For Vince Skelly, Wood Carving Is a Meditative Act

Transfixed by how prehistoric objects look perfectly placed in the modern world, the up-and-coming Portlander harnesses the spiritual qualities of wood to sculpt primordial, dolmen-like pieces that feel like they traveled through time.

All images courtesy of the artist

In elementary school, you played on a 35-foot-wide sculpture made of massive letters. How do you think this experience shaped your creative outlook? 

It gave me an affinity for fine art that you can touch. There were lots of public art sculptures where I grew up, in Claremont, California. We understood them as art, but also saw them as fun things to play on. It’s one of the reasons that I make sculptures with which one can interact. 

What sparked your interest in woodcarving, and what continues to draw you the medium? 

I was always interested in building things out of wood, like skate ramps and treehouses. During college, I lived in the Sunset District in San Francisco, and the whole neighborhood was influenced by self-taught artists like Lloyd Kahn, Jay Nelson and JB Blunk. That’s when I really became interested in wood carving. Every piece of wood is different and spontaneous, which is very much in line with my approach to carving. 

You use a “subtractive sculpting process” in which you carve from a single block of wood. What’s usually on your mind when wielding a chainsaw? 

Using a chainsaw is actually quite meditative; the muffled sound and vibration is soothing. I make sure to sculpt slowly and make careful cuts since there’s no going back.

Photography by Paul Skelly

You’ve said that a simple piece may take 8–10 hours to create, but that process is spread across several months. Is it safe to say you’re working on a bunch of different projects simultaneously? How do you keep track of everything? 

I’m constantly working on several projects at once. It’s easy to start pieces because carving is the part of the process that I enjoy most. Once they’re roughed out, I monitor the moisture content. When the surface is dry enough, I begin sanding and finishing them.

How do you know when one of your pieces is finished? 

Sometimes I get lucky and know right away. Most of the time, however, I let the pieces sit in the studio and wait until the next move comes to me. It can take months.

Your work is laden with historical references, from megalithic dolmens to Constantin Brancusi and JB Blunk. What have these figures taught you? 

They’ve taught me that there’s a strong relationship between ancient objects—like tools and structures—and contemporary architecture and furniture. JB Blunk’s work in particular conveys the spiritual connection experienced when working with natural materials, and how to honor nature through artmaking. Brancusi and Guston’s work has taught me to rely on intuition and the subconscious. 

You’ve also compared your work to The Flintstones. Was this another childhood revelation? 

The Flintstones is full of amazing modern, organic design. Especially in the everyday objects that fill their home like stone chairs, tables, and even the architecture. I’m drawn to the playful quality and I think it sometimes intuitively transfers into my work. 

What’s your favorite part about living and working in the Pacific Northwest? 

The fresh air, trees, and the people. I feel most inspired when I’m in nature surrounded by trees, and there’s a lot of that here.

How do you source your wood? I imagine you must go to the forest a lot. 

I get a lot of my material from free piles of wood on the street. I don’t like seeing trees come down, but I’m happy to give them a new life. Lots of friends send me photos and coordinates of free wood piles. I plan on incorporating those images in a book project someday. If I’m doing a commission that calls for something specific, I go to Suburban Forestry—the owner Mike has been an amazing resource and has taught me a lot about wood.

How have you been passing time during lockdown? 

I put a lot of focus on experimenting with different mediums. I’m currently working on a series of abstract paintings that feature forms similar to my sculptures. I’ve also started slip-casting stools in clay. It’s a great exercise for any artist to explore different interpretations of their work. For example, what would your paintings look like as a sculpture, or a song, or a dance?

Photography by Paul Skelly

Check out “Vince Skelly: New Works” at Adams and Ollman (418 NW 8th Avenue, Portland, OR 97209) from Feb. 12–March 13. 

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