Hope on ice: Albany ‘chainsaw man’ sculpts massive ice wall for Jacob
by Stuart Goldschen
Nearly four months now after the abduction of Jacob Wetterling, Jacob’s Hope remains frozen in the hearts and minds of area residents. It remained frozen also for several weeks in a massive ice sculpture for Jacob in St. Cloud.
Jacob’s face, delicate bows of hope, flowing scrolls and large letters spelling out Jacob’s Hope adorned a solid ice wall at Lake George from Jan. 18 through early February.
The wall measured 11 feet high, 14 feet long and 20 inches thick, and contained 56 blocks of ice weighing 300 pounds apiece. It was sculpted entirely with a chainsaw by Albany artist Mark Kurtz.
Set in the northeast corner of the lake by the park pavilion, the ice sculpture was an imposing reminder of Jacob’s plight and the need to keep his story alive. It was a popular attraction for three weeks before unusually warm weather melted it away.
Kurtz, a 21-year-old chainsaw woodcarver, designed the wall and sculpted it in 25 hours from Jan. 18-20. He donated his time and creativity, and paid for the work of three assistants. The ice blocks were funded by the Friends of Jacob Office in St. Joseph.
Kurtz sculpted three separate symbolic blocks of colored ice that stood in front of the wall before vandals destroyed them soon after their erection. They were a blue block of Jacob’s hockey sticks, a yellow heart-and-flowers block representing love and beauty, and a swan block representing gracefulness.
Kurtz said he got the idea for the ice sculpture soon after Jacob’s abduction. He already had donated a 3-foot white oak golden eagle that earned $300 at a local silent auction for the Jacob Wetterling fund.
“I did it because Jacob isn’t found yet and we need to keep this fresh in people’s minds,” Kurtz said. “For myself, just from doing the wall, I drive on the road and I think of Jacob. I’ve got his button in my truck.”
The square-jawed, athletically-built artist, known locally as the Chainsaw Man, admitted his sculpture was delicate and ephemeral. But he felt the impact of his work on the public was worth the effort.
“Even if it stands one day, it pays off,” he said. “Even if I hit 100 people, it’s successful. I did it for a good cause, and it’s a total good investment overall.”
St. Cloud area residents agree, considering the many people who have stopped to see the sculpture and contemplate its significance for Jacob and other abducted and missing children all the world around. Kids would walk up to it, Kurtz said, and say “Wow! Look at Jacob,” whose 4-foot-square face smiled out from the lower right side.
Although Kurtz works primarily with wood, the Jacob’s Hope sculpture was not his first experiment with ice. He has done winter carnival pieces both locally and in Minneapolis, and he recently fashioned a creative marriage proposal backdrop for his girlfriend, Kimberly Leither of Kimball, now his fiancee.
Kurtz cut 3,000 pounds of ice from Pine Lake in Albany on Dec. 8, and built a 5-foot-high, V-shaped wall with a pyramid in front as a base for an engagement night for Leither. He carved a walk-way of ice bricks that led up to the wall and chainsawed swans, his and Leither’s names, and the question, “Will you marry me?,” in the sides of the wall.
To the sound of romantic music and the soft whir of a video camera, Kurtz blindfolded his fiancee-to-be and led her to the wall. The wedding is set for June 15, 1991.
Meanwhile, Kurtz is busy full-time pursuing an artistic career in chainsaw wood sculptures. He has a growing business in Albany and Minnesota generally, and sells his works in 15 to 20 other states. He is a familiar figure at work on a moving flat bed in St. Joseph’s annual July Fourth parade.
Kurtz said he works six hours a day, six days a week, wielding a 20-pound chainsaw to make customized sculptures. He said he does not mass produce any of his creations.
“When you come to me, I design the work to you,” he said. “I guarantee the finest 100 percent chainsaw wood carving, and I tell the customer if he doesn’t like it I’ll make him another one.”
Few people need to test that promise, since Kurtz’s art is immediately appealing and his sales are continuously increasing. He says he offers a unique product that few other people can duplicate.
“I stick with a chainsaw because it pushes my ability to be better, and my work is valued as chainsaw art,” he said. “When people buy something from me they can look back in the future and tell friends this was done by just a chainsaw.”
Kurtz’s work is indeed impressive for both its size and fine detail, and he says it will last a lifetime if well cared for. He says he can do anything a customer orders, including flowers, totem poles, owls, eagles, bears, turkeys, pelicans, sea gulls, Indians, pioneers, Vikings, lumberjacks, sailors, shepherds and nuns.
He did a 23-foot bear that stands by his Albany shop off I-94 and a 16-foot customized sculpture of a lumberjack with his axe in a nearby stump for a lumber yard in Chokio, Minn. He has carved small animals with expressive eyes and fluttering feathers, and human beings with symbolic expressions and wind-blown clothes.
He says he does between 200 and 300 works a year, carefully studying each subject to capture its essence. He charges between $50-$2,000 for each one.
Kurtz began his chainsaw career four years ago after discovering his talent in a high school wood shop class. He said he taught himself what he needed to know and developed his skill and artistic sense through confidence, patience, motivation and lots of hard work.
“I tried it and the stuff turned out,” Kurtz said. “Everyone was recognizing my work. Now I’ve hit a medium and I think I’m a very OK artist.”
Success, however, has been costly, and Kurtz bears the scars of his dangerous profession. He almost lost his life two years ago when a chainsaw he was using kicked back from a block of wood, knocked off his protective helmet and cut him severely across the face.
A plastic surgeon took four hours and 250 fine stitches to put his face back together, but the long scars that remained cut short a modeling career he was preparing for at the time.
Kurtz was not discouraged, however, and he bounced back quickly with the energy and confidence of a dedicated professional.
“I said to myself I’m not going to let it get me down,” he said. “I’m going to become that model, but in my own way, And I’m doing it right now with a chainsaw.”
He has taken some additional precautions, however, and has not been injured since that accident. He has brazed a quarter-inch of steel bar across the front of his hockey helmet that sticks out four inches on either side, and he has ordered a special vest made of bulletproof kevlar fibers. He continues to wear large gloves, ear muffs, safety chaps and steel-tipped boots.
Kurtz admits it would be safer to carve with traditional hand tools. But then it wouldn’t be chainsaw art, and the “natural high” he now gets from his work would no longer exist.
And who, then, would go out of the way to buy a sculpture from the Hammer and Chisel Man?