Iconic characters from science fiction and superhero stories have long captured the imaginations of children and adults.
And from blockbuster films and video games to action figures and crowd-drawing comic-cons, there’s no shortage of ways in which to encounter these characters. In the last few years, one Whatcom County man has honed a unique superpower of his own: carving them from pieces of wood.
Jimmy Kitchens — a 51-year-old carving artist from Soldotna, Alaska — creates busts and full-figured sculptures with a variety of chainsaws. From Captain America to Wonder Woman, it’s a good bet Kitchens has invested time, sweat, and paint into meticulously crafting the visage of your favorite character.
“I’m still a kid at heart,” Kitchens says. “I’ve always wanted to be able to carve my own superheroes, or my own characters. I enjoy creating something from nothing.”
Carving a Niche
Kitchens’ carving journey began just over 20 years ago in Alaska, when he began serving as an apprentice to a friend. The two frequently traded works with one another — Kitchens made furniture at the time, and his friend crafted all manner of wildlife.
Their first professional collaboration was a large bed frame, with bears surrounding the headboard and cubs climbing the footboard to peer at future sleepers. Having previously done less creative work like deck-building and roofing, Kitchens took immense satisfaction in carving one of the frame’s large bears.
Around that same time, someone told Kitchens that once he began carving artistically, he’d never want to stop. So far, the statement has proven accurate. His early work was mostly nature-oriented — animals like bears and fish — and quickly began selling at sportsman shows.
Eventually, Kitchens moved from Soldotna’s Kenai Peninsula to north of Anchorage, settling in the Mat-Su Valley. He remained there for several years, meeting his life partner and striking up a friendship with Marty Raney, the masonry star of the Discovery Channel series “Homestead Rescue.” The two collaborated to build a log home, and Kitchens has subsequently appeared in several episodes of the show.
But Kitchens says he didn’t particularly love the artistic mentality of the regions where he lived. So when a friend connected him with Skagit County’s Loggerodeo, an annual 4th of July celebration in Sedro-Woolley, Kitchens hopped on a plane.
He took part in the 2015 event’s three-day chainsaw carving show, creating a giant salmon wearing a saddle. The next year, Kitchens returned to craft a statue of adult Groot from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” with Rocket Raccoon perched on his back. Both times, he packed his carving equipment in crates and had it flown south, staying in the region for a month at a time.
At this point, Kitchens became interested in attending comic-cons — something he’d always wanted to do that wasn’t an option in Alaska. He first visited Spokane’s Pac-Con, arriving by train and sleeping in a public park. But that year, he met comic book legend Stan Lee.
“I think I was actually shaking, I was so nervous and excited,” Kitchens recalls.
During the next few years, Kitchens frequently commuted between Alaska and Western Washington, getting to know the area and its people. He also began to attend more comic-cons in the region, bringing carved busts and statues with him.
Kitchens met numerous actors and stuntmen from the Marvel and Star Wars universe over the years, including Josh Brolin, Carrie Fisher, Giancarlo Esposito, Temuera Morrison, and the late Carl Weathers. Brolin, he says, was impressed by his work on a Thanos piece, and the latter three Star Wars actors all signed his carvings.
Kitchens isn’t sure how many busts and statues he’s completed at this point, but the list is a who’s who of Marvel and Star Wars characters, as well as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Though it’s hard to pick favorites, Kitchens said he’s very proud of his Spider-Man statue. He also loves his Mandalorian and Grogu pieces, which are a big hit with cosplayers and picture takers. Grogu, he says, has 14 signatures from the show’s cast and crew.
Kitchens and his partner moved here permanently about four years ago.
In addition to an actual home and carving studio in Whatcom County, Kitchens has also found an artistic home at Summer-Con. For three days each June at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, Kitchens showcases his superhero carvings for anyone who’s interested.
After a couple years of popularity, Kitchens approached Summer-Con’s coordinator about his very own live carving show. It was green-lit, and Kitchens now carves alongside fellow wood artists Lee Woody and Joe Littlefield in a “Heroes vs. Villains” themed show, where all three bring different characters to life over the course of the event.
Kitchens says he often chooses what characters to create based on what actors are attending, and which characters he feels a strong affinity for. He’ll also talk to artist friends about what they think.
He usually carves from viewing a series of images, or sometimes a smaller statue. Kitchens also hand-draws his concepts several times, wanting to clearly define his idea before firing a saw. He uses up to six different chainsaws for each carving, and then sands a completed piece before painting it.
“I just love being able to carve something that has more meaning than just some bear in the woods carving,” he says.
While he’s unsure how long most of the pieces took to create, he notes that a 10-foot-tall carving of the Hulk probably took the longest to finish. Kitchens had to complete the statue in sections, painting it and allowing it to dry in a client’s garage until the following year. No matter how long one takes, though, someone’s reaction to a carving is always great.
“To see someone smile,” he says, “it’s worth it.”
In addition to this year’s Summer-Con (where he will likely undertake a life-size carving of Boba Fett), Kitchens will work with Littlefield to carve a full-size firefighter statue as tribute to local first responders. The project will be completed and presented publicly as part of the annual Safe Kids Washington Safety Fair, taking place this summer at the Bellis Fair Mall parking lot.
Kitchens’ goal is to acquire sponsors for the project that can then be laser-engraved onto the statue. In the meantime, he will continue honing his craft, paying tribute to the characters that inspire him.
“I never thought I’d be carving and creating to this level,” he says. “It’s out of this world.”