The accidental artist: From chain saws to fire, Hermantown woman lets new ideas find her
HERMANTOWN, Minn. — LeAnn Oman puts on a headset and fashion sunglasses before wielding her chain saw.
As her instrument buzzes loudly, she slices into a thick log in her Hermantown yard. She angles the machine sideways, upward and inward deep, cutting through like butter. She severs a triangular chunk and tosses it to the ground. Wood chips fall near her bejeweled flip-flops.
"I'm always in flip-flops," she said afterward. "I carved in tennies a couple times, and I hated it."
Oman has been seriously pursuing chain-saw art since March, and she's been working hard at it since. "Any time I have daylight, I'm practicing."
While she's been an artist for many years, and she teaches classes, her latest venture began out of necessity.
On Labor Day 2016, a storm blew through the Omans' campground in Biwabik, destroying campers, grills and leaving many toppled trees. The stumps were reminders of the trees that had stood, and that was difficult. "I felt like that was a death," she said.
She told her husband, David Oman, she was going to carve them into art. He was skeptical at first, but that strengthened her resolve, she said.
On a trip to Aldi, she purchased a chain saw for $24, and her first piece was a statue of her husband smiling with his hands in his pockets. From there, her pieces have ranged from a dragonfly resting on a daisy, a miniature Viking to a tall, detailed Duluth piece with the lift bridge, Seven Bridges Road and Enger Tower on top.
Oman's first impression of the chain saw was that it kicked back a lot. "You can really cut your face open," she said.
While she's been accident-free, she knew she needed to learn safety. She sought help from a seasoned chain-saw artist from the area. After finding his website, isawitinmn.com, Oman contacted Joe Semler of Isanti, Minn.
Semler has been creating chain-saw art for 10 years and teaching for five. The Omans ended up traveling to his winter home in Lake Placid, Fla., where she took Semler's two-day class.
Oman was very enthusiastic. "She's actually one of my better students," he said.
"He didn't make me feel like a dumb girl," Oman said. "At the same time, he was like, 'You're going to kill yourself if you do that.' "
Semler taught her how to hold her instrument, how to prevent kickback, how to make different cuts, how to round things out. He's been an inspiration in her wanting to continue the craft, she said.
"Chain-saw carving, for most of us that do it, it's not a job. You love it so much," Semler said. It's a high-performance art. While he can't draw a stick person or smiley face, he can carve detailed pictures out of hunks of wood. "Now LeAnn can do both," he said.
"She does drawing, she does caricature drawings and she can carve," he said, adding that she works hard at it. "She can go as far as she wants, there's no doubt."
'Gas and carburetors'
It boils down to practice today, Oman said. She can tell she's getting more fluid with the chain saw after a weekend working at it. And it's work that allows her to be by herself, guilt-free, she said. "That's the liberating thing about it."
Chain-sawing is different than other art forms she has pursued. It's challenging and exhausting (her saws range from 9-14 pounds). "Plus, it's a huge adrenaline rush."
And there are little surprises to it. Oman has run her chain saw into a huge nail that a tree grew over. She once ran into a colony of carpenter ants in a stump. There also have been surprises in learning optimal woods to use. (No basswood.)
"I've learned about saws and oil and gas and carburetors, things that I never thought I'd give a darn about," she said.
Another surprise is when a carving turns into something she didn't expect.
She once hit a knot, and it turned into an E.T. statue, she said with a smile. This is a big draw of art for her, she said.
"It's not about you, which I don't think creativity is necessarily about us. I think it's something inside of us."
Through her Facebook page, LeAnn Oman Creations, she displays her chain-saw pieces, along with photos of her deep repertoire of wool art and fire-painted pieces.
Before chain saws, Oman wanted a bunny, but David said it would need to be functional in their home. So, Oman got an angora rabbit and tried to spin its wool, which was a tedious process. ("I hated it," she said.)
Oman started dyeing the wool and then: "One night at 3, 4 in the morning, I was really ticked off, and I started throwing wool ... and I saw a bunch of colors, and I started playing," she said.
Today, the Omans' living room is filled with lifelike wool paintings — of her daughter smelling a flower, a lake scene.
Some wool artists use paste, but Oman doesn't use anything. "All I'm doing is ripping and putting down, ripping and putting down," she said, until it's so thick, you can't see through it.
At her kitchen table, Oman snips a piece of taupe rabbit wool with tiny scissors and lays it on a daffodil scene. She pulls thin strips of light green and bigger, fluffy pieces of dark green. She stacks them down, the image already taking shape.
Wool painting is fast, and it changes after it's framed. The fibers mesh together and tighten up, she said, and she can't control that — a fact Oman admires about the craft.
Another draw is she was told she had to felt or needle wool, and she didn't buy it, she said. "There are people who still think I'm breaking the rules," but that seems to propel Oman forward. "I have to follow the rules all day," she said, so art is where she rebels.
On a white ceramic slab, Oman dots yellow and red in botanical alcohol ink.
With a long utility lighter, she ignites the paint. Though it burns, the paint remains and changes form, the center lightening slightly and the edges looking burnt.
Oman drips long lines of blue and green; a blue flame blazes lightly up the ceramic before extinguishing on its own. After several minutes, Oman makes adjustments, moving paint around with a brush and thinning it out with alcohol. What emerges is a birchwood-looking scene, and somehow orange leaves appear where they weren't before.
Its origin: "A piece that I had spray-painted accidentally started on fire," she said.
After realizing there wasn't a safety hazard, she moved to fascination and curiosity. "I thought 'Oh this is really cool' and, 'Now I'm having fun.'" So she started playing with fire, paint with flammable warnings and different surfaces. (Panel board, glass and ceramic are go-tos.)
Fire painting is another creative outlet that Oman said is breaking the rules, adding that it's also one she found by accident, which is how she stumbles upon art she loves.
"That's how all of these things happen for me — or I'm being rebellious and someone told me I can't do it, then it's like 'Wanna bet? Let's try this,'" she said. (This doesn't apply to chain-saw safety, she said.)
Fire painting, like wool and chain-saw art, can't be replicated, and it's fast; she doesn't have a lot of free time, she said. Also with fire, the image is being revealed. "Like it happens to me versus me happening to it," she said.
"It's therapeutic for me to watch," David Oman says over the high-pitched buzzing of the chain saw. Minutes later, like water out of a hydrant, sawdust bursts out of the long lines LeAnn Oman slices into the log. What once was a log is starting to take shape as a rose.
"It's out of gas," he says, and the sound of the saw peters out.
When she's done, LeAnn Oman takes off her glasses. Her voice is energized, her eyes charged. For her, making art is a need. "I don't think it's a choice," she said.
"If I'm not doing it, I have too much junk in me. It's detoxifying."
Her tips: "Just do what your heart tells you to do." Go for it and don't make excuses, she said.
"I had no idea that asking for a bunny was going to lead to me painting with their fur.
"How did I know that the storm ... was going to turn into me being able to do this. You just never know."