Fifteen years ago brothers Rick and Randy Boni invited a few buddies to their backyard for a friendly chainsaw-carving get-together.
And then it grew. This year marks the 13th anniversary of what has officially become the Ridgway Rendezvous -- a gathering of chainsaw artists who converge here each winter for a week of artistic buzzing.
Rick's wife, Liz, is the organizer. She says the Rendezvous has grown from 33 carvers at their first event to this month's version, which will bring in almost 200 carvers from the United States, Canada, Europe and even Australia.
Like many folk arts, Boni believes, loggers and tree trimmers started chainsaw carving during the off-season. She laughs, "Maybe it was a bunch of guys sitting around who wanted to combat winter boredom. Who knows what men do?"
Boni has seen chainsaw carving evolve over the years, with artists creating pieces that reflect their own unique style and artistic expression. And it's not just men carving.
"This year we'll have about 40 women," says Boni, whose daughter Zoe will be among them.
Over the years Boni has seen more dedicated chainsaw artists than ever before, and points to the many carving competitions worldwide.
Despite its competitive vibe, the Ridgway Rendezvous isn't an official contest.
"It's competitive in terms of comparing notes and tricks. It's more about the lasting friendships the Rendezvous has created," says Boni.
Each carver uses upward of three saws.
"There is as much to learn about the saws as there is to carving," says Boni. Some specialty "carving bars" (the part holding the saw's chain) have tips as small as quarters and dimes.
"Carving has created a whole new market for power tools," says Boni.
A local company supplies white pine logs, which are soft enough to be carved outdoors. Hardwoods would be virtually impossible to carve in the cold. The event uses five "tri-axles" (those big logging trucks) of logs.
Carvers select the logs they want to work with, sometimes taking the whole week to create one piece. The subject matter is entirely up to them.
"You'll see plants, animals, abstract art, fantasy and even furniture. There are no rules. It's all about free expression," says Boni, who describes carving as a series of stages from "blocking" and "bolstering" to final detailing, which can include burning and painting.
The irregularity of the wood often creates challenges and forces artists to improvise on the fly. Boni's daughter calls the chainsaw her pencil and eraser.
Many world champions will be in Ridgway, including some carvers from "Saw Dogs," a new reality show on Velocity, an offshoot of the Discovery Channel.
Each carver must donate at least one piece for the auction held on the final day. Proceeds help pay for the event.
"If you're interested in a special order, the event is a great way to see each artist's style. You can also purchase a piece that might cost less than from a private studio," says Boni. Pieces sell anywhere from $50 to a few thousand, and Boni will hold any piece until the buyer can arrange for transportation.
But Boni notes that the main reason for the Ridgway Rendezvous is to expose people to the art form.
"When you walk around and experience the intense fast pace, you find yourself transformed into their world. You can just feel the creative energy," she says.
The Ridgway Rendezvous is runs from Saturday through Feb. 25 along Main Street in Ridgway, Pa. Carvers set up each day at 9 a.m., are carving by noon and end at around 5 p.m. The auction begins at noon Feb. 25. The event is outdoors, so dress for the weather.
For more information, visit chainsawrendezvous.org. Ridgway is about 2 1/2 hours from Buffalo, south on Route 219. Note: We recommend earplugs!
> More to do
It is fitting that the Rendezvous is held in Ridgway, as the town was once a logging hub. Today Ridgway's "Lily of the Valley" Historic District seeks to preserve its old town homes and buildings, many built by lumber fortunes. A walking tour brochure highlights homes built between 1855 and 1917. The brochure is available at local businesses and the Ridgway-Elk County Chamber of Commerce on Main Street. Visit www.ridgwayheritagecouncil.org for more information.
There is plenty to see and do in town. Check out the unusual antiques at the Clarion River Trading Company on North Broad Street. Among the eclectic mix there is a 100-year-old bear trap, and just around the corner, a black bear rug!
The Elk County Council on the Arts (www.eccota.com) on Main Street showcases local artisans. Paintings, photography, pottery and jewelry are items available for purchase.
Elkwood Arts on Allenhurst Avenue has a small showroom of wood products created by disabled adults. Gorgeous cutting boards, wastebaskets, planters, paper towel holders and kitchen utensil vessels are some of the items available. Elkwood Arts also take special orders. Visit www.elkwoodarts.com.
The Boni's own Appalachian Arts (www.appalachian-arts.com) is on Route 219 south of Ridgway. They will set up a tent with pottery and other artisan items at the Rendezvous.
For the outdoorsy types, Country Squirrel Outfitters on Main Street carries outdoor equipment and clothing, and rents cross-country skis and snowshoes. The shop is located across from the Clarion-Little Toby Rail Trail and a few miles from the Laurel Mill cross-country skiing/hiking area. On Saturdays during the Rendezvous, it will provide snowshoe lessons and a guided snowshoe hike in the Allegheny National Forest, with discounted rentals Saturday through Feb. 26. For more information, visit www.countrysquirreloutfitters.com.
> Food and lodging
The town has a variety of places to eat. At Lumberjack Steak & Seafood on Main Street, check out the historical photos on the walls and sit among "trees" in the dining room.
Also on Main Street are Joey's Bakery & Restaurant and Jordan's Bar & Grill. The Aiello Cafe and Pennsy Restaurant are on North Broad Street. The Ridgway Elks on South Street is open on Wednesday nights for spaghetti dinners and Fridays for fish fry.
Sleep in the past at the Towers Victorian Inn, a beautiful Italian-style villa built in 1865 by Jerome Powell, whose fortune was made through lumber, merchandise and real estate. He also established the Ridgway Advocate (now the Ridgway Record). Next door you will see his son Edgar's mansion. Both are on South Street and are part of the Lily of the Valley walking tour. For reservation information, visit www.towersinn.com.