Jesse Toso has always been an artist at heart, and growing up in Campbell River, watching the annual Transformations on the Shore chainsaw carving competition, he soon fell in love with the idea of making sculptures out of wood.
“I watched the competition grow from just a few carvers to a few dozen, and I felt like maybe I could do it, too,” he says.
So, in 2005, after he’d moved away to the lower mainland, “I took a week off, borrowed a couple of chainsaws and drove up to Campbell River to try my luck.”
It was his first go at it. That year he carved a Phoenix rising from flames and won first place in the amateur category.
“That was when I decided this could be something for me,” he says. “And I’ve been returning to the Campbell River competition every year since and over the years I’ve been invited to various carving events across B.C. and Canada.”
Toso now runs a woodworking shop and furniture gallery on Commercial Street in downtown Vancouver where he showcases his own work and that of fellow woodworkers and furniture makers, but he says he still chainsaw carves “about half the time.”
And it’s likely you know his work. He’s the artist behind the giant wooden spider on the wall of the downtown office building overlooking the courtyard of the Tidemark Theatre.
Itsy Bitsy, as the spider is affectionately named, came to life, metaphorically speaking, during the 2012 Transformations on the Shore competition.
“I was inspired that year by a carving I saw done in Chetwynd of a giant praying mantis by Chris Foltz,” Toso says. “I wanted to explore carving ‘outside the log’ by removing pieces and adding them back on (the legs, for example). I planned the carve for about a year before the competition, drawing sketches and figuring out the joinery needed. After carving the five days allotted for the competition, I was happy with the sixteen foot insect I had created.”
On the last day of the event, after the prizes were awarded – Toso didn’t place in that year’s competition – he lucked into a conversation with event organizer Barb Bitner and Bruce Baikie, who owns the aforementioned office building downtown, about how he had envisioned the spider suspended by cables on the side of a building.
“Mr. Baikie liked that idea and asked if we could put it on his building,” Toso says. “After six months of getting city and engineering needs met, we hung Itsy Bitsy on the side of the office building next to the Tidemark Theatre.”
But Itsy Bitsy caused a bit of a stir when she was first installed, Toso says.
“The spider caused a bit of controversy as arachnophobics began writing letters in the newspaper asking for it to be removed,” he says. “Other people responded in defence of the spider and for a while it was drawing a lot of attention.”
So, inspired by all the attention it was garnering, he made a few more spiders at different scales, and when he was back in town over the holidays just a couple of weeks ago, he added Itsy’s mate to the wall.
“I had kept the off-cuts from the large spider carving and created a five foot version of Itsy,” he says. “We hung it inside the Visitor’s Centre across the street from the Tidemark where he lived for about four years, making a few appearances at Halloween events and the like.”
But the carving had to come down last year due to renovations needing to be done at the Visitor’s Centre, which is when the idea of hanging him up on the wall with Itsy came about.
So, once again, with the help of C&L Supply, who generously donated the use of a lift, Toso went up the wall with another wooden arachnid and Itsy’s unnamed mate joined her in her web Dec. 27.
You can check out more of Toso’s carving work at stumpartist.com and his furniture work at tosowoodworks.com and look for him this summer on the shoreline in Willow Point, wielding his chainsaw and making another masterpiece.
After all, he loves coming back and making work for public display in his hometown.
“Public art is vital as it is one of the few art forms accessible to everybody – you don’t need to pay to see it – and it gives people the opportunity to have discussions they may not otherwise have,” he says.
“Like defending arachniphobia.”