Sunday, December 18, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Chain-Saw Artist's Reputation Growing Around The Country -- Don Etue Wins Contests - And Customers


WEST END, Stevens County - Anyone with talent can be an artist. It takes skill to make a living at it.

And maybe a chain saw.

Don Etue drew and painted as a child in the Spokane Indian Reservation community of West End, 16 miles northwest of Wellpinit. Later, he carved soapstone and alabaster. But just for fun.

"I've always had some kind of a hobby in art, but I could never make a living at it," he says. "Hand carving, you spend a thousand hours on it and get $500 for it."

So Etue, 35, worked in construction for his father and others until he was 28 years old.

One day while driving an asphalt truck near Yakima, Etue saw a man creating a sculpture with a chain saw and decided to try it himself.

"I started getting orders right away and I quit my job in about two weeks," Etue recalled.

The chain saw allows him to carve fast enough to make ends meet. Not that it has been easy.

"This has turned out to be more work than any job I've ever worked at," Etue says.

He and his family have gone from contest to contest all across the country in pursuit of customers and national recognition. It has been feast or famine, but the lean times are fading now that Etue has won more contests than a chain saw has teeth.

He placed first this year at the Bayshore Carving Contest in Shelton, the Central Washington Championship at Ellensburg, a regional contest at Quartzsite, Ariz., the Washington Coast Championship and the Northeast Regional Championship at Tupper Lake, N.Y.

"I'm driving a new pickup truck for the first time ever, and the trailer (house) is paid off," he says.

Now he has his father and friends using a new $20,000 machine to turn out rough copies of his smaller carvings four at a time in the same way a hardware clerk copies keys. The idea is to free Etue to work on large sculptures.

But he still has to do all the detailed carving on the machine copies, and finds it's difficult to keep up with the machine.

Although he occasionally uses a saw with a special pointed-tip bar, most of Etue's carving is done with ordinary 12- or 14-inch chain saws. He wields them with the precision of a hand tool - slicing, shaving and gouging as required to free the sculpture from its wooden case.

He takes advantage of his mistakes. A hook will replace a sea captain's mangled hand and give him character.

"It really pushes you to work with the mistakes," Etue says.

One of his first challenges, in 1990, was to work with one of nature's mishaps: a dead tree on Spokane's West Francis Avenue. Etue populated the snag with an eagle and a bear with two cubs.

Chain-saw art generally gets no more respect in the art community than Velveeta in a delicatessen.

However, Etue says, "In some places like New York, they treat you like you're a rock star or something."

He was delighted with the coverage he got in a recent edition of "Chip Chats," the magazine of the National Wood Carvers Association.

An up-and-coming carver in Arkansas, whom Etue has never met, named Etue as one of two carvers whose work had influenced his. Etue was more pleased with that brief mention than with the feature article about him in the same issue of the magazine.

The feature was submitted by his wife, April, who doubles as his press agent in addition to using a torch and stain to finish his carvings.

"Somebody once told me, if you don't brag about it, nobody's going to know about it," she says. "And I'm pretty proud of him."

The Etues and their two children - Ashley, 9, and Andrea, 7, who wants to be a carver herself - returned to West End about a month ago. They had been living at Ocean Shores for two years.

Etue says he went to Western Washington because that's the best place to get the big logs he needs and because most of the state's chain saw carvers hang out there.

He operates an outdoor shop every summer at Ocean Shores, which has "about two million tourists," including many of the Seattle business people who have become his principal customers.

Guided by demand, Etue has shifted from bears, eagles and mountain men to carving sea captains and mermaids. But he couldn't adjust to the rainy coastal winters.

"We never saw sunshine for three months," he says.

Besides, he says, West End is home.

"I think we're here to stay," Etue says, "at least for the winters."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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