When I first heard Brad Sells’ name I was standing on a rock at the edge of an autumn-reflecting lake in Northern Ontario staring at the upturned root system of a tree that had fallen in the water fifty years before. The bark and soil had been washed away long ago, and the wood was pale, worn smooth as bone. The roots were intricately woven, swirling in and out from the core, sculpted by nature.
My first glimpse of Brad Sells’ wood sculpture drew an instant connection to that upturned tree. His pieces look like found objects, carved by the elements, richly grained and swirled by nature. His delicate bowls, hollowed-out vessels, have veins of deep yellow and earthy red, their curves undulating as if they’re under water, the wood startlingly alive as if he has captured its still-beating heart.
Sells’ love of trees seems almost religious: “A tree is a selfless mentor inspiring me to reveal its beauty. It feels bigger than me.” He is drawn to their diversity, akin to studying people, who, like their nature counterpart, are in a constant state of change, “thriving and dying at the same time.” He likes wood with sentimental value and hence is eagerly waiting to find out if he will be one of the artists chosen to receive wood from the chestnut tree that recently fell in front of the house where Anne Frank lived her last days, the same tree by which she measured the season changes, her only glimpse of nature during her confinement in a tiny attic. It would be an “aesthetic harvest.”
Born in Cookeville, Tennessee, where he still lives, Sells has never done anything else. He studied at Tennessee Technical University, but further back he had an appreciation for fine wood furniture (one of the first things Sells carved was the cherry bed he still sleeps in) and was particularly inspired by renowned furniture designer Sam Maloof. A highlight in Sells’ life was meeting Maloof, who was one of the judges for a competition in which Sells had entered a piece titled Veda’s Karma inspired by his daughter. The piece won Best in Show, and Sells later found out that Maloof had insisted his piece win. He also found out later that daughter Veda had given her own nudge to karma by saying a prayer for her father the night before the competition. “My process is hard and consuming like tending a crop,” he says. Working with what’s there, his method is an act of harvest, cultivation, coaxing symmetry from the wood, cutting right through to the pith of the tree to “show its entirety, a beginning and an end—the life of a tree.”
He appreciates the relationship between man and tree, and it draws the religious comparison of Man and God. “Trees created an environment that would sustain us,” with oxygen, warmth, and houses. They are the “ultimate gift,” he says.
Sells’ work was the subject of a 2007 PBS documentary Tree Safari: A Sculptural Journey, South Africa, and a second installment Tree Safari: The Koa Connection, Hawaii premiered at Crossville’s Palace Theater November 3. He’s just finished a show at Two Moon Gallery in Nashville’s 12 South district (they carry his work year round). His work can be found in the Smithsonian, the Museum of Art and Design in New York, and, as proof of the range of his appeal, Neiman Marcus.
Sells’ curiosity has taken him as far as South Africa and Hawaii, “where indigenous people believe the forest is a spiritual place where ancestors dwell.” The cherry and koa wood he found there lend an exotic texture to his work. But it is not just the material he uses that reflects nature. He draws inspiration from the form of the earth’s elements, like his Canyon Style sculptures that came from his travels to the Grand Canyon. There is a sense of profound respect for what comes from the earth in his work. “I try to design a vessel consistent with the flow of life, a repetitive design of nature bursting with cycles and revolutions. My work is observations of science and nature disguised by soul philosophy. I toggle between these realms creating art, hoping to form a sense of connection that is necessary and lasting.”
I can picture Brad Sells at home in Cookeville at his Bark Studio where he doesn’t have to search for wood, but merely has to harvest it from the land where it has grown from sapling till it falls to the earth. And it is there that he can maintain the connection he always feels to wood. “It makes us feel calm and peaceful,” he says, and you can hear the appreciation and anticipation he has for the next harvest of swirling grain and earthen flesh that will come alive under his hand and be transformed—his homage to the beauty he knows is hidden beneath the bark. “Trees come alive after they’re dead,” he says. In his hands they certainly do. www.bradsells.com
by Currie Alexander Powers