Gary Patterson died Sunday evening, just hours after dozens of fellow chain saw artists and local citizens gathered Saturday on a city-owned blacktop parking lot to stage a benefit auction known as Garyway.
“Gary was going to come to a Pennsylvania chain saw carving event last February called Ridgway, but he was having problems and went to the doctor,” said A.J. Lutter, a well-known Minnesota chain saw artist and (one of several) organizers of Saturday’s fundraiser. “That’s when Gary found out he had a brain tumor.”
Fellow artists describe Gary’s last months on earth as a struggle, but not a lonely one. A former Union Pacific conductor, Patterson took a buy-out from his employer without the security of medical insurance; his bills have exceeded $200,000, not including the costs of hospice. The funeral bills will come soon, as will piles of associated medical costs one incurs when sudden and unforeseen death is not an option.
“A lot of carvers found out about the Garyway benefit from the Internet,” stated Lutter. “The ones that care will be here.” More than 30 carvers made long-distance treks to offer their artistic creations for the benefit auction, which began exactly 24 hours before Patterson died after being taken to the local hospital.
But that didn’t matter during the last 48 hours of Gary’s celebrated life as a man, husband, father, artist and friend. Oh, and he obviously had a lot of friends – and respect.
On a day when blue skies turned to gray to cold and to rain, the slow procession of fellow chain saw artists began to trickle into Sullivan, a town of 6,000 located 60 miles southwest of St. Louis, and probably known more for being along Old Route 66 than art or culture. A typical Thursday, probably, except for the constant stream of strangers setting-up shop on the parking lot next to the city pool, where most of the traffic is reserved for youth baseball action and little else.
Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Iowa – the stream of strangers pulling their wares in trailers and trucks, a noisy bunch attracting a lot of attention. And that was the point – attract a lot of attention and money. Chain saw artists from across the country descended upon the small community where Patterson had made a name, maybe not a household one, but a name nevertheless. The artist had made a living making life out of wood, utilizing chain saws as a medium that was nearly unheard of in these parts before Patterson left Illinois in 1993 and settled near Sullivan. Now people brag that they have a “Gary Patterson”.
“Sullivan has kind of adopted Gary since he lost his house in a flood (1993 flood disaster took his Valmeyer, IL home),” noted Lutter. “Gary was very instrumental in getting a lot of carvers started. He’s a good guy, a really good guy.”
On Friday, the weather cleared and a warm southern breeze began to blow and swirl clouds of sawdust, the blood and by-product of chain saw art. And the whine and roar of at least a dozen wood-chewing, chiseling gas-powered tools of the trade became magnets to the curious townfolk – advertising without cost or effort. By Saturday – the day of purpose – locals and not-so-locals gathered on a lot in the middle of town to view the incredible diversity of wood-carved art that would be auctioned to the highest bidder for the highest of causes.
“The Ridgway (in Pennsylvania) benefits Make-A-Wish, but this is the first to directly benefit one person,” said Lutter as the much-respected artist Dennis Roghair carved nearby atop ten-foot high metal scaffolding. Lutter relayed the fact that artists sometimes send pieces of finished art to fellow artists that are too sick to work, allowing them a chance to keep money in the till during rough times. There are no unions, no medical plans – all very much freelance and at the mercy of luck and staying healthy.
The life and working environment of a chain saw artist can be physically grueling – heavy (and very loud) saws, exhaust fumes, long days in awkward positions. “When I was young, I could work six days a week at eight hours or more a day,” said Lutter, who has known Patterson for 18 years. “My ears were shot and back problems are common, but we stress safety today.”
In the minutes leading up to Saturday night’s 6 o’clock auction, when card-carrying bidders would have an easy shot at landing expensive artwork for a fraction of the value, the excitement (and crowd) began to build. Dozens of pieces – everything from angel fish to bears (huge favorite) to eagles (also popular) to life-sized cowboys and seafaring mariners – sat perched around and on two flatbed trailers. Predicting the financial outcome of any auction is tricky; predicting the take at something that’s never been experienced by the bidding crowd nearly impossible.
An hour and 25 pieces of auctioned art later, the crowd was in awe, both in the quality of the art and the generosity of those opening their wallets and hearts for a man that many have heard of, but few actually knew. Patterson was, like Lutter said, kind of an adopted son – a man that brought culture and art to a town with little of either.
A cedar bench with carved cowboy boots – $350. A bear in a tree – $265. A small hand-carved elk – $200. A western red cedar man on a stump – $450. And the massive bear/fish/eagle carved by the absolute-respected Dennis Roghair – $3,100.
“Things are going very well,” whispered Lutter as Col. Robby Berti enticed the crowd to bid higher and higher for an impressive 3-foot-tall eagle. Jeff Pinney, an artist from Cheswick, Pennsylvania, said he was also encouraged by the early returns as the hundred or so registered bidders gave signs of going higher or giving in or just plain sitting silent for the right moment.
As the night air cooled the crowd and the final few pieces found new owners and places to call home, it was evident that the artists and spectators had shared something quite unique and special. Strangers and friends coming together for a common and simple cause – to help a man and his family in a time of dire straits and need.
A few minutes before the auction began, Lutter nervously addressed the crowd, reminding them that the entire purpose of the assembly, the chain saw carvers and all the art and sawdust, was for Gary. “Don’t forget,” Lutter told the bidders and curious onlookers, “that this is for Gary.” If those were words of charitable and financial encouragement, they were effective. The auction grossed $46,000, way beyond expectations.
Patterson passed away at 6 p.m. on Sunday, exactly 24 hours after the auction benefiting and remembering him began. Jeff Pinney, an artist from Cheswick, Pennsylvania was still in the parking lot carving bears, a lone saw breaking the silence of the evening air. A female friend of Patterson’s sat quietly nearby on the tailgate of a pickup truck, looking to a sky filled with stars and moon-silhouetted clouds.
“Gary’s up there now, carving the clouds for all of us to see,” she said with a slight smile. At that moment, Pinney’s chain saw became deafening silent. Without cue or the ability to hear what had just been said, Pinney looked briefly to the sky. Seconds later, the whirr and buzz broke the night air again and somebody’s bear was coming to life.