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The SCENE Magazine


Dec 02, 2012 11:03PM ● By Kelley Dawson
Long-time Bay Area resident and sculpture maker, James “Jim” Phillips is a self-taught, chainsaw-wielding artist. According to Phillips, it was only seven years ago that cutting down a tree in his front yard, thrust him into the wood carving world. “I just went to cuttin’ on it and created a pelican,” he said. Phillips still possesses the first pelican he ever carved. Several neighbors and friends asked if he could do it again and Phillips admitted he became obsessed.

Phillips learned to draw from his mother, and he supposed he “fancied” himself as an artist in high school. But, he added that he hadn’t worked on any art for 30 years; due to marriage, kids, working full-time in industrial equipment and supply sales, “and just loving life.” Upon his return to art, the captivated carver soon amassed a forest of wooden works. Phillips then found Simply Art Gallery in Galveston and began selling pieces. “It’s the coolest feeling in the world making money for something you made,” he said. Phillips recounted the story of selling one of his pieces to a local Kemah gallery.

He said he was beside himself and “so proud to see the piece sitting on the shelf.” Phillips said he went to fetch his wife from their home just 15 minutes away to show her, and the piece was already sold.

In September of 2008, Hurricane Ike wiped out the Simply Art Gallery though Phillips managed to save many of his sculptures. A year-and-half after Ike while out searching for wood and a new gallery, Phillips said the Galveston Art League approached him. The organization wanted him to carve the dead tree in front of their building. Phillips exclaimed, “I jumped at the opportunity.” He said he then made a nuisance of himself at Galveston’s city hall in the hopes of carving a niche for himself amongst the town’s dead hurricane trees. Phillips was commissioned to do the first two trees in Galveston. He then carved several more trees and stumps for private home-owners including the Tin Man at a home once owned by one of the original producers of the Wizard of Oz.

Tour buses now run routes to the carved trees sites in Galveston. Phillips commented if he happens to be maintaining one of the trees during a tour that the “ladies get off the bus and huddle around and chat me up.”

Two years ago, after the show Texas Country Reporter produced a flattering piece on Phillips, he said his website “blew up.” Phillips related that it became rapidly clear he was not paying attention to his employer and needed to carve full time. Phillips quit his job and said he’s “been whittling ever since.” His many projects include both individual commissioned pieces and on-sight sculptures which take him all over the country.

Phillips explained that he gets most of his medium from wood disposal yards and landscapers. He made it clear that he has no favorites and likes all kinds of wood. Phillips believes “there is no ugly wood.” He said, “Aberrations in the wood gives it character.” Phillips sometimes fills the anomalies with powdered turquoise that he sets with super glue.

According to him, there are no types of wood easier or better to carve. He said, “A chainsaw doesn’t care the type of wood.” Phillips stated a non-commissioned project starts with a “cool piece of wood” and he “doodles by making holes and changing the elevation” with his chainsaw. In regards to commissioned pieces, Phillips starts with a sketch of the buyer’s requested subject. He molds a clay model for final approval, photographs the tree for scaling and “then gets to carving.” He said most projects take a week to whittle, but larger tree carvings can take up to a month to complete. If the purchaser has no particular subject in mind, Phillips warns the wooden sculpture will be a “fish or a naked lady.” Current works available at the Rene Wiley gallery in Galveston or view his website

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