“Mountain Mike” Ayers is a Maggie Valley-based sculptor who carves wood in extraordinary detail using a chainsaw and does it faster than almost anyone else on earth. Ayers, a former cabinet maker, has been a member of the U.S. Speed Carving Team, was captain of the 2020 World Speed Carving Team, and has won numerous awards in about half a dozen countries. In competitions, chainsaw carvers are judged on criteria such as speed, accuracy, design complexity, or how much a piece sells for at competition event auctions. While most chainsaw carvers also rely on a variety of rather tiny saws designed for ice carving, 99 percent of Ayers’ work is done with ordinary chainsaws of standard lengths.
Chainsaw carving is performance art, right?
We are the underpaid rock stars of the art world.
Do you have an artistic background?
I’ve always liked to draw, and the last six months I was in the Marine Corps they asked me to do scaled-down metal sculptures of military vehicles. I did a model of an M1A1 tank that was pretty cool, with lots of working parts like gears and lights and a gun that fired. Now it’s at Camp Lejeune High School.
How’d you learn chainsaw carving?
About 11 years ago, a woman in Virginia asked me to carve a bear, and I thought about what a bear looks like and just taught myself.
Making cuts with the tip end of a chainsaw as you do…
Yeah, it can kick back — it’s dangerous. But there’s 35 percent of the tip that makes it kick back, so you don’t put your face behind the saw, and you avoid that 35 percent. It takes practice, but it’s second nature for me; I don’t even think about it.
What contributes to speed?
Most people think it’s practice, but not really. I was one of the fastest carvers in the world in just my third year of doing this. It’s more seeing the shape in the log, and I do that in my head. It’s reductive art, so you have to plan for every shape. I carved 38 bears in an hour and a 12-foot Native American statue in four-and-a-half hours.
Does it take longer to sharpen your chainsaw than to make a sculpture?
Sometimes. My morning routine is to sharpen my saws. I put on some music and it’s my yoga.
Do you lay out compositions before you start carving?
I mostly just free-form it. But my favorite thing to carve is people, and I usually trace my own body on the log to get the anatomy scale right. I traced my own body to do a Dale Earnhardt statue, then put his head on it. If you get the head right, people don’t notice it’s a different body.
What’s your favorite carving wood?
White pine is most abundant, so I use a lot of that, and I like Catalpa wood. It carves like butter. But we try not to take any wood out of the forest, and we don’t ever cut any living trees. We get wood from dead trees that are already down, or like out of people’s yards after a hurricane.
“Mountain Mike” Ayers, Maggie Valley, maggievalleycarving.com, “Mountain Mike’s Whetstone Woodworks” on Facebook, and @mountainmike29 on Instagram. The artist’s work is also represented by Foundation Woodworks, 17 Foundy St. in Asheville’s River Arts District, foundationwoodworks.com.