For this month, Winnipeg River Arts Council updates the profile of chainsaw carver Walter Keller. Born in Switzerland, he came to Canada in 1967 and now lives in Elma. After years of forestry work and log building, he discovered chainsaw carving. And, since 2009, he has been teaching others how to carve with a chainsaw.
Totally self-taught, Keller has become well-known as an accomplished artist. But he admits his intention to stick to strictly freelance pieces has failed. Among recent commissions, two stand out: a corporate client asked him to carve a giant Western Red cedar log into a totem (the largest work he had ever done), and the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s board chairman asked him to create a group of six bear sculptures for his office. Keller said, “Over the last decade, I’ve worked for an ever-widening circle of clients. And challenging commissions came my way and I could not refuse.”
It is the special interactions with his clients that fuel his dedication. Clients have handed him cash through the half-opened window of a vehicle at a highway rest stop, but he has also been invited to unveiling parties with a lot of pomp and honor.
Recently, Keller has focused on refining his carving techniques, by reducing power tool use in favor of hand tool application, to highlight growth forms provided by Mother Nature. Largely due to his clients’ wishes, he also overcame his dislike of applying colours.
He still does large pieces, but climbing scaffolds, working from ladders or crawling on hands and knees often cause pain and fatigue. Also, his long-standing annual three day carving courses ended when his co-host could no longer help. However, he still attends about three regional shows every year and takes pleasure in displaying his art with the close-knit group formerly known as Agassiz Chainsaw Sculptors. In more predictable times, the members have exhibited at Fire ‘n Water Festival, Beausejour Rodeo, Festival du Voyageur, and 4P event in Powerview.
He said, “This year, I plan to do some charitable work in the public domain; where this will take me remains to be seen.”
Given his reluctance to compete against friends and his belief that performing for crowds downgrades the actual art making, regular carving competitions do not work for him. He especially detests the speed carve, limited by the clock and blaring horns.
Keller feels thankful for the opportunities to learn and grow. But he believes all is not well in this world and he hopes that his pieces of art will raise awareness of the real value of wood and trees. He said, “Mankind reduces forest environments through clearing and converting land. In our own back yards, trees get discarded without even an attempt for any kind of utilization.”
In response, he has proclaimed himself as “Patrona Sylvatica,” the patron saint of the boreal forest. In the accompanying photo, he poses with a sculpture which represents the nurturing properties of our forests and his hope that an intact boreal forest may see us through the uncertain future.
He said, “It is through carving that I can find my peace and maintain a positive outlook. Whenever possible, my life partner and I venture into the wilderness to recharge our bond with Mother Nature, our source of inspiration and creativity.”