Arts Craft Arts

Feature Artist: Brad Sells

Full Color. Brad Sells, artist

By Gina Malone

Brad Sells grew up in Tennessee and remembers summers spent with his grandparents. “I loved the arduous work of farm life,” he says, “the sweat and smells of summer, the soil, cow dung, my great-grandmother’s flowers, rain, honeysuckle, tobacco, hay. I learned a work ethic and an appreciation of nature.” Both would benefit him when he discovered a love for working with wood. “I was exposed to wood on the farm,” he says. “I remember a barn loft with a handrail that was so smooth and beautiful, all from the human hands clutching it over decades of use.”

Mother’s Covenant. Brad Sells, artist

While in college, Sells recognized a passion for environmentalism. “It has always bothered me that we do not take care of the world that gives us sustenance,” he says. He graduated from Tennessee Technological University and studied clay and wood at the Appalachian Center for Craft. He got his start on the craft shows circuit, and worked his way up to the best shows in the country before focusing on gallery work after the 2008 recession.

For more than ten years, he has worked with GreenWood Global. Founded by woodworkers in the 1970s, the non-profit educational organization trains Indigenous peoples around the world to become artisan woodworkers and to produce and market high-quality products from well-managed forests.

To this end and for his own career, Sells has traveled the world. “I have been to Africa and worked red ivory, leadwood, acacia, milkwood and a wood called white cat whiskers,” he says. “I have worked woods on Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii, and worked koa, milo, kou, longan, mango, macadamia and ohia. I went to Peru with GreenWood Global and worked woods like higuera, and taught the Yanesha’ people chainsawing technique.”

Big Peppermint. Brad Sells, artist

Some of the salvaged wood he is sculpting and carving now has singular significance. “We have lost as much as 20 percent of the ancient monarch sequoia forest in the last several years due to climate change and forest mismanagement,” Sells says. Reaching out to the US Forest Service, he was able to gain access to some of the monarch wood in the Giant Sequoia National Monument in California by agreeing to clear roadways in an area that had been devastated by the Castle Fire of 2020. Giant sequoias are the world’s largest trees and the Monument, encompassing more than 300,000 acres, contains 33 giant sequoia groves managed by the Forest Service.

“It was haunting to see the destruction of those trees,” Sells says. “The fire was so intense, burning through the thick bark of the sequoias and scorching the soil under them. These trees were thought to be fireproof until the 1980s.” He calls it an honor to work with the trees.

“One of the two trees we worked was 17 feet in diameter at the base and the top section that fell out was still over six feet in diameter,” he says. “The tree was estimated to be 2,000 years old. It was amazing to see, and I hope we can work on a solution to save these ancient natural monuments.”

Sells and a former assistant worked 14-hour days at two sites over the course of a week. “We rented a U-Haul truck and loaded about 20,000 pounds of wood up and came home absolutely exhausted,” he says. On the day they left, they could see, on the horizon, the glow of fires that would burn another 100,000 acres, including the Ponderosa area in which they had been staying. Sells hopes to complete a documentary about his experience, using camera and drone footage from the trip.

Polynesian Ama. Brad Sells, artist

While there, he toured Sequoia National Park, seeing many of the largest trees on the planet, including the “absolutely breathtaking” General Sherman Tree, and became enamored of these giants. “I could see their will to survive in a tough, arid environment,” he says. “I could see the scars from past fires, some dating back to before California was settled.” Similar scars can be seen in the wood he brought back from the destroyed trees.

Sells begins work on a piece of wood by making a few cuts with a chainsaw to explore the interior. “I check for defects and voids, then acclimate and visualize a design,” he says. “I have to work with the material, and trees are incredibly different.” Working with sequoia wood, for instance, wants a special touch. “It was necessary to adapt my process to work this wood to its true potential,” he says. “I leave the walls a little thicker and I like to sand blast the wood lightly after sanding it to showcase those tight centuries of growth rings.” He thinks of form and balance as he works. “I often think of them as landscapes with sedimentary layers,” he says of his wood pieces. “I like to use the natural edge of the tree to create movement and depth. I often see the sap wood of a piece as the ‘atmosphere’ and I will usually tint this area to be cooler in color.”

His work includes vessels, furniture and figurative sculptures, with representation in many national and regional museums and galleries including the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Art and Design and the Knoxville Museum of Art, and inclusion in private and corporate collections throughout the country.

“Through an arduous process of carving and refinement, Brad Sells’ latest sequoia tree sculptures humbly capture the spirit of his 3,000-year-old source material,” says Blue Spiral 1 assistant director Blair Guggenheim. “We are very excited to exhibit this uniquely limited collection.”

See Brad Sells’ work in Forest for the Trees: Peggy Root and Brad Sells, on display Friday, May 5, through June 28 at Blue Spiral 1. Learn more at BlueSpiral1.com.

Leave a Comment