Craftspeople have been chopping down and fashioning dead trees into beautiful things since they got the hang of opposable thumbs.

Manitou Springs artist and chainsaw carver David Gonzales turns dead trees into art right where they stand, and in doing so honors the stories and native wildlife of the Front Range region.

Gonzales' carved tableaus capture bygone moments, comic and tragic, quiet and majestic. They also camouflage an arboreal eyesore that can stir conflicting emotions for homeowners.

"When a tree comes down, it's hard for people to see it go," Gonzales, 43, said. "It's tough when you take a life like that; maybe they had a lot of memories attached to it. They want to transform the tree into something relevant, something that's going to give life back to that stump."

A Santa Fe, N.M., native with a bachelor's degree in fine arts, Gonzales was doing "anything arts-related to pay the bills" when his wife encouraged him to give chainsaw carving a try. Gonzales, whose sports-themed paintings are on display at the Tracy Miller Fine Art Studio & Gallery in Manitou, previously had focused on two-dimensional art forms, so carving "was a whole new thing for me."

"There's no way I wanted to go carve bears," he said. But then he thought on the idea and came to a different conclusion. "One thing I learned being an artist here in Colorado Springs is you need to be familiar with all different kinds of art - signs, window painting, portraits - if you want to make a living at it."

Gonzales started out using gasoline-powered tools but quickly noticed negative health consequences. His carvings today are made using tools and products that are nontoxic and Earth friendly - for both environmental and practical reasons.

"If I'm working and painting and eating my lunch, I don't want to have to set my work down," he said. "I want to eat and work at the same time, with tools that aren't going to harm me."

One of his early sculptures, of St. Francis surrounded by animals, was carved from an ant-infested tree near Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

"As I was carving, all these ants kept spilling out of the tree," he said. "It was very interesting."

Gonzales now has a decade of experience under his belt and on-site chainsaw carvings claim much of his schedule, weather permitting.

Last fall, Gonzales created his most elaborate sculpture for a retired Colorado Springs fire captain whose Mountain Shadows home miraculously escaped major damage during the Waldo Canyon fire in June 2012. The project, carved into the remains of a 16-foot ponderosa pine, included 13 creatures, from a mountain lion to fish to hummingbirds.

"They wanted to honor the animals that lived in the Mountain Shadows area before the fire," said Gonzales, who took three months to complete the sculpture, his third on-site carving in that area. "They wanted to convert the fire experience into something memorable and positive."

Elsewhere, the sculptures can serve a more humorous, aesthetic purpose.

In January, Gonzales completed a carving at the Broadmoor-area home of Richard and Beth Evans. The backyard sculpture, in the stump of an ash tree, was inspired by the antics of a raccoon that ventured into the backyard after getting its head lodged in a peanut butter jar.

"It was this tiny little jar and this big puffy body," said Tom Evans, the homeowners' son.

A well-gloved wildlife specialist swooped in to remove the peanut butter jar and the raccoon continued on its way. The tale, however, became part of the family's folklore.

"Now it's a story they can tell over and over again, along with the sculpture," Gonzales said.


Stephanie Earls is a news reporter and columnist at The Gazette. Before moving to Colorado Springs in 2012, she worked for newspapers in upstate NY, WA, OR and at her hometown weekly in Berkeley Springs, WV, where she got her start in journalism.

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