Michael Bihlmaier grew up watching his father, John, create original jewelry pieces in Arizona and Southern California. “I know I drove him nuts looking over his shoulder, but I loved to watch him work,” confesses Mike. His father was injured in an auto accident and could no longer sit at his jewelry bench. Ending his business, HB Creations, John went back into engineering. Following this career path, he moved his family to Marengo Illinois in late 1977. The spark of creating art had been lit in Mike, but would not smolder until he started whittling during his twenties.
In the late 90’s, Mike started fashioning clay and later in 2000 began sculpting snow. He created an 8 foot tall “bird on a hand” snow carving in his front yard and jokingly blames that piece for launching his chainsaw carving career. “I had folks from around the area stop and ask if I could carve trees. I picked up a few saws the next spring and the rest is history,” he explains. Mike spent the next summer visiting other carvers at county fairs to glean whatever information possible.
Mike carved part time as a hobby and started competing professionally in late 2001, which quickly increased his speed and accuracy. While winning an event is icing on the cake, Bihlmaier enjoys the camaraderie among the carvers. Competitive carving has taken Mike across country all the way from Bluefield, West Virginia to Reedsport, Oregon.
Working full time and competing wasn’t easy, but got him noticed by ECHO. The outdoor power equipment company started sponsoring his saws and in 2005 chose him to be one of five sculptors from across the country to form The ECHO Carving Team. “I’m truly honored to have been part of the team, especially as a part time carver,” says Bihlmaier. 2008 led to a downturn in construction trades and Mike, after 30 years as a repair machinist working for Caterpillar dealerships, was laid off. He now devotes all his time to sculpture.
When asked of his greatest accomplishment, Bihlmaier insists, “That would be raising a large family of seven sons with my wife Tamera.” Relating to his carving, he will tackle anything and is confident he can make any piece of wood into something special. One of his most challenging projects to date was a 25 foot tall 50 inch diameter oak stump in a creek bed. The setup alone took two days. A piece he’s most proud of is his first large wood sculpture. He describes, “It’s a 550 pound white oak grizzly standing in water and holding a salmon. I named the piece ‘Water Dance.’”
“Wood is such an interesting material to work with. Sculpting in raw wood is like dissecting a tree. You have very little media control with wood.” He explains that while carving you get to see the life of the tree, good years and bad, injuries, insects and even lightning strikes are uncovered as you peel away the years of growth. “I worked a Catalpa log that had been struck by lightning three times before it was cut down.”
One of his passions is abstracts. He looks for curious growth patterns in a log and then tries his best to bring out all the interesting markings, swirls, colors and chatoyance that may have taken hundreds of years to create. Mike concludes, “One of my favorite abstract pieces I carved from a cherry tree that had been used as a fence post and grew around the barbed wire.”