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Voices Fall-Winter, 2000:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the On Air column, “James J. Donato, Chain Saw Sculptor” by Dale W. Johnson here.
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Volume 26

James J. Donato, Chain Saw Sculptor

James J. Donato was born in 1948 in Voorheesville, in New York’s southern Albany County, and grew up on his family’s farm. His workshop, Out o’ the Woods, sits on a hill on land owned by the family for generations. Donato has worked with wood all his adult life and says his experience gave him the confidence to use what he calls a nonprecision tool to express himself with precision.

Donato’s sculptures, varnished and painted, are displayed throughout the Voorheesville community and beyond—on lawns and porches, outside and inside businesses. The most popular is a carved bear, but Donato also sculpts dolphins, pelicans, fishermen, gargoyles, beavers, dogs, and eagles.

In 1999 and 2000, folklorist Beverly J. Butcher conducted a series of interviews with Donato for a radio documentary; excerpts from the transcript follow.

Butcher: Perhaps some of you think chain saw woodcarving sounds a bit like an oxymoron. Carving, after all, requires meticulous work, chain saws are big, fast, loud ... decidedly not easy tools with which to be meticulous. To be honest, James Donato thought this was the case, too, when he first learned of this traditional form of folk art. But now that he has been doing it for the past four years, chain saw carving seems perfectly natural to him.

Donato: I love making things. . . .I like the idea of taking a raw material and making it something that it’s not. And to get them to look animated. That’s when I really enjoy what I’m doing. If somebody comes up and says, "I don’t know which one to choose; they all have a different expression," I’ve done my job. I like that.

Butcher: Most of Jim’s bears are made of pine and stand about two to two and half feet high. Some are as tall as six feet. They live on porches and in yards, and they guard diners and even a chain saw store. The large upside-down U-shaped nose is Donato’s signature. The eyes are made of dark marbles. He makes the fur on the bears with quick quarter- to half-inch-deep vertical lines with the smallest of his three chain saws. He burnishes them with a torch to smooth and darken them. And then there are the finishing touches:

Donato: If it’s a farmer bear, he’ll have a pitchfork in his hand. If it’s a police bear, he’ll have have a patch on his sleeve and a gun belt. Every time I get to do a new character, that’s when it’s exciting. That’s when I really enjoy what I’m doing. That’s when I’m at my best. Things just happen somehow. I don’t know what the connection is between my brain and my hand, but when I’m being creative it seems like there’s more ease in detail. It’s like, well this is the first time, so there’s really nothing to judge my piece by.

Butcher: Donato first learned his art from a long-time friend, Frank Cavoli, who had worked with wood all his adult life—construction, cabinetry, even miniature artifact carving. James credits these experiences, as well as years as a dune buggy maker, motorcycle builder, and "artistic" plumber, with giving him the ability and confidence to be innovative when working with traditional forms. Here he explains the process of carving an eagle.

Photo of James Donato with chain saw
Donato: The smallest eagle that I make takes about a two-and-a-half-foot-tall by two-and-a-half-foot-wide log. After going around the log and looking at the knots, locating where the head of the eagle is going to be, I start my first two cuts. At this time I have no feelings about the bird yet. There are about ten original cuts that I do with the big chain saw that give you the basic shape of what I am going to carve with the smaller saws. By the time I get the wings cut and the squared-out block shape of the body done, I start to get a little bit excited about what’s coming out. If the cuts go well, I start to feel good about the piece that I’m doing. And the sooner that happens, the better the piece comes out.

Photo of James Donato
James Donato carves abstract sculptures (above, “She”) as well as traditional Adirondack themes, like the black bear with its signature Donato muzzle. Photos: Deborah Kantor

Butcher: One piece that James got very excited about was a penguin, the first sculpture other than a bear that he ever attempted. But as James explains, it almost never got started.

Donato: When the fellow came down and asked if I could do a penguin, I hadn’t done anything but bears . . . And I kind of used the excuse that I didn’t have a model because I wasn’t really that confident about my capabilities. But then I thought, Well, it’s a piece of wood, and if that doesn’t turn out right, I can try again. And if that doesn.t turn out I will keep trying until I do get it right. But it came out right the first time.

Butcher: And how right did James Donato get it? According to the proud owner Bruce Sowalski, "It looks like the penguin is about ready to waddle off the porch and jump into the ocean."

Donato: I had so mch fun doing that penguin....Up until that point I was known as the Bear Man.

Butcher: I think "artist" is more appropriate.

Donato: I’m working on that.

On Air

This documentary was produced by Robert Brown of WMHT Public Radio, Schenectady. Executive producers of The Voices of New York Traditions series are Dale Johnson and Lamar Bliss.

carved bear

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 26, Fall-Winter, 2000. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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