Proud again: artist breathes new life into century-old oak

Artist Vince Skelly in his La Verne workshop last week with the bench he created and donated to Claremont Heritage. Courier photo/Andrew Alonzo

By Andrew Alonzo |

A yearslong project finally came full circle Wednesday when Vince Skelly, a 36-year-old Claremont native and wood sculptor, donated a handmade bench to Claremont Heritage.

The bench, in the entryway to the nonprofit’s offices at Memorial Park’s Garner House, was made from a segment of a century-old, 80-foot coast live oak uprooted during the January 2022 windstorm.

Skelly had recently moved back to his hometown at the time of the storm, which brought 70-mile-per-hour winds and toppled some 300 trees in Claremont, causing about $415,000 in damage. In the aftermath he received numerous calls from residents, including Claremont Heritage Executive Director David Shearer, about the sudden unfortunate abundance of potential material for his work.

The result was “Vince Skelly: After the Storm, a collection of wooden monuments,” which opened at Los Angeles’s Farago Gallery in July 2022. Last year, “Vince Skelly: A Conversation with Trees,” was on display at Claremont Lewis Museum of Art from February to April.

Texture detail of the bench artist Vince Skelly created and donated to Claremont Heritage. Courier photo/Andrew Alonzo

Skelly has been working on the bench for about a year.

“It’s like in memory of the tree,” Skelly said. “It’s also a reminder of that storm, a reminder of climate change, natural disasters, all of the things that are going on in the world today. And it’s important to me that this lives in a public space that anybody can come and see or use.”

The oak segment from which the bench emerged was about 36 inches in diameter and five feet in length. Skelly shaved the log down with a chainsaw to get a rectangular shape before chiseling and carving the final product. He used gouges to add texture, sanders to smooth it, then applied finishing oil.

The design is loose, he said, with some of the log’s original curvature left in the final product.

Claremont Heritage is designing a plaque to be mounted near the bench that commemorates the storm and the tree. “This is an appropriate action and reflects the Claremont Heritage 2024 Theme: Preserve, Restore, Reuse,” Shearer wrote in an email.

Skelly said Claremont Heritage tasking him with the project also felt appropriate.

“Anytime that a tree comes down, especially when it’s historic or special to somebody, then I think, if at all possible, the person who’s in charge of that tree should try to give it a second life and turn it into something,” he said. “I think it’s really important to honor them, especially the historic ones.”

Born and raised in the City of Trees, Skelly and his friends used to play on public art and sculptures around town. A self-taught artist inspired by famed woodworker JB Blunk, Skelly got into wood carving about six years ago. His work is a melding of ancient megalithic structures and mid-century art and architecture, he said.

Skelly said he wants the public to get some use out of his work. “All the material I work with comes from natural causes,” he said. “I wanted to make something that people will like use and kind of sit on or interact with.”

With the bench complete, Skelly has turned his attention to a September exhibit at New York’s Tiwa Select, where “Vince Skelly: After the Storm,” was also shown. He’s also working on another bench project, this one for the City of Claremont, that will be unveiled later this year.


Submit a Comment

Share This