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‘Shade tree whittler’ carves out unique work
by Bill Clough
Oct 07, 2013 | 59 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The piece James Phillips made to represent not only the oil industry in Bee County but the area’s cattle raising roots.
The piece James Phillips made to represent not only the oil industry in Bee County but the area’s cattle raising roots.
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James Phillips of Houston was recently featured on Texas Country Reporter and his work is now on property in north Bee County.
James Phillips of Houston was recently featured on Texas Country Reporter and his work is now on property in north Bee County.
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James Phillips carved this sculpture in northern Bee County.
James Phillips carved this sculpture in northern Bee County.
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NORTH BEE COUNTY – James Phillips of Houston rejects the title of sculptor.

“I’m just a shade-tree whittler.”

Correct – as far as it goes.

“Whittler” brings up the image of someone sitting on a front porch of a cabin nonchalantly using a pocketknife to carve a stick.

Phillips uses chain saws; five of them. His “sticks” are trunks and branches of large trees – really large trees.

When a beloved live oak tree split apart in northern Bee County, the owners — who were strongly attached to the tree — wanted to use the large branches for something besides firewood.

They remembered seeing sculptures by Phillips that he created in Galveston after Hurricane Ike, turning damaged and broken trees into works of art.

To his surprise, an art galley in Galveston started selling his creations.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said last week, taking a break from his work. “It was the coolest thing in the world.”

Next thing you know, Phillips had quit his day job and eventually was featured on a segment of “Texas Country Reporter.”

Today, his artworks demand fees ranging from $2,000 to $10,000.

The Bee County family called Phillips.

Workers measured the tripod-legged branch, poured three concrete slabs for each of the three branches, then used a backhoe to place the branch on the slabs.

“This is heavy,” Phillips says. “Oak weighs about 90 pounds a cubic foot.”

Phillips started carving two weeks ago.

The family had something specific in mind. They wanted Phillips to represent their company’s interests and to capture the spirit of South Texas.

Phillips did a few sketches, got the family’s approval, and started to carve out images of oil wells, cattle and dolphins.

“It’s time to make some sawdust,” he said as he picked up his chain saw.

Phillips begins with a 36-inch saw — using smaller and smaller saws as he progresses — from 36 to 18, to 14, to 12, to his favorite, a 10-inch.

He polishes his work with a chisel, a grinder and a sander.

It wasn’t like that at the beginning.

He learned how to draw in the early 1980s. He abandoned any thought of art for the next 30 years.

Then, when a tree in his front yard had to be cut down, “I started playing with it. Soon, I got obsessed.”

He started with an inexpensive chain saw and soon wore it out. He bought another from a pawn shop.

Now, three decades later, he carries an album filled with photographs of the objects he has sculptured. One of his favorites: a sculpture carved in ebony from Tanzania.

“When you cut it, you release an oil inside that makes it glisten.”

He resists being labeled as an artist. “I don’t fit in very well in the artist community,” he says.

Typically, the trees he sculpts are around six to 10 feet high, although he has carved them as high as 50 feet.

“I have plenty of work,” he says, his blue eyes shaded by a straw hat as he scans the family’s sculpture. “It is amazing how many trees we cut down.”

He sharpens the blades of the chain saws every time he refuels them.

The family has engaged Phillips to do two more sculptures on other branches from the same tree.

After that?

“I make no plans.”

Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.
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