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Carving Relief from Tragedy

October 18, 2020

Chainsaw Sculptures Bring Beauty Back to Blue River Park

A person carving a tree with a chainsaw, standing on scaffolding.

For nearly 70 years, Blue River Park has been a treasured hub for the local community, and a draw for the many visitors who come to experience the beauty and nature of the McKenzie valley year after year.

But on September 2020 that all changed dramatically, as a devastating fire destroyed of Blue River, burning the majority of the building in the town to the ground and damaging the park’s trees to the point where most could not be saved.

As people started to come back, and the clearing-up work progressed, the park’s board of directors thought of ways in which it could be a part of the healing process for the community. How could the park come back stronger, rebuild back better, and provide a place of solace for locals as well as a welcoming spot for visitors as they, too, returned to the valley.

Thoughts turned to the Chainsaw Arts Festival, which had, for many years, been a very popular event held at the McKenzie Community Track and Field, just down the road from the park.

What if a way could be found for keeping the trees that had to be taken down in the park, in a safe manner that also memorialized what had happened and symbolized hope for the future?

The board contacted some of the artists who had taken part in that festival in previous years, and some were able to volunteer their time to carve the tree stumps in the park into beautiful sculptures that will now become a permanent fixture of the new park.

Ken Ballenger was one of them. He and his wife Penny traveled to Blue River in July 2021 – in the middle of a grueling heat wave –  to donate their time, skills, and labor to turning one of the park’s stumps into a very meaningful tribute.

“We knew about the fire, but didn’t know the extent of it,” Ken says, recounting his journey up to Blue River. “I got choked up on the drive, and my wife was in tears. People were always so kind to us here, and they loved to help, so we wanted to do the same for them.”

Ballenger talks about his choice of theme for the sculpture, which depicts a “spirit face” that he calls “father nature.” The owls that surround the fatherly figure denote wisdom, and there is an inherent kindness that exudes from the work.

Ballenger talks about his choice of theme for the sculpture, which depicts a “spirit face” that he calls “father nature.” The owls that surround the fatherly figure denote wisdom, and there is an inherent kindness that exudes from  the work.

“I hope it helps to lighten the load, somehow,”  he says.

In addition to the permanent carving in the park, Ballenger also donated two smaller pieces  – an eagle and a Tikki-style table  – that will be sold to raise funds for the park’s rebuild (Blue River Park receives no federal, state, or local funding, so it is entirely dependent upon volunteer work and donations.) 

A person using a chainsaw on a tree stump with trees and stumps in the background.

The McKenzie River Chamber of Commerce has also provided a grant to launch the carvings project, and it is hoped that corporate, private, and institutional sponsors will now come forward to support the idea, enabling more stumps to be carved into sculptures, and funding the rebuilding and infrastructure of the new Blue River Park.

Jay Peppard and Nick Myers joined Ken Ballenger in his efforts, carving a double stump with an array of fish and bears.

“The Fish symbolizes all the life in the McKenzie, and that’s what this is all about, bringing life back to the park,” says Nick.

The park has already had some members of the community reach out to help, with one generous donor sponsoring a new carving – which has been commissioned from Nick – to feature in a memorial garden for all the animals lost in the fire, which will also honor the heroic efforts of animal rescuers such as Toni Ray and their role in reuniting hundreds of lost pets with their grieving and displaced owners in the months after the fire.

“I hope these carvings bring a smile to people’s faces as they walk by,” says Jay.

Once the remaining safety issues are resolved, The board of directors hopes that Blue River Park can reopen and once again become the heart of this vibrant and strong McKenzie Valley community. If you have anything to contribute  – whether it’s cash, labor, time, or expertise – be sure to click our contact button to get in touch!