J. Chester Armstrong

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Artist J. Chester Armstrong.

J Chester Armstrong

With collectors who include Bert Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, Olivia Newton-John, Nick Nolte, President Bush, Michael Jackson - all counted as his friends - J Chester Armstrong has come a long way since he began teaching at a YMCA camp in the 1970's. While at Spirit Lake, Washington, he wanted to introduce the campers to Native American Northwest totem poles. Unable to find anyone to teach the class, he decided to teach it himself and found he had a natural gift for shape and proportions. "I can 'see' the forms in the raw logs. It is like Michelangelo says, just take away everything that doesn't look like 'nine horses running'." And for the last 40 years, chainsaw, grinders, and chisels in hand, he has done just that.

Chester Armstrong's roots run deep in Central Oregon, his chosen home. Born and raised in Berkeley, California, he attended UC Berkeley in the 1960's and graduated with a degree in poetic theory and philosophy. His travels eventually brought him to Oregon where he found a place where "the stars are not drowned out by city lights". He has lived there for the past 35 years with singer songwriter wife, Anastacia.

"I am hooked on wood sculpture," says Armstrong. Out of local Oregon woods (juniper,maple, pine, and walnut), he carves the world he sees around him. "Eagles, ospreys, wolves, cougars, coyotes howling at the moon, herons perched majestically at the river's edge, -- the magic of life. This is what moves me. This and the wild herds of mustangs that inhabit the west of my imagination."

Armstrong is best known for his horses, thundering herds moving rhythmically as one. Although his horses look like horses, he says "the art of sculpture is not to recreate the world verbatim, but to interpret it." His sculptures are charged with movement and emotion.

"Wood sculpture, like stone sculpture, is a subtractive process. You 'take away' to reveal the form within. Arduous and demanding, it requires both artistic inspiration and physical perspiration. It is yielding but not forgiving. It does not allow for mistakes."

Rising from the ashes

Sisters artist ‘Skip’ Armstrong rebuilds after tragic studio fire by Andrew Moore / The Bulletin Jun 30, 2007 Updated Jan 31, 2020 0

It was a total disaster.

In January, the studio of Sisters woodcarver J. Chester “Skip” Armstrong burned to the ground. His iconic chain saw sculptures were reduced to ash, as were a mountain of tools and countless treasures and mementos collected over a lifetime.

But for Armstrong, the most disturbing was the destruction of the studio, his “creative center,” where he had carved out memorable works — and a noteworthy career — over the last 30 years.

“It was kind of like an organic relationship I had there,” said Armstrong. “It was in my blood.”

The studio was on property east of Sisters where he had also lived for many years, in a rustic house that included a five-story self-designed but not-to-code observation tower. Five years ago, however, Armstrong moved to a wooded 20-acre “compound” bordering national forestland southwest of Sisters. But it was only to live; he commuted to the studio, now owned by his ex-wife, to work. The place was a key ingredient in his recipe for success.

“I didn’t want to move,” he said.

Fate intervened. In what he now describes as a “cosmic re-ordering,” Armstrong accidently torched his beloved studio. He left a piece of wet walnut on a heater to dry and promptly forgot about it. He drove to Portland and while there, received a call from his daughter. The studio was consumed. Entirely. Nothing was salvaged.

What did survive was Armstrong’s creative drive and his zest for life. Six months later, he’s building a new studio and amassing new tools. He’s staring over, “just what everybody wants to do at 58,” he quipped.

Before the fire

Armstrong grew up in the Bay Area, attracted to art at an early age. Even more telling, he earned a Boy Scout merit badge in whittling. In college, however, at the University of California, Berkeley, Armstrong said he didn’t find relevance in art. He instead earned a degree in philosophy, inspired by the learning experience and the social turbulence of Berkeley in the late ’60s,

But afterward, Armstrong said he realized, “Words are just words. I said, ‘What do I really want to do?’”

The answer was art. Armstrong traveled a bit before ending up in Washington state, where he took a teaching job at a summer camp. He wanted to introduce kids to woodcarving, and so picked up a chain saw to grab their attention. According to “Chain-Saw Sculptor,” a book about Armstrong by Sharon R. Sherman, it grabbed his as well.

Armstrong left the summer camp, on the shores of Washington’s Spirit Lake, via boat. On the other side, he piled up some of his sculptures at the landing and curious onlookers asked how much they cost. Armstrong tossed out a wild price, according to the book, and it took. He had his first sale, and a big glowing bulb over his head.

Armstrong moved to Sisters in 1974 and gradually caught people’s attention by carving elaborate animal forms from solid logs, such as eagles, horses and otters, and occasionally, humans. He’s now a Central Oregon legend, whose pieces are found in museums as well in the collections of millionaires and celebrities, such as Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Michael Jackson and Herb Alpert, according to Armstrong.

Locally, Armstong’s work is ubiquitous, from the stunning double doors at the Broken Top Clubhouse in Bend to the 34 saints, each representing the patron saints of a Catholic parish in Eastern Oregon, carved into wooden pillars in the garden of St. Edward the Martyr Catholic Church in Sisters. He is also represented by the High Desert Gallery in Sisters.

The center of it all was his studio. It was maybe 500 square feet, guessed Armstrong, but it was where he carved thousands of sculptures. And where he kept all his tools.

“My business is all about tools,” said Armstrong. “It’s also about art and inspiration, but tools allow you to create.”

Armstrong mostly works in walnut, his favorite wood, and uses chain saws to first “rough out” a sculpture. Then come die grinders — “my pencil” — for detail work, as well as chisels, routers and sanders.

So, after learning of the fire, Armstrong sulked back from Portland. Before the day ended, he already had been to the Harbor Freight hardware store in Bend. He needed tools.

Rebuilding

There was a brief moment of exasperation when he learned of the fire, but Armstrong knew he would rebuild. Losing sentimental items, such as the first sculpture he created, which he had given to his dad as a young man, was tough. But Armstrong didn’t lose his drive to create.

“The important thing is the creative energy is still there,” he said. “Tools are replaceable.”

The natural choice for a new studio was his property. He decided to turn an existing open-air barn into a combination studio, workshop and showroom, and is in the process of finishing it. Hay-bale walls were built to enclose it, and the doors are large enough to allow access for his forklift.

As for the actual carving work, that is still done outside. Armstrong has an open-sided enclosure on the building’s southwest corner that is ankle-deep in sawdust and littered with bits of wood.

In fact, the whole of the property is littered with stuff, although Armstrong might not prefer the description. He sees value in things that were likely discarded or discounted before they arrived.

Take, for example, the vehicles. There is a boom truck (for unloading logs from trucks), an old Jaguar, an ’80s-model Ford 350 pickup, a camper and a sailboat of questionable seaworthiness.

Armstrong has his own lumber yard behind the barn, full of random stacks of milled lumber. There are also stacks of assorted windows: “The great thing was I didn’t have to buy any windows (for the remodel).”

There is a sweat lodge. Away from the main house is a weathered hot tub, perched on a giant mound. A second building houses a cabinet shop, as well as an art studio on the top floor.

It’s also where Armstrong keeps the feed for his trout, who live in a roughly 100-foot-wide pond between the two buildings.

Dogs mill about, as do carpenters and apprentices.

And there is stuff, everywhere, leaning against buildings or lying in the dirt and duff, like a heavy 6-foot peavey (for maneuvering logs) and a pizza rack, still with a faded “Free” sign attached. And wood. Everywhere.

There are also sculptures in various stages of completion. When The Bulletin visited, Armstrong was roughing out a herd of elk in a 3-foot-wide, 8-foot-long section of ponderosa pine destined to be a fireplace mantle.

The wood for it was logged on Armstrong’s property. During last year’s Tollgate Fire, Armstrong felled several trees close to his house to create defensible space. The trunk of one is now a sap-encrusted mermaid.

There is also a stunning, 6-foot-high sculpture of two rearing stallions, sitting on a trailer with melted reflective lights. Both came from the old studio, although they were 20 feet away from the structure.

The fire was so hot, it cooked the side of the sculpture facing it, said Armstrong. Nevertheless, he buffed out the charring and refinished it. During the Sisters Rodeo parade earlier this month in downtown Sisters, Armstrong towed it behind his 1960 Austin-Healey, in a gesture of triumph, he said.

“Thought we had to honor up this guy,” said Armstrong.

Aftermath

Armstrong is rising from the ashes, like the mythical phoenix. He attributes it to a desire to forge ahead and to support from friends and community.

“Within four months of that epic disaster, I was up and running again, which is a testament to creative energy, fortitude and good friends,” said Armstrong. “I didn’t quit.”

Surviving a fire, said Armstrong, “It’s a transformational moment. It’s pretty devastating. It takes unbelievable amounts of energy to keep the ball rolling.”

The secret, said Armstrong, it to accept fate. And age helped. If he were 30, Armstrong doesn’t imagine he would have been able to muster the courage to start anew.

“At 58, you’ve got life wisdom,” said Armstrong. “You’ve created from nothing before and you can bust out a new world. But once is enough.”

“The initial devastation is overwhelming, but then you have to go a different direction. It’s like the universe is talking to you. You have to use it as a springboard for change, turn it into a positive and live with the excitement of the new. As long as we can go forward, there is no loss.”

And forward it is. Armstrong would like to turn his compound into an artists’ retreat, where painters, woodcarvers and sculptors could live and work. His own studio, he plans to keep open every day, with its attached showroom, and he plans on turning out work. Next up is a series of phoenixes for a client in Telluride, Colo., whose unfinished commissions were destroyed in the studio fire.

“The phoenix image is great. I think that image will be pretty important,” said Armstrong of the motif.

With a smile and his hair flecked with sawdust, Armstrong quips: “Eagles are out, phoenixes are in.”

‘Skip’ Armstrong: the man behind the ‘Cutting Edge’ chainsaw

Posted on November 9, 2016 by Krista Ledbetter • 1 Comment

‘Skip’ Armstrong: the man behind the ‘Cutting Edge’ chainsaw

When my colleagues invited me to join them on a trip to Sisters in August, I admittedly knew very little about why I was going.

“Come meet Skip,” they said. “We’re featuring him in our next campaign.”

Skip, I wondered. Who is Skip?

Here is what I knew: Skip carves sculptures with a chainsaw.

Okay, sure, that seemed neat enough. I grew up in Wisconsin. We’ve got trees and artists and sculptures carved from tree trunks. I’d go check out this Skip guy in Sisters.

On the drive to his place, I began to learn more. He once completed a massive display of the Mayan creation myth and the Day of the Dead in a five-paneled, 3,000-pound work of art now hanging in the restaurant at the ARIA Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.

Well, I’d never seen that kind of work in Wisconsin. The intrigue grew.

The drive to his place took us off the main roads, onto dirt roads, and into the wilderness outside of Sisters. His property was exactly what I’d have imagined for a wood-carving artist in the forests of Central Oregon – expansive, secluded, wooded, and peppered with sheds and work buildings. In the distance we heard the roar of a chainsaw and we were promptly greeted by a barking, yet tail-wagging, dog.

We were either about to be amazed or about to be involved in another “Blair Witch Project” sequel. Thankfully it was very, very much the former.

J. Chester “Skip” Armstrong, a man in his late sixties, stood before us, covered head to toe in sawdust, his work jumper unzipped and hanging loose, and – of all footwear – a pair of Crocs protecting his feet. An iPhone looked out of place in our surroundings as it peeked from his front pocket, and before him stood a rough, but incredible start of a sculpture he’d been roughing out with a chainsaw when we arrived.

My jaw was already on the ground. This guy was cool.

Skip is a chainsaw sculptor who, in his 40-year career, has created pieces that now exist in museums as well as in the collections of millionaires and celebrities, like Clint Eastwood, Michael Jackson, and Burt Reynolds. Not to mention that piece in the ARIA’s restaurant.

That day on his property, as we tip-toed with fascination around logs, through sawdust, and among sculptures, he told us how his now-legendary sculpting career came to be.

The answer? YMCA summer camp.

His desire to teach kids about woodcarving put a chainsaw in his hand while serving as program director for a camp outside Portland. The rest, as they say, is history.

And there I stood, 40 years later, before a wood-carved stampede of horses with expressions on their faces and taut muscles as realistic as any horse I’d seen in real life.

And he did this with a chainsaw. Not only with a chainsaw, I learned, but he carves freehand. He simply envisions his art in the wood he’s chosen, grabs his chainsaw, and begins to cut.

“But how?” I probably asked him nine times that day. But the question from Skip is how else would he do it?

To work from his own vision in his mind allows him to see it fully – three-dimensionally. He can envision the curves and angles, and the result can be fluid, ever-changing as he carves. He doesn’t have that freedom with a sketch.

I’m still mind-blown, but who am I to question the artist?

His work begins as a rough carving before a smaller chainsaw is used for finer details. In the end, each piece is smoothed with a sanding tool and given finishing touches. And, in my opinion, each piece is phenomenal.

It’s been more than two months since meeting Skip and witnessing his craft firsthand, and I still find myself fascinated by his skills. If you’re not familiar with him, take the time to look up his work.

And keep an eye out because you’ll be seeing his face around BendBroadband for a while.

Reference

About Pickens Museum

Osage Warrior in the Enemy Camp by Sculptor John Free. Seeking to attain his tribe's highest war honor by touching his enemy. This action among indigenous peoples is called "Counting Coup".
Osage Warrior in the Enemy Camp by Sculptor John Free. “Osage Warrior in the Enemy Camp” is a bronze created by Osage Artist John Free. The bronze, eight feet high and twelve feet long) was enlarged to 1-1/4 life size through the efforts of John Free of the Bronze Horse foundry in Pawhuska and Hugh Pickens. Pictured (L-R): Hugh Pickens, Executive Director of Pickens Museum and Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear of the Osage Nation.
Three Faces of the Pioneer Woman by Artist Daniel Pickens. “Three Faces of the Pioneer Woman” is a mural painted by fine artist Daniel Pickens. Daniel was born in Lima, Peru in 1974 and is currently living in Stockholm, Sweden. This mural is at our Ponca City location.
Three Faces of the Pioneer Woman by Artist Daniel Pickens. Our mural "The Three Faces of the Pioneer Woman" is located in City Central at our Ponca City location.
Doctor Pickens Museum of Turquoise Jewelry and Art. Pickens Museum displays art works at NOC Tonkawa campus. Pictured (L-R): Dr. Cheryl Evans, NOC President, Hugh Pickens, Executive Director of Pickens Museum, and Sheri Snyder, NOC Vice President for Development and Community Relations. (photo by John Pickard/Northern Oklahoma College) This art is at our Tonkawa location
Native American Artist Yatika Starr Fields Completes Mural for Pickens Museum.
The World's Largest Naja. Future location of Pickens Museum on Route 60 and "U" Street West of Ponca City
Architectural Renderings of Pickens Museum.
Display of Turquoise Jewelry.
"Red Man" by Native American Artist Fritz Scholder. Pickens Museum Director Hugh Pickens on right.
Native American Jewelry Artist Tonya Rafael with a silver frame she created to honor my wife Sr. S.J. Pickens. My wife and Tonya worked together over the years creating new jewelry art pieces. My wife had an eye for color and would often design a spectacular piece and ask Tonya to execute it for her. A skilled silversmith, Tonya would sometimes stay in our guest house, set up a workshop, and work for days at a time on a Squash Blossom, Bolo, or Bracelet my wife commissioned. The piece is a silver picture frame that Tonya cut out of thick silver plate. Around the edge of the picture frame are 95 small turquoise stones. In the top is a large spiny oyster stone in the shape of a heart. The frame contains a photo that Tonya took of my wife a few years ago. Dr. Pickens is wearing one of her favorite outfits and if you look closely you can see a special squash blossom and necklace that Tonya created for my wife. In the bottom of the frame is an inscription.
Native American Artist Jolene Bird. Jolene Bird is an accomplished artist who learned her craft from her grandfather over 20 years ago. Jolene makes her jewelry in the tradition of the Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico. This is a Fender Stratocaster guitar onto which Jolene has attached pieces of Kingman and Sonoran Turquoise highlighted with Jet. The stars are in Abalone, Mother of Pearl, Pipestone, Yellow Serpentine, and Spiny Oyster. The artistry in this piece is simply breathtaking and has to be seen to be believed. Consider that this is a three dimensional mosaic, a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle if you will. Jolene told me that each individual piece of turquoise had to be cut, shaped, and ground down to fit perfectly with the other pieces. Each individual piece probably took six to eight hours to produce and there are literally hundreds of pieces covering the guitar.
Painting by Peruvian Artist Josue Sanchez. Photo Credit: Hugh Pickens Pickens Museum

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