Uncommonly Coastal

The Tree Sculptor: Restoring Galveston One Tree at a Time

Galveston, Texas is certainly filled with unique places and fascinating people, but the Tree Sculptor James Phillips rises right to the top of the list.  This talented, outgoing, and entertaining artist creates one-of-a-kind masterpieces that you absolutely must see. Believe it or not, his artistic journey all started with a dead tree in his front yard. 

Galveston Tree Sculptor


In 2005 when a fallen tree needed to be removed from his yard, James Phillips grabbed a large chainsaw and got to work. As he cut, something bizarre dawned on him. “I just started cuttin’ on it, and that dead tree ended up carved into a pelican,” he recalls.  Little did he know this mundane chore would become life-changing and in his words, ‘A magical experience.”   And yes, he still has that first carving today. 


Once friends and neighbors saw his pelican carving, they began asking Jim to create something unique for them as well.  Thrilled by their enthusiasm, he continued carving more and more, quickly becoming an “obsessed” chainsaw-wielding artist. Using wood from landscapers and wood disposal yards, James perfected his craft. His talent soon caught the attention of art shows and galleries, leading to his work being displayed for sale in the Simply Art Gallery.

He was so thrilled to see his work on the shelf that he hurried home to get his wife to show her. But by the time they returned, just 15 minutes later, the piece had already been sold.


Sadly, on September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike struck the Texas coast, bringing a devastating storm surge that wreaked havoc on Galveston Island. Many structures were completely removed from their foundations and destroyed, including the Simply Art Gallery. The storm also claimed as many as 20,000 trees. Amidst the destruction, Jim headed out to collect some of the fallen wood for his projects.  


While in Galveston, James met local resident Donna Leibert, who was grieving the loss of her own tree. Donna persuaded the city to approve a project that would turn the many dead tree trunks into beautiful carvings. She invited James to her home to discuss her vision. “He sat at my table with a handful of clay. The fire department wasn’t allowed to have a dalmatian, so we decided to give them one. We talked for a few more minutes, and just like that, there was a dalmatian in clay. I still have it,” she recalls.


Phillips transformed Donna Leibert’s dead tree into a beautiful geisha. Her granddaughter was born in Japan, and she visited the country as often as she could.  She loved the way that the geisha would face west, as if guiding her toward the next journey. 



Ultimately, Ms. Leibert credits Jim’s tree sculptures with Galveston’s recovery after the storm. “What kept Galveston alive were these carvings,” she says. “There was nothing else for tourists to see.”  After Ike, it seemed the only thing to do was to drive around and look for the carvings. “


Momentum was building, and Jim began receiving commissions by other private homeowners. For example, he created a statue of the Tin Man with Toto at his feet for the home of King Vidor, a Hollywood producer affiliated with The Wizard of Oz. Typically, most clients request a specific subject, and Jim will sketch and make a small clay model.


To bring these visions to life, the tree sculptor starts with a chainsaw to carve the basic shape, then continues with grinders and sanders to refine the details before applying a sealant. Often, the natural grain of the wood enhances the project, such as the scales on a fish, adding unique texture and depth.

Galveston Tree Sculptor


Consequently, Phillips’ popularity as Galveston’s tree sculptor has exploded. In 2013, Jim quit his day job to become a full-time carver. And he is still as enthusiastic about his work today as the day he turned that dead tree in his yard into a pelican.

Galveston Tree Sculptor


Jim’s enthusiasm also extends to the showmanship of working with dead trees and industrial tools. He is a tall, thin man who “talks and acts like a cross between a cowboy and a wizard.”  He gives his audience a performance while he is carving and creating. “I learned early on that most of my clients want a show as much as a sculpture,” he says. “I’m crazy about chatting people up as I swing a big saw around.”  People gather to watch him work, and children are particularly fascinated. “That’s the funnest part of it,” Jim says. “I make it a little circus.”


For larger pieces, Jim relies on scaffolding for support.  He will climb up and down, all around, and back again while working on a piece.  As people gathered to watch, someone once asked him how long he thought he’d continue climbing and using the chainsaw. At 65 years young, Jim replied, “For as long as I can still start the saw.”

With so much interest in his art, Jim eventually decided to hire an assistant. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out.  The man managed to saw halfway through his own thigh on the very first day.



On a recent trip to the Island, we took the self-guided tour to see his sculptures all over town. Some are in the front yards of residents while others adorn public buildings – and each one is spectacular.   

Galveston Tree Sculptor


I think I’d have to say that Jim’s creation of two children reading is my favorite. But now that I say that I think my favorite favorite is one of the Mermaid Collection.  Jim was commissioned to create a series of mermaid sculptures to be placed around a client’s private property.


Maybe it’s not possible to select just one favorite, because all of these pieces are incredibly imaginative and skillfully made. Additional pieces of his inspired artwork can be found in the Rene Wiley Gallery on the Strand in Galveston.     

         Galveston Tree Sculptor 


Jim has carved and “performed” all over Texas including in more than 40  cities. He is extremely personable and loves to share his story with onlookers. Through the years, Galveston’s tree sculptor has been asked some particularly fun questions.

What’s his favorite piece?    

“The next one.”

What was the most difficult undertaking?

“The degree of difficulty is more about the size than the subject matter. Everything is just a shape. I’ve done many 20+ feet tall that require working on scaffolding, and those I would call the most difficult.”

Galveston Tree Sculptor

What has been the most bizarre request? 

“I have done a dizzying number of different subjects. I remember one with an elephant high-fiving a golden retriever. I cannot remember saying no to anything.”

Finally, I wondered if there was possibly a challenge that he can’t seem to forget.

“I do not harbor any dream project desires. Every project is different, and I have been blessed with a steady stream of opportunities to carve.”

       Galveston Tree Sculptor   


“I am currently working on a piece in the Houston Heights area at 518 E. 9th St. right on the street corner. The response from passersby makes me blush.  I am indeed a pretty lucky guy.”

I disagree. We are the lucky ones.

10 Responses

  1. Love this Artist! Been watching him for quite a few years now. I love it when he calls himself a “whittler”. He is so much more than that! Thanks to Jimmy Phillips for all the pleasure he adds to people’s lives when they see his wonderful carvings.

  2. James sculpted a tree in my front yard (standing on the stump). He is an incredible artist and a great guy. Takes exceptional passion in giving you exactly what you want. If you get the chance to work with James, consider yourself lucky.

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