Artist transforms tree stump into sculpture
NATCHEZ — Kneeling his red chainsaw chaps in a pile of sawdust, the artist cocked his head and shoulders back and fourth as he buzzed at a tree stump, etching out the edge of a hummingbird’s beak.
A country music radio station blared through the chainsaw artist’s headset, while the owner of the Rising Sun Bed and Breakfast listened to a softened murmur of the grinding blades through a set of earplugs as he looked on from the shade of his porch on Pearl Street.
For nine-and-a-half hours the scene stayed the same, plus or minus a few visitors, some water breaks and a timeout for couple slices of pizza.
But by the end of the day on Monday, a tree stump became a sculpture.
Dayton Scoggins, the chainsaw artist, has been at his gig — transforming tree stumps or blocks of wood into sculptures with a chainsaw and other power tools — for 10 years.
As a former tugboat captain, he’s passed through Natchez many times, but last week was his first commissioned job as a sculptor here.
Dr. Lee Turk said he heard about Scoggins at the coffee shop.
Turk, who has owned the bed and breakfast since 2009, said he was at Natchez Coffee Company complaining that he didn’t know how to get rid of a tree stump in his yard when a friend brought up an art form she heard about on the Gulf Coast.
Word of Scoggins’ talent spread after he was commissioned by the City of Biloxi to sculpt stumps of trees damaged in Hurricane Katrina.
He’s also traveled around the world to compete with other artists in his trade, which apparently there are hundreds of, according to Scoggins personal knowledge of them.
He’s been to Japan, England, Scotland, Germany and all over the United States in places like Washington, Oregon, California and in the Northeast.
“He wins (the competitions),” said his wife, Michelle, who handles the business side of things.
“She loves traveling,” Dayton said of his wife, a northerner he met on the tugboat when she was his first-mate.
“I’m from Greene County,” he said, which he intended to explain why he wasn’t as big of a traveler as his wife.
Dayton got into the craft when Michelle suggested it. The two of them were on the tugboat, and she read an article about it in one of his whittling magazine and encouraged him to try.
He had been whittling since he was a teenager, and it was a hobby he honed behind the barge on slow days.
Michelle said she figured trees and chainsaws were just a larger scale.
“He can do anything,” she said.
So she bought him his first chainsaw, and not long after that, they both quit their jobs.
Turk said when he called Michelle with interest in commissioning a sculpture, the couple moved around their schedule to make the trip to Natchez. Within two weeks, a tailgate tent was propped in Turk’s yard and Dayton was spraying away wood chips in the heat.
“It’s really entertaining to watch,” Turk said.
“I’m science,” said the doctor, “and he’s an artist — it’s interesting to see someone else’s life path that’s completely different than what I do.”
In researching wood artists, Turk said he discovered Dayton’s detail and talent was unmatched by many others he saw.
“There aren’t that many Mississippi tree artists of his caliber,” Turk said.
But Michelle assured Turk that her husband’s accolades haven’t given him an air of pretention sometimes found in artists.
“Michelle said he is a country boy, and it doesn’t get to his head,” Turk said.
Dayton’s camouflage baseball cap with a frayed bill and his oak-colored T-shirt both read “Artistry in Wood,” but Dayton said he has trouble seeing himself as an artist.
“Maybe a little (do I think of myself as an artist), but I don’t think about it too much,” said Dayton, despite his international first place wins. “I’m more of a carver, mostly.”
But Dayton talked about his form like an artist, though he admitted he had no Michelangelo-like visions of freeing an image from block of marble — or wood.
“When I walk up to a tree it looks like a tree,” Dayton said.
Like tug boating, it’s the process Dayton likes.
“You really get lost in a piece — you zone out everything,” he said.
“It’s like tunnel vision — you don’t really see other surroundings and (you) get in your own little world, I guess.”
The idea for the animals at Turk’s house was collaborated between the artist and Turk, and that’s the way Dayton likes it.
In the end, in the front yard of 303 N. Pearl St., Dayton carved in one day a heron, a squirrel, a canary and a cardinal into the stump of what was once a camellia tree, but Turk said it will likely be a piece to start conversations for much longer.