How can someone armed with an unwieldy and imprecise piece of modern technology, such as a 20-inch electric chainsaw, create woodcarvings so meticulous in detail they look real? It takes a person with the eye of an artist and a deep well of physical stamina and self-discipline. Omaha business owner Todd Lavigne exemplifies those qualities.
Just inside the garage of his ranch-style home overlooking the Elkhorn River Valley stands the apex, thus far, of Lavigne’s 20-year chainsaw career: a life-size carving of two wolves standing on their hind haunches, snarling and grappling for supremacy.
The symbolism of the powerful image doesn’t take long to sink in.
“The light-haired wolf represents good. I named him Francisco, after the patron saint of all living creatures,” explains Lavigne, 51. “The dark wolf is Diablo. If you look closely, you can see the evil wolf is getting pushed back a little.”
The struggle between good and evil took 13 months to complete. Lavigne says bringing definition to the sculpture “was insane because I’m trying to get two animals to twist around one another.”
Lavigne’s fascination with wolves began with a phone call 15 years ago. Yellowstone National Park commissioned his business, American Fence Company, to design and engineer the pens used to reintroduce wolves into the park.
He came away from that project with an emotional reaction to these “mystical creatures” of ancient lore, inspiring a work of art so stunning most people who view it can’t believe the sculpture comes from a single stump of white pine.
The skeletal and muscular systems are anatomically accurate, the teeth and fangs spaced precisely inside the mouth. The hooded eyes have a gleam and the thick fur lies in natural patterns, as if Lavigne poured coats of lacquer over the animals’ embalmed bodies.
The detailing separates Lavigne from his chainsaw-carving contemporaries.
“After I rough it out with the chainsaw, I use a second and third level of smaller hand tools for grinding and cutting,” he explains. “Some mimic a dentist’s drill.”
While the wolves remain in the garage due to past difficulties moving the sculpture, other wood-carved animals greet visitors inside the home. A walk along the living room hallway reveals a mountain lion stealthily descending a tree trunk.
Behind it, an image of Lavigne’s yellow Lab, Lilly, leaping in midair, her mouth ready to catch a Frisbee.
A black Lab with a highly polished coat rests peacefully on the floor of the living room. “That’s Jazmine,” says Lavigne, clearly emotional talking about his late dog. “She suffered from seizures her whole life but she really kept me grounded. She died midway through the carving.”
Lavigne’s ability to capture the essence of his subjects relates to the life he led before taking over his father’s fence company almost 20 years ago.
He grew up near Q and 204th streets when the land held nothing but farms. As a country kid, drawing and motocross occupied his time until he entered the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a psychology major, eventually earning a master’s degree.
His professional life may have taken a U-turn, but Lavigne’s artistic side has kept the stress of running a company with 330 employees, eight branches, and an online fence product store at bay.
“Being a psychology major, I’m big on meditation,” he says. “I do this woodcarving for my own sanity because it’s as close to meditation as you can get.”
The chainsaw carvings remain a labor of love. He doesn’t sell or display them, but he has given many of his bear sculptures away. As for the wolves, they’ll always stay close to Lavigne, a daily reminder to fight the good fight.
This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.