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Famer's chainsaw gets a tall order

Updated: May 22, 2020

by Erin Conway-Smith (Ottawa Citizen)

Being commissioned to create a totem pole was an honour for someone who used to carve for fun. Erin Conway-Smith reports.

Peter Van Adrichem learned to wield a chain-saw as a young boy growing up on his family's dairy farm near Winchester. In university, the self-described farm boy studied agriculture, all the while showing a,deft ability to carve wood - a hobby for more than 20 years.

When Mr. Van Adrichem was laid off from his job in soil and water conservation six years ago, he was forced to find new work. "I thought, well, we'll just change a hobby into a full-time and occupation and it's worked' out really well," he said.

Mr. Van Adrichem opened Fleetwood Studio and began selling his wood carvings on a full-time basis: It was during the ice storm of 1998 that he turned his chainsaw into an artist's tool. "There was so much wood I picked up around the country-side, I thought I'd better do something with it," he said.

The 47-year-old man now uses his chainsaw to carve pieces of Canadiana on commission: bears, beavers, wolves, Canada geese. Recently, he put his 'chainsaw to a much taller order.

Mr. Van Adrichem was commissioned by Bill Tomlinson, a contractor who lives in Manotick, to carve a totem pole to stand outside his cottage on the St. Lawrence River.

Mr. Tomlinson said he looked far and wide to find someone who could undertake such a large carving. He talked to wood carvers in the U.S., B.C., and across Ontario before finding Mr. Van Adrichem in his own backyard.

"This is the major piece of my carving career," Mr. Van Adrichem said.

The two men spent last winter researching traditional Haida designs. They studied pictures in library books and took a trip to view the totem poles at the Museum of Civilization.

This spring, Mr. Tomlinson had a 21-metre red cedar tree trucked in from the B.C. Coast. The tree now lies on Bankfield Road near Highway 16, looking slightly out of place amidst the Manotick corn fields.

It weighed 1500 kilograms when it was shipped. When propped upright, the tree will stand twice as tall as the weathered old barn Mr. Van Adrichem uses as a gallery for his carvings.

Incorporated in the design are figures from traditional stories of the aboriginal people who live on Canada's West Coast, Mr. Van Adrichem said.

A raven, its big beak sticking out from the pole, is a trickster figure, a shape-changer. A dragonfly represents speed, while a man holding a piece of copper is a sign of wealth. An eagle keeps watch atop the pole.

After the design was chosen, Mr Van Adrichem sketched a scale drawing onto a 11-by-17-inch piece of paper, and then set to work transferring the design onto the tree stripped of bark, section by section, using a pencil and a sharp eye.

He divided the task of carving the tree into three main steps.

First, he used his chainsaw to carve a rough version of the design into the trunk. He then smoothed the design with an electric sander and is now down to the detail work: carving fine lines and details into the tree by hand, using a chisel and mallet.

He made his first cut on April 1, and said he felt slightly intimidated by the size of the project. "I really bit off a big chunk here," he thought at the time.

The tree proved difficult to carve at first, since Mr. Van Adrichem wasn't used to working with red cedar, with its tricky variations in texture.

But red cedar weathers well, growing deeper in colour and showing the intricate grain as the wood dries out over time. The totem pole will withstand the elements of the St. Lawrence River for the decades that come.

I'm sure it will last maybe 100 years:' Mr. Van Adrichem said.

He expects to finish the job on July 25, in time for a weekend open house at his studio.

Mr. Tomlinson said once the work is completed, he will drill a hole into the rock down by the river and mount the totem pole.

"It's unique and we're happy with the production," he said. "They're not something local to this part of the country."

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