So I was leaving the KY Horse Park yesterday evening and ran into Mick Costello (course builder for the eventing and driving cross-country courses), who asked whether I’d seen “Isaac’s latest fish.” I hadn’t.

Mick gave me directions to the shady carving area where Isaac’s been working and sent me off to find Isaac and the fish.

Isaac does all of his sculpting with chainsaws, which I find amazing to contemplate when faced with how lifelike these wooden animals end up looking. Unlike most of his recent sculptures, which will populate the eventing cross-country course, this fish is intended for a spot (I’m not telling which spot) in one of the marathon obstacles. 

this largemouth bass is destined for a home in one of the marathon obstacles

While not quite as large as some of Isaac’s other sculpted animals (a huge kingfisher with a bug in its beak, an enormous goose, and a lifelike but massive rainbow trout, just to name a few), this largemouth bass nonetheless stands more than seven feet tall. Isaac also showed me some of his “before” and “in-process” photos of this fish, and it was quite something to witness this huge fish emerging from a hickory log.

 

Coincidentally, this story appeared in today’s Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper (www.kentucky.com):

Artist with a chain saw carves for WEG

by Mary Meehan

“It’s a little bit of an odd story,” said Isaac Bingham.

That’s a little bit of an understatement.

Because the tale that finds Bingham revving up a chain saw to carve giant squirrels and fish at the Kentucky Horse Park begins in Vermont, winds through Dartmouth and Berea colleges, and takes a detour to study boat building by indigenous peoples in Asia and South America.

“I never imagined I would do anything like this,” said Bingham, “this” being, among other things, carving a Canada goose the size of an RV out of a tree trunk for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Carved animal figures have long been used as jumps or beside jumps at equestrian cross-country events, but it wasn’t until January that Bingham tried his hand at the unusual artistic endeavor.

The thirty-two-year-old has a habit of diverting from a path to try new things.

After growing up in Vermont, he went to Dartmouth College to study engineering. A few years of studying left him restless, and he was off to travel the globe, including spending time in Morocco. Because he wanted to get into the arts, he came to Kentucky and Berea College, graduating in 2005. He was then awarded a $25,000 Thomas F. Watson Fellowship to study native boat builders in places like Bolivia, Peru, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Boat-building skills in those countries have evolved over thousands of years.

“I’m always up for a new adventure,” he said.

Bingham had been making jumps at the Horse Park for about three years when Mick Costello, who oversees their building, realized he needed some new duck heads for this year’s Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. His previous carver had moved to Australia, so Costello gave Bingham and two other workers a chance to see what they could do.

Bingham had never created art with a chain saw, but he had created art and he had used a chain saw. So he figured he probably could do it.

It turns out he could.

“Isaac is just wonderful. It was quite a surprise” said Costello, who’s been working at the Horse Park for more than twenty years. “He’s the best ever.”

The [eventing] cross-country course was created by world-renowned designer Mike Etherington-Smith, who is based in London, England. He maps the route that horse and rider will take and what sort of critters should inhabit various jumps.

Etherington-Smith dictates the height, width, and depth of the sculptures and the types of animals, say “fish” or “frog,” and then Bingham takes over.

It all starts with the right piece of wood. Costello said local tree services sometimes provide logs, but he also buys tree trunks or uses wood from trees at the Horse Park that need to come down.

Somehow Bingham can see the animal within the log. A burr oak could be a rainbow trout that is seemingly in motion or an orange and brown northern leopard frog that is both native to Kentucky and brightly colored so as not to blend into the grass and cause the horses to hesitate before they jump. (Bingham also paints the animals.)

“You free the animals from it,” he said.

He sometimes uses the traditional sculpture skills he honed at Berea to make clay models for the wood works. But, he said, all the carving on the animals is done with chain saws of various sizes.

“I am never interested in doing that same thing that everyone else is doing,” he said.

Bingham, whose father was a carpenter, said he grew up with sort of a blue-collar work ethic. “Being an artist,” he said, “was never something I could wrap my mind around.”

He’s still a little amazed by his newfound skill and understands what a rare opportunity he has. It’s not every emerging chain-saw artist who has access to the tools, including heavy equipment to lift and move the logs, needed to turn a tree trunk into a trout. But he thinks he’s found his niche, for now.

“Maybe I really am what I can call an artist,” he said.

That, too, is a little bit of an understatement.