“I was always interested in wood,” said James McClain of his childhood years. James is an artist that specializes, but is not limited to, creating segmented wood bowls. His bowls have swirling vortexes of color and patterns. They are highly sought after and he displays all kinds of his work at the Wichita Falls Art Association Gallery in the Holt Hotel.
James’ father used a pocket knife to carve things out of “tree limbs and things”, and that resonated with James. When he was still little he attended the Boys Club, and in those days the club had a wood shop. “They wouldn’t let me in because I wasn’t old enough,” he said, “I guess because they said I couldn’t, I wanted to, so I got a lathe of my own and started messing around with it.”
As the years progressed, James lost interest and he ended up in the military. He went to Vietnam and used artillery guns. “They were so heavy, and when fired, they would dig down in the mud. I got an idea to make a platform for the gun to sit on. It was pie shaped, and I made one for my gun. Before long all 6 guns in our unit had them,” he recalls. They worked so well that the other units requested that he make more platforms for them.
Once he came home, he married and “had a bunch of kids and didn’t have time to mess with it.” “But sometimes when I got off work, I would do some simple stuff, but it wasn’t anything like I do now.”
“I started learning more and more about turning green wood,” James said, “They had this stuff called peg that you mixed with water to soak the wood in.” In order to keep the green wood from splitting it had to have that substance and water to replace the water in the green wood. Peg was expensive, and James found out that the main ingredient in peg was the same main ingredient in antifreeze. “I used that and water with a heating element from a hot water heater. You put the wood in it and let it soak, and then you could turn it on a lathe without cracking the wood,” he explained, “ One day my grandson was out there with me, and we got busy. I forgot to unplug the heating element. It dried up all the fluid and caught the bucket on fire and burned down my garage.”
All of his tools and his desire to work with wood went up in flames. However, three years later Joshua Bradley, a relative, started to do segmented wood bowls. Joshua is an accomplished artist in his own right. “I got interested in it and started messing with the colored woods. I didn’t want to do what he was doing and that is why my style is different than what he was doing. The style that I do is segmented turning.”
“The segmented bowls I was doing a long time ago were just one colored things. I just made them and gave them away,” he said. He started making the bowls out of colored wood about 6 years ago. “Finally, someone told me that they were art, and I quit giving them away,” James said with a grin.
His first show was at the Kemp Center for the Arts. He realized his potential and started doing shows “all over the place.”
He entered a show in Oklahoma City in the Veteran’s Creative Art Festival in 2015, and won first place in the wood working category. That led to a feature article and a front page picture in the American Legion Magazine in February of last year. “I donated a bowl to the American Legion. They took in donations in a raffle for it all over the United States. They brought in $52,000. That’s when my head swelled up!” he said proudly.
He entered his work in the Veteran’s Creative Art Festival and won 3 first place honors, and his art went to the national level in Jackson, Mississippi where he won 2 second places. “In that same year, I won second place in Broken Bow, Oklahoma. They have a wood museum there, and they purchased one of my pieces to be on permanent display there,” James said.
Before he retired he worked with metal, and has made some of his wood working tools himself. He is now experimenting with sculpture. His latest creations are made out of washers. One of them is on display at the Wichita Falls Art Association Gallery now. He will also be an artist in Art & Soul this year. “It keeps your head spinning all the time thinking about how to do things—taking something from nothing and making it into something special,” he mused. James’ creativity is now alive and well, and we are all better for it.
-Cindy Kahler Thomas