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Minn. teacher competes in 'prestigious' Australian chainsaw carving contest

Pequot Lakes High School art teacher Molly Wiste poses with the chainsaw carving she created at the Australian Chainsaw Carving Championships in Melbourne, Australia, in January.

PEQUOT LAKES, Minn. — A Minnesota art teacher who got her start in chainsaw carving after an offer for a free lesson is now competing on the international stage.

Molly Wistean, art teacher at Pequot Lakes High School, was chosen as one of 10 carvers from across the world to compete in last month's 2017 Australian Chainsaw Carving Championships in Melbourne, Australia.

Wiste, was chosen as one of 10 carvers in the world to compete in the event last month.

"To be in it, you have to apply," she said. "I've been in the U.S. Open in Eau Claire, Wis., a lot, so I sent in a lot of my work from there, and I was accepted."

Wiste has been carving for several years, and though she usually tries to keep competitions as a summer activity so they don't interfere with her teaching, this was too big of an opportunity to pass up.

"This is such a big honor," she said. "It's a very prestigious competition, so I thought, 'Even though it's during the school year, I need to go.'"

As one of two carvers from the United States, Wiste competed against artists from Canada, Australia, Japan and the Czech Republic.

"I went with an ocean theme. Mine was called 'Spirit of the Water,'" Wiste said. "The woman in the piece was kind of the water — in the water, part of the water. Her hair was turning into the water, and she was disappearing into the water. And then at the bottom was the coral reef, and then there was fish around the back."

The challenge, however, was not being able to use her own tools. Stihl company, who sponsored the event, provided chainsaws, but because other carving tools aren't allowed on international flights, Wiste had to improvise.

"You just had to talk to carvers from Australia that had all their tools and try to beg, borrow, steal. And they were great about sharing," she said. "But that was a little different because you get really used to your saws and exactly how they're set up."

Wiste also had to adjust her cutting technique, as the cyprus wood used in the competition was a lot harder than the white pine she is used to carving.

Despite the challenges, Wiste was pleased with her piece, which had to stay in Australia after the competition. But the carving is up for sale, and when someone buys it, the artist will get the profits.

Even though Wiste feels like she did well, she doesn't know exactly where she placed in the competition.

"They just do first, second, third place," she said. "They do it out of respect just so people aren't so down on themselves. But I really wanted to know where I was at, so I went and talked to a bunch of the judges."

Different judges ranked Wiste between fifth and seventh place. But the exact placement didn't matter to her that much.

"I feel like I did really well," Wiste said. "I just want to make sure that I am improving, so I always ask the judges for feedback and their critique. It's better not to get it sugar-coated because then you can improve."

Aside from self-improvement, Wiste also used the competition as a way to teach her art students a valuable lesson about persistence when her original carving idea that she spent months preparing didn't pan out.

"I came back to my students and said, 'All these months of work (and) I'm totally scrapping this plan,'" she said, adding that taking her students through the creative process with her let them see "that persistence and that grit and that drive to get it really good and get it perfect and improve."

It also showed her students that she's an artist, too, and goes through the same trials.

Along with the U.S. Open, Wiste has also competed in the Oregon Divisional in Reedsport, Ore., and usually takes part in the Hackensack (Minn.) Chainsaw Event, where she got her start in chainsaw carving.

"I went into a shop in Hackensack just to get a slab (of wood) for a project at our house," she said, "and the guy was really friendly and found out that I was an art teacher and ... he said, 'If you come back with a chainsaw, I'll show you how to carve.'"

Wiste didn't want to pass up a free lesson, so she took the shop worker up on his offer and has since turned into a master carver.

This summer she will compete in the Chainsaws and Chuckwagons competition in Frederick, Colo., and she has an application in for another international event, this time in Canada.

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