctioned off, with the smaller carve monies going back to the carver and the larger carve monies going back into the event.

“This is going to be a tough competition,” Smith said. “These guys I am carving beside are amazing. I didn’t do as well as I would have liked last year, so this year, my goal is to place in the top five.”

For his big carving, Smith plans on making a wolf with a trout in its mouth and a little wolf puppy hanging off the mom’s tail. For his quick carves, Smith is planning on carving a fox or an eagle from the slab of wood he will be given.

“Human anatomy pieces seem to win more often,” Smith said, “mostly because they are pretty intricate and I have done some of those too. Dragons are one of the biggest, new things people are carving.”

Carvers have an amazing imagination and can see the image in their head long before their chainsaw hits the log. “You have to be different if you are going to win a competition, so you have to imagine something new for your carving,” he shared.

Smith has competed in a number of competitions, including the one in Libby. “I placed in an Oregon competition one year. These competitions are really fun and I enjoy doing them.”

One thing all carvers have in common is that they have to be in shape for this event. “Your arms get pretty tired from holding that chainsaw for a number of days, so like an athlete, you have to be in shape to do this,” Smith said. “My secret is I take a lot of vitamins and drink a lot of coffee.”

Chainsaw carving events are becoming more and more popular every year with competitions being held all over the country and overseas too. “These events are huge now. They are the new big thing,” Smith said.

“Chainsaw carving is an American art form born out of our rich logging and timber history, it is a natural fit for the Montana culture. It is also an art form that is exploding on the world stage, with competitions all over the world,” said Henline. “We have worked hard to select the world’s very best carvers for this event and hope to turn this event into one of the world’s premier competitions.”

This is second year for the carving championship, which was developed to promote tourism and outdoor recreation in the Lincoln County area. Last year carvers competed for $10,000 in prize money. This year that pot has increased to $15,000.

If you want to see some of the top talented carvers from around the world, including Les Smith from Cut Bank, then Libby is the place you’ll want to be on Sept. 21-23.