Sculptor Turns Windstorm Scrap Into Functional Art
by Mick Rhodes | [email protected]
When winds of over 70 mph swept through Claremont on the evening of January 21, they uprooted hundreds of trees and left the town shaking, its streets awash with massive trees, branches and other debris.
While fortunately there were no serious storm-related injuries, an incredible amount of our fabled urban forest – estimates put the number of downed trees at over 300 – fell victim.
Trees provide much more than oxygen and shade to the people of Claremont: along with the colleges, our architecture and our village, they are an obvious major component of the City of Trees’ identity and, indeed, are the main feature of the city. logo.
Trash removal was hard and expensive work. Much of the wood, branches and leaves are returned to the soil as mulch. Still, many residents viewed the task through a funereal lens; it seemed like mother nature had knocked in the heart of the city.
But amid the devastation was Vince Skelly. The 35-year-old woodcarver and Claremont native made a series of rescues by picking up felled cedar, redwood, pine and sweetgum logs with his crane-equipped truck. After unloading the huge logs in his Guadalajara Place yard, he set about turning them into art.
Now the metamorphosis is complete. Losses caused by the storm are now functional art: chairs, stools, benches and tables, all part of Skelly’s first solo exhibition, “Vince Skelly: After the Storm, A Collection of Wooden Monuments”, at the Farago Gallery, 322 S. Broadway Ave., Second Floor, Downtown Los Angeles. An opening reception is held from 3 to 6 p.m. on Friday, July 1. The exhibition will be presented from July 2 to 13. The gallery is open Wednesday to Sunday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Skelly was born and raised in the City of Trees, graduating from Claremont High in 2005. He moved to college at San Francisco State University in 2009, earning a degree in graphic design in 2011. After that, he lived in Portland for a decade. He and his wife returned to Claremont in October 2021.
Not included in “Vince Skelly: After the Storm” is a piece he crafts from a huge, ancient Live Oak that fell in Memorial Park outside Garner House on January 21.
“It was special because I used to go to this park when I was a kid,” Skelly said. “I was going to concerts in the park, and I went to Sycamore, and after school, hanging out in that park, climbing trees, playing in the playgrounds…all that stuff. So it was a really special tree to get your hands on.
He is currently planning a sculpture of the tree which he will return to Memorial Park when completed.
Skelly started sculpting about six years ago, inspired by Handcrafted Modern, a photo book of artist-built home interiors. One such artist, JB Blunk, has created a particularly intoxicating home in Inverness, California.
“Seeing the house he built by himself, and seeing his carvings scattered around his property, and seeing the interior of it with a lot of his built-in sculptural elements, inspired me to think about sculpture wood and woodcarving,” says Skelly.
That spark festered for a decade, however, as he immersed himself in research, learning about other carvers, their processes, their tools, and the properties of the different woods used in the art form.
Space was also an issue, as even smaller sculptures start as logs. After buying a house in Portland after college, he finally got a place with a garage and a backyard, which allowed him to make room for raw materials. Confident enough to start diving into what had become a 10-year obsession, early results exceeded expectations.
“It was immediately satisfying because the results are so quick with a tool like a chainsaw. You remove so much material so quickly, doing a lot of rough cuts,” Skelly said. “But it was immediate satisfaction and gratification.”
After a few months of upheavals during which he experimented with different types of wood, he gained self-confidence. His first finished piece was a cylindrical hourglass shape about 18 inches tall.
Each piece begins with him living a bit with the raw materials. Over time, a piece of wood or a log suggests a shape. With a sketch in mind, or literally drawn in chalk on the wood, he begins with rough chainsaw cuts. In Skelly’s hands, what many might consider a somewhat blunt instrument is more like a paintbrush in a painter’s. Over the years he’s learned to use it for very precise cuts, and it’s the tool he uses on about 90% of every part.
Once the concept has been sketched out with a chainsaw, he uses chisels, gouges, files and rasps. Next comes the sanding and leveling step, which may involve carpentry for cracks, and finally, finishing oil.
Working with “green wood”, or freshly cut pieces of wood, is tricky. As it dries over time, the wood will shrink, and as the moisture dissipates, cracks can form, much like with vintage musical instruments such as guitars.
“It’s like the guitars you’re describing, where these things are constantly changing,” Skelly said. “Now they will change, because I often carve green wood, which contains a lot of moisture.”
His goal is to bring his coins to a somewhat stable point before they are sold. It uses a kiln to dry the wood as much as possible, a moisture meter to measure water content, and keeps track of how long each piece has been on the ground. But cracks and other by-products of drying are inevitable.
“I embrace that part of the process,” Skelly said. “It’s just a reminder that it’s an organic, living thing, and it’s going to do what organic things do and it comes and goes and changes with the seasons. I think all the cracks and the patina that it gets over time is something to be happy about and embrace I think, again, it’s a reminder that you’re working with organic materials, and the interesting good thing about working with wood is that it has these characteristics, as opposed to the size of something like marble or stone which is not going to change over time.”
Skelly’s pieces take dozens of hours each, and their price tags reflect that important work: Among the pieces included in “Vince Skelly: After the Storm” are smaller stools at $3,000-5,000. $. Chairs and small side tables cost between $5,000 and $8,000, benches between $9,000 and $16,000, and a 12-foot-long table costs $40,000.
A preview reception for “Vince Skelly: After the Storm, A Collection of Wooden Monuments,” is being held from 3-6 p.m. Friday, July 1 at the Farago Gallery, 322 S. Broadway Ave., Second Floor, Downtown Los Angeles. It will be visible from July 2 to 13. The gallery is open Wednesday to Sunday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
More information is at www.vinceskelly.com.