here is proof of an afterlife. For beautiful old trees, anyway. You’ll find it at BC West Creek Gallery in Casitas Springs, where trees that would have otherwise met a woodchipper or been turned into firewood find a second life as unique furniture and sculptures.
It began in the early 1990s when Ojai-native Brett Cunningham started his own tree care business. One day, Cunningham was in Westlake removing an old oak tree when he got a life-changing idea. As the BC West Creek Gallery site spells out, Cunningham knew that some people might see the oak tree as “nothing more than scraps [but he] saw the new life that could be created from the tree. From there he cut, cured, and sanded [the] majestic oak, leading to the creation of his first pieces of solid wood furniture.”
Gallery manager Amanda Borodaty adds that Cunningham “realized that there was so much potential in a lot of the wood that he was cutting down … Just seeing wood that would have been destroyed kind of sparked something in him. A lot of these trees, especially in the 1990s, were gorgeous red oak or eucalyptus. He thought, ‘there has to be something that we can do with these trees.’”
Cunningham took the wood home and began honing his craft, a craft that involves a long and thoughtful process. The first step is curing the wood. “The initial curing always happens at [Cunningham’s] ranch in Maricopa,” Borodaty explains, adding that the curing process takes years, sometimes upwards of 10 years or more. “The arid climate at the ranch is … excellent for curing because there’s very little moisture and that’s very important for the stability of the wood.”
While the wood cures in the sun, Cunningham does a lot of thinking. “The curing time gives Brett time to visualize what he wants to make,” Borodaty says. When the wood is ready, Cunningham brings it back to his Ventura workshop, where he’ll begin the sculpting process. “He will make first cuts to get a rough product,” Borodaty explains. Unlike many woodworkers who use a mill, Cunningham makes his first cuts by hand. “[He uses] incredibly large chainsaws to make his cuts. It’s quite impressive and he has a very steady and straight hand while doing it — very important!”
After he makes the first cuts, Cunningham lets the pieces cure for another year or two. “He always cures all of the wood for a significant amount of time and never uses newly fallen trees. This is very important so that the final pieces of art don’t crack, split, or change shape.”
When the rough-cut wood is ready to work with, Cunningham lovingly and patiently sands the wood into its final shape, taking cues from the wood’s natural curves and grain. In the end, every work of art — whether it’s a sculpture or a piece of furniture — possesses gorgeous organic lines that honor the original tree.
“Every piece of wood is different. Every tree that he starts with is different,” Borodaty says. Sometimes the shape reveals itself after Cunningham makes his first rough cuts. “As he works, he sees the shape and form that the wood starts to take. Some of them might already have a curvature — like with the Romero Lounge. That [orginal] piece [of wood] had some gentle slopes, so he just continued to go down the path and refine that further and further until he created the lounge.”
An impressive piece of furniture, the Romero Lounge was carved from a historic red oak tree found in Montecito. It took Cunningham three years to create it, patiently coaxing out its sumptuous curves and glorious grain. Like all of Cunningham’s works, the Romero Lounge has a history as well as a new life. The tree from which it was carved was a casualty of the floods that occurred in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire. Borodaty recalls that Cunningham’s tree service was one of the companies called in to do emergency tree clearings in the area. “One of those trees ended up coming back to his ranch with him. He saw in the wood the future vision for what would become the Romero Lounge.”
Something that Cunningham hadn’t always envisioned was selling his work to the public. For years, he crafted pieces for his own home or for friends and family. People had always told him his work was good enough to sell, but it wasn’t until the timing and the location were right that Cunningham decided to open BC West Creek Gallery in Casitas Springs. He still works in the same way he always has, Borodaty notes; he studies the wood and lets it come to life through the process. Now, however, lucky buyers can bring home a one-of-a-kind piece, and Cunningham hopes they “love the finished product as much as he does.”
In addition to finding Cunningham’s original creations at the gallery, you can view many of the antiques that Cunningham, an avid collector, has acquired over the years. Only the original works are for sale, however. The antiques are there to be admired.
There is one example where Cunningham’s passions for woodworking and antiques meet. The piece, entitled Fire and Ice, features a large glass vase that Cunningham found at an auction in Texas set atop a wood base. While it’s the only piece with a man-made object, it’s certainly not the only one with a history. Borodaty notes that some of the pieces in the gallery were made from trees that once stood on the grounds of the historic Lavender Inn in Ojai. Many others were carved from giant eucalyptus trees found in Rancho Matilija in Ojai, including one that “had fallen and completely crushed a guest house on the property.”
It goes without saying that, as Borodaty puts it, Cunningham’s work isn’t made from the kind of wood you’d find at your local Home Depot. “What’s so beautiful about this furniture is [that] at one point it was a tree that had its purpose and now it has its second purpose. [Brett] has figured out a way that it can still be incorporated into someone’s life or home for many years to come … From discarded wood that nobody wanted, now it has a gorgeous new life.”
Until COVID restrictions are lifted, visitors can shop and browse the gallery by appointment, or visit the online shop anytime. An outdoor gathering spot on the gallery grounds is also in the works. In addition to the sculpted pieces, BC West Creek Gallery sells tree rounds that are meant to be outdoor accent pieces. Also featured are dramatic wood blocks created by the BC Art Team, a group of artists who work closely with Cunningham. The pieces are no kiddie blocks; these are stately objets d’art — with names like Storm, Fury, Blast, Marble and Rain — that have been shaped from eucalyptus trees. They’re crafted with the same commitment to bringing out the natural beauty and individual characteristics of the wood as the rest of the collection.
Whatever their history, the trees that Cunningham works with have two things in common. First, they’re not common at all. Second, and probably most important, they all faced a fork in the road: towards a dead-end in a woodpile or a new life as a work of art. Cunningham lets the trees speak to him and he loves to listen. As the company tagline says, “every tree has a story.” Cunningham makes sure no one ever forgets it.