Highlands artist transforming neighbourhood with chisel and chainsaw

Doug Muir is transforming his neighbourhood into a living art gallery, one old tree stump at a time.

'I think it's a beautiful thing to honour the tree's life'

Doug Muir of Edmonton's Highlands neighbourhood has been chainsaw carving for more than 20 years. (Wallis Snowdon/CBC)

Doug Muir is transforming his northeast Edmonton neighbourhood into a living art gallery, one old tree stump at a time.

Equipped with a chainsaw and chisel, Muir has been carving new life into the streets of historic Highlands, creating sculptures out of chopped down elms, green ash and blue spruce.

Salvaged and reclaimed wood has long been a muse for Muir, but there is something special about carving stumps, he said.

Not only are the rooted sculptures immune to backyard thieves, the carvings help preserve something special about one of Edmonton's mature neighbourhoods. 
Muir says he often sees faces in the knotted grain of old salvaged wood. (Mystic Wild Carvings)

Muir, 42, wants to keep as many tree trunks as possible out of the landfill.

"Wood is valuable to me. It's beautiful," he said. "I think it's a beautiful thing to honour the tree's life. 

"Think how long it took for the tree to grow that big. If you don't want the tree anymore, you can still adorn your lawn, turn your stump into something beautiful."

A carpenter by trade with no formal art training, Muir has been chainsaw carving for more than 20 years. It all started with small sculptures and a social experiment.

He would leave his carvings on Jasper Ave with a 'free' sign attached, and watch from afar to see how passersby would react.

While some people pulled up their pickup trucks to swiftly haul them away, not all the sidewalk art critics were keen on the free offerings, Muir said.

"I would watch people go grab one and take one away but this one guy actually kicked the carving all the way down the road," Muir said. "He kicked the carving of this head all the way down Jasper Ave.

"And thought, 'That's cool. It caused a reaction.' To me, art is always in the eye of the beholder so I wanted to kind of test it out."

Years later, when money got tight, Muir graduated to more official means of displaying his art when he began taking commissions from neighbours and friends.

His company, Mystic Wild Carvings, was born.

'I can just go wild with it'

4 years ago
Duration 1:35
Edmonton chainsaw artist honours trees by turning stumps into sculpture.

Some of his most ornate pieces — a large carved hand which serves as a bench, a mother Mary holding a bird bath, and large-toothed troll — now adorn properties across Highlands.

For his latest work, Muir carved a house — with door, mailbox and chimney  —  out of an old stump on his neighbour's front yard.

Joy Kates commissioned the "hobbit door" carving after Muir carved a large wizard on a neighbouring property.

"I had this huge tree and I knew it had to come down but you really don't want it completely lose it," Kates said.

"And when I saw Doug doing his art, I thought that's what I want to do." 

'Go wild with it'

The wizard, a few houses down the street from Kates' bungalow, was carved out of an old blue spruce.

Muir begged the homeowner for the job in June after spotting the neglected stump. He knocked on the door, introduced himself and after some awkward negotiation, was given free artistic rein.

You can't force the wood to be what you want, because sometimes it will disagree.- Doug Muir

He saw a face in the knotted grain of wood and got to work.

"When you make something out of wood, the wood pretty much controls the art. You can't force the wood to be what you want, because sometimes it will disagree.

"The stump was already slumped over, you know? It already looked like somebody standing there. And I just kind of filled in the rest and out came this big wizard."

It took Muir several days to complete the statue. 

The figure, armed with a battle axe, glares out from under a cloak, grimacing at those who pass by.

"I think he's one of those megalithic beings that used to be around a million years ago," Muir mused with a laugh.

"He's sort of watching over the back alley, sort of like your eyes when you're not around."

Muir said chainsaw art is becoming more popular and he's hoping to one day make it his full time job.

"I've been a carpenter all my life. I used to build 40 houses a year but now, I like doing art because there are no confines and can just go wild with it.

"It's an escape." 
Muir and one of his favourite creations, a towering wizard sculpture that watches over a neighbourhood back alley. (Wallis Snowdon/CBC)


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.