Claremont artist makes woodworking magic

Osvaldo Orellana approaches a block of wood the way a painter approaches a blank canvas.

The Claremont-based woodworker has created masterful works of art through his meticulous wood sculptures, rocking chairs and rocking horses that conjuring up scenes of the old west, docile homesteads or serene forest scenes.

His latest piece, a vivid and dynamic scene depicting a stagecoach overrun by a gang of bandits on horseback, sold to a buyer in Anaheim Hills for $70,000. It was delivered on Saturday, December 5.

Mr. Orellana doesn’t hold back when he talks about working on the piece, which took him over a year to create. “I was working like a slave,” he said. “And I delivered it Saturday.”

It takes, on average, a few months for the Chilean artist to bring a piece of wood to life. He starts by drawing out the plans, sometimes in conjunction with a client who has commissioned him.

He then uses a drill to carve out the larger pieces of wood (he prefers walnut or mahogany), whittling down the details with a rubber mallet and a chisel until the piece begins to take shape. Mr. Orellana has many different sizes of chisels to create intricate and difficult details, such as a horse’s mane, facial features and, most notably, the reins on the horses.

“I’m born with the perception to know, I know about proportions, it’s natural to me,” Mr. Orellana said. “I can see through the block of wood, where everything is.”

Mr. Orellana has no formal training—his handiwork is entirely self-taught. He discovered his talent at six, when he began to whittle away on pieces of wood.

“When I was home alone and I was bored,” Mr. Orellana said. “I found a broom in the back yard, and at the same time I found a razorblade. I cut it in two, and I started to try to whittle it with the end of the broom with the razor.”

 At the time, he was living on his uncle’s ranch on the foothills of the Andes and growing up on a steady diet of Hollywood western films.

“Me and my cousin, we were following the American movies and we were on a ranch riding horses, we imagined we’re Indians and cowboys, that kind of thing,” he said.

Encouraged by his mother, Mr. Orellana enrolled at Valparaiso Catholic University to become an architect, but left after two years.

His subsequent travels are worthy of an adventure novel—he got a job on a Norwegian commercial ship, spending time in Europe for a few years before finding a job in the fishing industry in Peru. He then lived for a time in the United States on a visa before leaving for Mexico, spending several years in Chiapas while living on woodworking commissions.

When the peso was devalued in 1982, throwing Mexico into an economic meltdown, Mr. Orellana used his contacts and documentation to enter back into the US through Tijuana, ultimately qualifying for then-president Ronald Reagan’s amnesty program in 1986.

He moved to Hollywood and took a job as a parking attendant in a building that, among other Tinseltown heavyweights, housed the studios of 102.7 KIIS FM. And it was a chance encounter with a certain deejay that changed his fortunes.

“Rick Dees is coming out, and he saw me and said, ‘Oh, what are you doing?’” Mr. Orellana said. To pass the time at his job, he would whittle away at pieces of wood, which caught the attention of Mr. Dees. Mr. Orellana was invited on Mr. Dees’ radio show, where he was given a full interview about his work, and soon his business began to take off. He won local competitions across California, winning ‘Best in Show’ again and again.

He even had a chance encounter with legendary local woodworker Sam Maloof, who is internationally known for his beautiful furniture.

“When I was at the Pomona fairgrounds, he was touching [my work],” Mr. Orellana said. “He said, ‘You know, you are the best wood sculptor I’ve ever seen.’”

But despite the adoration and compliments, he stays humble.

“I don’t consider myself a master of anything,” he said. “I am only a guy who carves.”

Now, his pieces command prices that range from $7,000 for a rocking chair to $15,000 for a full scene. Mr. Orellana works on each piece, “200 percent by hand,” with timetables that extend from one month to a full year.

Besides the stagecoach and western scenes, Mr. Orellana also carves rocking chairs and rocking horses. Chairs can be difficult, Mr. Orellana says, because he has to carve an intricate scene on the back of the chair without sacrificing comfort.

Mr. Orellana has two pieces in the works for the coming year, a horse-themed bookstand complete with bandits underneath a tree, and a scene with oxen and farmers. He also plans to open a second studio in his native Chile.

Mr. Orellana has sage advice on how to follow your artistic dreams, which he shares with anyone who asks.

“You need to work hard and be lucky too,” Mr. Orellana said. “That is the key.”

Matthew Bramlett



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