When Mangum Manor’s Mary Steck and Sharon MacLean decided during this year’s hurricane season to take down a precarious tree in their front yard, they had a brainstorm when the crew was halfway done with the job.
“We thought we ought to do a wood sculpture,” Steck said. “We always loved them.”
On impulse, they went online and found Clear Lake artist James Phillips, who earned both renown and a following by carving fallen trees into art after Hurricane Ike. Fortuitously, they were able to speak to Phillips, who told them he needed at least 5 feet of remaining tree to do his work. And because of a job cancellation, Phillips was able to come to work at their house two days later.
When he asked the duo what they wanted, it was MacLean’s idea to carve a coyote. There were a couple of reasons why, but the biggest was MacLean’s late sister, Susan MacLean, who had lived with them in Texas from 1999 until her death in 2017.
Born in 1953 with Down syndrome, “Susie” was high-functioning and lived a full life with her parents in Massachusetts until her father died and her mother’s health started to fail.
“She wanted to be a Texan,” Steck said.
Her obituary notes that when Susie died, there were 20 people at her bedside and that she “taught everyone she met joy, wonder, awe and most importantly, unconditional love.”
Susie had a strong sense of humor, too. Sharon MacLean said that in the mornings Susie would howl at her like a coyote and she would howl back.
“Then we’d laugh and get up,” Sharon said.
The coyote story brought Phillips to tears, and he insisted on doing a plaque for the sculpture, too. It reads: “Susie: A Force of Nature, 1953-2017.”
The sculpture is not Phillips’ first in the area. He has done one in Garden Oaks and several in the Heights. Ever since he was profiled in the Texas County Reporter in 2012, he has gotten jobs all over the state. Not bad for the former salesman who – on a whim in 2005 – turned a dead tree into a pelican and then kept going.
When his phone went silent at the start of the pandemic, Phillips said he started to panic.
“I did nothing for two months,” he said. “I was frightened I was going to have to get a real job.”
Lately, though, Phillips has been swamped with other tree projects. His more portable wooden creations are featured at the Rene Wiley Gallery in Galveston. And his tree sculptures are part of a tour promoted by the Galveston Historical Foundation’s Visitor Center.
“I’m the luckiest guy,” Phillips said.
When people call him about a carving, he insists they pick the subject.
“If they don’t, (I tell them) it’s going to be either a fish or a naked woman,” he said.
Phillips said all wood is easy for him to work with because “the chainsaw does not care.” There isn’t a set list of items that Phillips brings to a job, but once the general shape is done he breaks out smaller tools like chisels and grinders.
Jobs take between a few days to a few weeks, depending on their complexity, and run in the neighborhood of $3,000-$10,000. His gallery pieces start at $700.
He said that when he is working in a public area, he gets a lot of attention. Sharon MacLean and Steck say people in their neighborhood stop to take pictures of their sculpture, or give them a thumbs up as they pass by.
MacLean said she regularly oils the piece as the sap is still coming out of the dying tree. Now that the weather is turning cooler, she and Steck like to sit out on their patio and enjoy the coyote while they drink coffee.
“We love it,” Steck said.