Welcome to the enchanting world of artist, Lueb Popoff.
Lueb Popoff makes his living as an artist, but he doesn’t use a pencil or paintbrush. His artistic tool of choice is the chainsaw.
Popoff transforms dead tree stumps and old wood into intricate statues. A mother eagle crouched above her nestlings. A family of howling wolves. A quirky garden gnome perched atop the stump.
You’ve probably seen Popoff’s work, although you might not know its roots. At the busy corner of Hawthorn and Broadway streets stand his bears carved into a dead tree. Hundreds of Popoff’s wooden creatures, from the elaborate to tiny, are scattered throughout Boulder County and the immediate area.
Popoff, a Boulder native, lives in a historic log home on Flagstaff Mountain. He works on commissioned wood art in his garage full time. He taught himself, on a total whim.
He hasn’t always been an artist. In fact, he majored in molecular biology at the University of Colorado in 1984. He worked as a chef at the Left Bank Restaurant in Vail and locally at John’s Restaurant and the Flagstaff House.
It might seem like a random career pathway — but to Popoff, it’s not. It’s all about creativity, in one facet or another of his brain.
What led you from cooking to chainsawing?
Because I live in an old cabin surrounded by five acres of forest in the mountains, what really sparked my initial interest was seeing a few chainsaw carvings in the late ’90s. We’d been cutting and selling firewood on our property, and so I said, “That looks like a creative direction to go with the scrap wood I have.”
That got me sitting down, doing a sketch and standing up a log behind the garage and trying to make the log look like the sketch. It was a creative outlet with things I had around.
What was your first carving?
Two Canadian geese about 18 inches tall — stylized sculptures of intertwined geese. It was a gift for a friend. She loved geese.
How did this hobby turn into a full-time job where you often work 12-plus hours a day?
In about 1999, we were at the Farmers Market one Saturday morning. We had met a couple who had been longtime farmers. … They said, “You should bring these to the Farmers Market. You’re creating these things on your property. They qualify. You sell what you grow.”
So in April of 2000, I started at the Farmers Market. One of the first months I was down there, a Boulder lady came by and said, “Would you consider carving my dead tree in the yard?” That was the pebble in the pond, so to speak. That became the “Hawthorn bears,” at the corner of Hawthorn and Broadway, the first public sculpture that initiated everything.
How many carvings have you done?
I do 30 to 35 on-site carvings a year, plus other custom carving in the shop — songbirds, pets. This is my 13th year. That makes about 400 on-site carvings, plus another 200 to 300 custom carvings total.
Is your property covered with carved animals?
We have a few carvings around the house, early ones. My wife’s always begging me for another carving, but I’m always so busy carving for other people.
How hard is it to carve a sculpture out of a tree stump with a chainsaw?
The only experience I had before was drawing something on a piece of paper 2D. That is way different than carving it 3D. It’s a slow, painful process, turning something from 2D to 3D.
It’s almost like trying to develop a CAD program in your head; you have to see in 3D, spatially. It’s an exercise of the mind with a lot of practice.
So what tools do you use?
I start out with a chainsaw to rough out the shape. It’s the fastest way but the crudest; not a refined job. Then I have a couple of 41/2-inch angle grinders with carving discs on them, to refine and shape. Then I use a dremel tool and a mallet and gauges to add detail. It’s about a five-step process. Most carving projects take between two days and two weeks.
Are there any tricks or techniques you have learned over the years that help?
I always start at the top and work my way down. For me, the head of something is the most important. That’s where you’re really going to bring out the spirit, essence and finality, with facial features.
Work in layers. I try not to detail one area while carving. Start with the head and then create the whole piece in a crude form, so you don’t lose track of the composition and balance. Start with the head and work through the rest of the body. Once it’s crudely carved, then I can go back to the head and start refining it. I work back through it two to three more times, refining each time I go and making micro adjustments.
What’s your favorite thing that you have carved?
My favorite carving is always my next one.
I always feel in the moment I’ve done absolutely the best I could have done with that particular piece, but I also know, based on my 13 years of doing this, I continue to improve and get better. I learn something new every time I create a piece. So the next piece is always going to be my favorite.
What inspires your work?
I’m surrounded by nature. I love nature. Ninety percent of what I do is nature — wild animals, birds of prey, nature-oriented things. I would call it a green art form. Wildlife and nature has always been really important to me, and that’s where I get my inspiration from.
What do your sculptures cost?
Most on-site projects range from $600 to $2,100, depending on the size of the subject.