Since Ray Murphy had a heart attack three years ago, he has been building his strength back to the point where he can now operate large chainsaws again.
Even so, his stamina isn’t what it used to be. That’s why he has decided to stop putting on live shows of his artistic chainsaw skills at his property on Route 1 in Hancock.
Murphy, 77, has been putting on live performances of making chainsaw art since 2006, after he built an indoor theater — complete with a soundproof stage with a large plate glass window that allows the audience to watch him work — next to his studio near the intersection of routes 1 and 182. He said he will continue to make and sell wooden, chainsaw-cut sculptures, but he doesn’t have the energy needed to prepare for and put on shows that can last longer than three hours.
“I can’t put in that many hours anymore,” Murphy said. “It’s just too much. Age catches up with you.”
Murphy’s art, which ranges from large bears and lobsters taller than he is to wizards and songbirds, can be seen throughout eastern and coastal Maine, and he said his work can be found across the globe. He has sawed more than 84,000 sculptures and has pieces in 54 museums, he added.
But he credited his work with a pencil for making him famous — and for getting the attention of Ripley’s Believe It or Not in 1981.
Murphy used a chainsaw to cut the alphabet onto two sides of the pencil and then sharpened the pencil — a feat that led to him cutting pencils for Ripley’s that were sold at the franchise’s museums across the country.
He said his cutting skills are so delicate that he can cut ladybugs so small that 10 can fit on a dime. He also takes pride in his speed, saying he can saw a small log into a chair or numbers onto a mustard seed in a matter of seconds. He never carves wood with a knife or chisel, he emphasized. Everything is done with a chainsaw.
“I concentrate on the near-impossible,” Murphy said. “It’s just something I have a passion for.”
The pride he has in his work is evident in the items he keeps in the space where he sells his work, which is next to the crowded workshop where he keeps his chainsaws, paint, brushes and other tools. Magazines and books sits on counters opened to pages where articles and photos of Murphy appear. Newspaper stories on Murphy are tacked to the wall. A display case has the pencil he sawed letters into for Ripley’s 38 years ago.
Murphy said he has appeared on television, including ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and CBS’ “Sunday Morning,” and has made sculptures for former Sen. George Mitchell and President Ronald Reagan. In 2016, he was invited to attend an event in England, and maybe a chance to meet Queen Elizabeth II, but his poor health kept him from going.
“It takes a lot of work to become famous, I can tell you that,” he said.
Murphy said he invented the art form of sawing wood into sculptures with only a chainsaw, which he first did in 1952, at the age of 10. As his interest and skills grew, he traveled the world and sawed many different types of wood — even sculpting ice with a chainsaw on a few occasions.
A native of Wyoming, Murphy first came to Maine in the 1990s after he heard about Acadia National Park from a friend he was visiting in New Hampshire. He drove his bus to Hancock County and, after visiting a few successive summers, decided to stay.
“The wood,” he said when asked what kept him in Maine. “White pine is very good here on the coast. I use cedar and white pine.”
Murphy has been winding down his performance schedule this summer and expects to stop sometime this fall. But he said he still expects to stay productive, sawing up to four or five pieces a day.
“It’s nice to be busy, [but] I had to give up something,” Murphy said. “I’ve accomplished most everything I possibly could. I might come up with something new.”