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Carving life-size wooden statues -- with a chainsaw

RYAN CORMIERMay 22, 2019

DELAWARE CITY, Del. (AP) — Beth O’Neal is well aware that her husband is storing bodies in their horse barn.

“I haven’t sold the people yet, but now they’re starting to pile up,” says 31-year Delaware City Refinery worker James O’Neal, while walking across his sunny property with his wife. “Most of my neighbors don’t know what’s going on over here.”

Across a rolling green pasture at their rural Bridgeton, New Jersey, home, O’Neal opens the barn door to reveal the famous faces he’s collected.

There’s actor and former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, boxers Muhammed Ali and Floyd Mayweather Jr. and along with mixed martial arts fighters Conor McGregor and Cris Cyborg.

Oh — and Sylvester Stallone was also in there with such a smooth face it looks more molded than sculpted in wood.

There’s no need to call the police. All six are life-sized statues carved from massive tree trunks — started with chainsaws — are the result of an obsessive hobby for the Wilmington native.

While all his neighbors may not know what he’s up to in that horse barn, plenty of others do.

The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, featured his Schwarzenegger carving in a September article, giving him international exposure. The headline? “I’ll Be Bark!”

And in 2015, he created an Instagram account (instagram.com/jamesonealwoodart) for his work and has since gained an impressive 25,000 followers.

He can do almost anything with his hands, it seems. A glance across his three-acre property shows how he cleared out 160 trees to create a pasture for the horse and built patios, a parking area and more around the house.

With plenty of wood on his hands, he began carving.

Without any previous experience or art background of any kind, he just jumped in and taught himself, with eye-popping results.

His over-sized carvings started with a 4-foot gargoyle, sold to a woman in Florida for $12,000.

The size of the carving stunned his wife.

“I said, ‘Don’t people usually start with little birds whittling or something?’” she says. “It was as big as I am.”

His life-size statues started three years ago with McGregor, cut out of a maple tree he had cut down. It took about six months to complete, about 700 to 800 hours of work.

O’Neal didn’t own the right kind of tools when he started so he went to Lowe’s and bought carpenter chisels.

“After about 100 hours, I realized I couldn’t get any further with those, so I went to a wood craft store and bought some real chisels,” says the Mount Pleasant High School graduate. “I just figured it out by doing it.”

A muscular 60-year-old who grew up in Holly Oak off Philadelphia Pike, O’Neal didn’t have mentoring or classes.

“There’s no one around to help, so I’ve learned how to do it myself,” says O’Neal, who commutes an hour each way from his rural home to the Delaware City Refinery for his rotating 4 a.m. shifts.

He either uses wood from his own trees or wood donated to him — always something with hearty grain such as oak and walnut instead of something like poplar or pine.

Once he has the wood, each project follows the same path. First, he props up a giant tree trunk in his yard near a set of trees using a chain hoist, shackling it to other trees as if it’s King Kong to stabilize the wood. The trunks usually weigh about 3,000 pounds.

Once his big cuts are complete with a chainsaw, his backhoe brings the trunk (now about 1,000 pounds) across his property from the woods through the horse pasture and into a horse barn. There, he turns that block of wood into an artistic marvel, usually weighing between 200 to 375 pounds when he’s done.

He’s so dedicated, he also built an insulated room complete with overhead lighting in the barn for carving a few months ago, especially handy in winter’s extreme conditions. In the past, he might have brought his work into the house, but these pieces are too big to make it into his basement.

The barn is also where Beth’s Missouri Fox Trotter named Hobo lives. Hobo watches O’Neal carve from his stall. When Hobo stomps on a piece of wood, O’Neal knows it’s treat time and pulls an apple from a draw for the 31-year-old horse.

After working a long shift at the refinery as a plant operator — a loud workspace that requires ear protection as he opens valves and checks gauges — his hobby allows for an opposite experience.

Often, only the sound of chirping birds can be heard as he diligently works, getting lost in his craft. There’s no radio or television to distract him. It’s just O’Neal, a piece of wood, his tools and Hobo.

While that arrangement might seem like a stress reliever, O’Neal’s not so sure. He says the initial work for each piece is grueling, even though his own bulging biceps resemble tree trunks.

“A lot of time it’s very strenuous. The first couple of months of carving is just exhausting every day — hours and hours of pounding away,” says O’Neal, whose rotating shift work gives him three or four days off in a row for his hobby. “But I suppose I enjoy it because it’s what I look forward to coming home and doing. I’ll spend 10 hours a day doing it. It just flies by.”

Since he does each piece for himself as a hobby — not commissioned by art-lovers with deep pockets — he picks who he wants to re-create.

He enjoys carving intricate muscles and grew up as a Schwarzenegger fan, so that was an easy choice. Since he and Beth are MMA fans, McGregor and Cyborg were fun to tackle.

His next project is former bodybuilder Franco Columbu. A 3,000-pound hunk of sycamore is strapped up, ready to be cut. It’s the first piece of wood he’s had to buy so far, costing him $300.

He’ll start that project after the finishing touches on Rocky Balboa are complete.

His celebrity statues landed him in the Top 5 of last year’s annual ArtPrize 10 art competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The contest included 1,260 works from 41 states and 40 countries, which were exhibited in more than 165 venues.

And just like all of the 30 or so other events and shows at which he’s displayed his work, O’Neal does the loading and unloading on his own, using a hand truck. He also does the driving.

Even with all that effort, he feels like he has some weaknesses when it comes to his work and the biggest one is promoting himself and his statues.

“I’m better at making them than marketing them,” says the reserved O’Neal.

With all the attention he’s gotten recently, he is starting to shift into making statues of the most popular people he can think of. Now he’s toying with doing wrestler-turned actor The Rock, soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo or martial arts legend Bruce Lee.

And, sorry, “Game of Thrones” fans, while having a mammoth statue of Jon Snow or a tiny Tyrion Lannister would be amazing, don’t hold your breath.

“If I did anyone, it would be The Mountain, but that would be like 600 pounds,” O’Neal says, referencing the 8-foot brute on the popular HBO drama.

O’Neal has sold off all of his work, except for his stars.

But that may change.

Earlier this year at the annual Arnold Sports Festival, Schwarzenegger showed interest in buying O’Neal’s carving of himself.

Schwarzenegger apparently had been following news of the statue online. O’Neal knows that because Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff emailed O’Neal before the show about the former California governor possibly buying the statue.

It makes sense. Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding nickname was “The Austrian Oak” and O’Neal made the statue out of, you guessed it, oak.

Once in front of the statue, the “Terminator” star took a selfie video and talked about the statue before taking photos with the O’Neals.

“When he was looking at it, someone asked me if it was for sale and Schwarzenegger said, ‘This one’s mine,’” says O’Neal, although the purchase has not yet been made.

This summer another of his statues could get some celebrity love.

Sylvester Stallone will be at August’s Keystone Comic Con in Philadelphia. O’Neal’s Rocky Balboa statue will be done just in time.

He has rented a booth for the show and will be there with Balboa and all his wooden friends.

At 60, thoughts of retirement now surface, and O’Neal’s hobby seems like a perfect way to spend it.

“If I can just sit here and do two or three of these a year,” he says, “and make a little money off it, I’ll be as happy as can be.”

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Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com

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