James Phillips started his journey as a wood sculptor 14 years ago when he spontaneously turned the log of an old tree at his home into the likeness of a pelican.
When someone asked if he could do it again, Phillips soon found himself creating numerous masterpieces displayed and sold at Simply Art Gallery in Galveston. When Phillips found a new art gallery in the René Wiley Gallery after Simply Art Gallery was destroyed by Ike, he was introduced to Donna Libbert, who wanted to create a public art project to save the numerous trees killed by the storm surge.
“So I latched onto her, and she let me carve the first couple at city hall, and then individual homeowners started commissioning them, and then it turned into a big deal. There’s like tour buses and Segway tours,” Phillips said.
Phillips became well known statewide after “Texas Country Reporter” produced a segment featuring him, leading to carving requests from all over Texas. Seven years ago, Phillips decided to leave his job as an industrial equipment salesman and go full time into wood sculpting.
“It turned into a blast. I work way harder than I used to, but I have fun every day,” Phillips said.
In September, Phillips was invited to Alvin on behalf of Alvin Parks & Recreation to produce a carving from the remains of a tree at Sealy Park that was cut down because its height and ease of climbing created a safety hazard.
Ultimately, Phillips created two Alvin sculptures in the same month after Parks Director Dan Kelinske thought that a tree felled by a storm at the Alvin Police Department in June would be a perfect candidate for a sculpture. Alvin now has three sculptures by Phillips: Ira, the K9 Unit at the Alvin Police Department; the Joe’s Bar-B-Q sign; and the sculpture of children climbing the tree trunk at Sealy Park.
For the police department sculpture, Kelinske thought to feature a police dog, asking K9 handler Officer Scott Green which Alvin K9 unit was most worthy of recognition.
Green immediately suggested Ira, Kelinske said. Ira was the first K9 unit to ever actively retire from the Alvin Police Department, serving the city from 2008 until 2014.
“I felt like it was fitting just because I feel animals are very endearing to many of our community members, and I thought that would be a good piece,” Kelinske said.
At Sealy Park, Phillips was given the theme of “children playing” and told to “run with it,” designing a sculpture that portrays children climbing the tree trunk itself.
The theme of the sculpture is serendipitously ironic as Phillips learned during carving that the tree was removed after the Alvin Volunteer Fire Department had to rescue a child who had climbed too high into the tree. Phillips met the child while working on the sculpture Sept. 21.
Kelinske said one of the Alvin Parks & Recreation Board’s objectives discussed and approved last year was “Art in the Park.”
When Kelinske saw the work Phillips did at Joe’s Bar-B-Q, he and the parks board immediately agreed that commissioning Phillips to create works of art from trees that had to be removed from parks and city property would be part of the new objective.
Kelinske said every large tree that must be removed now becomes an opportunity to beautify the city, “rather than cut it down, grind the stump and then replant something significantly smaller.”