A Tinicum Township artist’s connection to Bucks goes well beyond the county’s present boundaries, back to the time the Lenni Lenape roamed — and revered — this land.
Neil Gross’s family has occupied the same patch of land in Tinicum since 1810. Gross, whose ancestors were Lenape, German and Irish, said, “My family has lived here for nine generations.”
A chainsaw carver, Gross has turned to that land for the raw material for his self-taught art. Working outside on a chilly autumn afternoon, he pointed to some tall trees and stacks of logs.
“That was my grandfather’s cow pasture,” he said. “He built this house and that house and that one.”
But his Native American roots in Upper Bucks go even deeper. Gross said one of his ancestors was an enslaved Lenape woman assigned to care for Hessian soldiers captured by Washington’s troops after the Battle of Trenton in 1776.
The Continental Army had captured more than 900 Hessian mercenaries, brought them back to Pennsylvania and assigned them to prison camps.
The Lenape woman fell in love with one of the Hessians and they plotted their escape together, fleeing the camp and settling in a cave on Haycock Mountain where they lived and eventually had 15 children. One of that clan purchased the Tinicum property 213 years ago.
Gross grew up on Perry Auger Road, dropped out of Palisades High School but, after some turbulent teen years, eventually studied biology and philosophy at Bucks County Community College.
But art was beckoning.
“I’ve always been into art,” the 35-year-old Gross said.
He drew, made cards for friends, even did a tattoo that was good enough to bring a job offer, which he declined.
Like most artists, he has a day job. He works as a roofer for FTX Roofing but spends every free minute, even after working for eight to 12 hours, carving bears, foxes, raccoons, eagles, owls and other birds with his chainsaw. He recently shipped a carved pelican to a customer in Florida.
On weekends, he works “from sunup to sundown.”
He said, “I don’t like sitting. I have to be doing something. I’ve been working full-time since I was 12.”
Gross began carving on a whim a couple years ago on a small scale with a stick he picked up in the woods, whittling a serpent encircling it. It is truly handsome.
From there he made a giant leap from small knife to chainsaw after watching some YouTube videos and teaching himself to wield a heavy saw with precision.
He has named his business Nockamixon Native Chainsaw Carving because he likes the Nockamixon Township logo which profiles the head of a Lenape brave.
He works with all kinds of wood — maple, oak, cedar and the softer pine. He particularly likes cedar because of the red tones that can highlight and add interest to certain areas of the carvings, he said.
From logs stripped of their bark he pulls the forest animals that reveal themselves to him. After the wood sculptures are carved, Gross paints them and coats them with polyurethane to protect them from the weather.
Each of Gross’s carvings is unique. He said he gets more orders for bears than any other animal.
“People like bears,” he said. “Every bear I’ve carved is different in some way.” That’s easily seen in a trio of bear cubs, lined up and waiting to be picked up by their buyers. There’s a significant difference in the personality of each of the charming little guys.
Gross often works on commission. He said people often ask him to carve their pets and he mostly declines. “They show me pictures of their pets. I’ve tried but I just can’t seem to bring those carvings to life,” he said.
It’s the woodsy creatures that roamed the land his Lenape ancestors loved and respected that spark his imagination.
Kathryn Finegan Clark is a freelance writer who lives in Durham Township. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.