SWAGGER & SOUL
The Inner Workings of Nate Galpin and Isotope Design Lab
BY Laurel Holland
On an overcast July afternoon, as the annual parade of private jets transporting Allen & Company VIPs streamed steadily into Friedman Memorial Airport, it was business as usual over at Isotope Design Lab, and Nate Galpin was dressed for a day at the office.
Galpin, the brains and brawn behind the Hailey metalworking studio, was sporting a crimson Western button-down with white embroidery and under-arm fringe paired with a pale yellow silk twill necktie depicting a graphic of an octopus.
“Actually, it’s a cuttlefish,” he grinned, smoothing the length of his tie. “Eight arms, two tentacles.”
Step inside Isotope HQ and be met with that same playful irreverence. From the confetti of steel and aluminum scraps collecting in the trough of the forest-green lathe at the studio’s center, to the quarter-scale models of experiments and completed projects displayed on walls and shelves, an electric current radiates from this place. Here, metal and might converge, and, sparked by just the right amount of madness, ideas formed in the ether of daydreams begin to take physical shape.
The creative force behind sweeping commercial projects like the complete Power House redesign this April, and commissioned works including “The Gyre” and “Raptor Interactive” for Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City and the Sensory Trail at Swiftsure Ranch just south of Bellevue, Isotope Design Lab (previously Isotope Metal Lab) is Nate Galpin’s brainchild. Launched in 2008, the Lab is a product of years’ worth of incubation and Galpin’s insatiable, lifelong curiosity for form and function.
A locally-grown hero with a history as a multidiscipline World Cup athlete for the U.S. Snowboarding Team, Galpin helped champion the eventual acceptance of snowboarding culture when it first came to the Valley in the 1990s and was met with widespread disdain. As an undergrad at the University of Puget Sound, Galpin majored in fine arts with a concentration in printmaking. In his first semester of sculpture, he was introduced to metalwork.
With an already extensive résumé of summertime construction gigs he’d worked in his teens and early 20s, Galpin’s foray into metal sculpture initiated a new trajectory for him, and the builder began to fuse with the artist. Thanks to a 1997 stint at an architectural firm in Dallas, Galpin was introduced to computer-aided design (CAD), the programming software that designers and architects rely on to render two- and three-dimensional models. This allowed Galpin to generate more precise and technical models for his own designs, which, in turn, paved the way for the prolific body of work that followed.
With an explosion of strawberry blonde hair and 6-foot-2-inch frame, not to mention the curvy 1958 blood-orange Viking Chevy truck parked in front of the Lab, everything about both Galpin and his work seems larger than life. But there’s a bare and simple beauty to his craftsmanship that bespeaks an eye for the details others might disregard and a softness for all that the human eye can’t see. From the derailleur pulley that inspired the oversized spinning bar top at Power House, to the inspiration behind Isotope’s name, much of Galpin’s process is an act of stripping down, often to the barest, simplest form possible: a single bike gear, a tail feather, a hydrogen atom.
When Galpin founded his studio seven years ago, it was predicated on the concept of human-as-isotope, the notion that we are all made of the same infrastructure, the same elements, the same connective tissue, but that even in repetition, there is variance. Here, where the only rules of the game are the laws that govern science, channeling what’s inherently given is vital. “A conceptual artist needs to pay attention to the idea, not the process,” he explained. “You have to learn to be an organism and grab at the best pieces. Extract what’s best and then step aside. Once you’ve done the work, you have to get out of the way.”
With 17 active residential projects in the works and a growing fleet of commercial and public commissions on tap, Galpin—a proud father of two and a volunteer firefighter and EMT—has come to value what little free time he has these days. “Everyone here has 19 irons in the fire. It’s a process of distillation.” He paused. “It’s okay to spend some time with your head in the clouds. There’s always room for stillness and quiet. You have to make room to breathe.”
THE WILD TWIST OF A RANDO WOOD FINISH
Randy Edgar Shapes Works of Art from Nature’s Best
BY Matt Furber
In a cottonwood clearing just off Broadford Road, woodworker Randy “Rando” Edgar lives in an octagon-shaped building with his wife Maggie Shaughnessy. There he dreams up ways to integrate the magic of the woods with all its twists and curves into the right angles of any home or business. Along with his finish carpentry inventions, Edgar builds boats—dories, Cosine Wherries, Silver Creek canoes and even ski patrol sleds, which are reproductions hewn from U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame member Nelson Bennett’s original “Sun Valley Rescue Sled.” With Edgar’s help, the design is still found at the nation’s steepest resorts. Sled construction even has a dedicated space in Edgar’s 3,000-square-foot shop (the envy of any woodworker) just steps away from the octagon.
Edgar’s frequent use of burl wood, which has a distinctly Western look, is not uncommon where craftsmen integrate nature’s non-linear building materials, but in the Rocky Mountains it’s most popular in towns like Jackson, Wyoming. Since celebrities and even regular customers often demand blood oaths of secrecy when he’s on the jobsite, many of Edgar’s installations remain shrouded in private retreats.
One outdoor and very public example of his work is the façade of KB’s Burritos on Main Street in Ketchum with its lumpy and welcoming wood framing. Another customer, Larry Shupnick, co-owner of The Cliffs Resort above the Pacific in Pismo Beach, Calif., and V Wine Cellar in Napa, learned of Edgar’s work after speaking at a conference in Sun Valley. Curious about Edgar’s boat building, Shupnick negotiated with Edgar for a bar he had built that was a near-casualty of the Great Recession when a customer couldn’t afford to pay. A deal was struck, and the bar is now installed outdoors in Napa overlooking the vineyards. In addition to the woodwork, the bar integrates metalwork and painted images of Shupnick’s annual horseback rides near San Luis Obispo.
“The rail on the bottom of the bar is from a (mining car) track. It helps you get up on the bar stool,” Shupnick said during a recent house move in Hailey. “I’ve never seen anybody have such an eye with wood. I had a 75th birthday party with 200 people and everyone was blown away with the bar. Through the process, Randy and I have become very good friends.”
Shaughnessy, Edgar’s wife, was raised upstream on the Big Wood River in Hulen Meadows. A reading specialist at Alturas Elementary School in Hailey, she has helped her rambling, woodworker husband, now 58, deepen his roots in Blaine County. It’s been a long time since the Arcadia, Calif., native shredded the slopes by Cedar Breaks in Utah where he commuted on Telemark skis between Brian Head Ski Resort, his teepee and town.
Some have called Edgar “river trash” for the ski bum’s penchant to frequent rivers, including dozens of runs through the Grand Canyon. Since the late 1990s he has taken eight or nine red wall trips in a wooden dory that sports the name “basura del rio.” In a sequence of shop photographs, blown up and merged to document high action in high water, the nearly 20-foot-long vessel looks absolutely tiny in the froth.
“We submarined for 20 yards underwater, but it has a watertight hold,” Edgar said. Even with expert captaining, the dory has its fair share of dents from unavoidable rocks—dents that serve to protect indelible memories.
The most remarkable evidence left in wood to be found in Edgar’s shop are tree rings from a massive white bark pine. The snag is currently placed against a shop wall awaiting further attention from the master. Some rings are so tight a magnifying glass helps, as does the flood of light coming in through great swinging shop doors. The tree was more than 1,000 years old before it died. White bark pines are known for the way they twist clockwise with the sunlight. (In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the other way around.) After about 700 years, the tree was struck by lightning, Edgar said. The main trunk turned grey, but some green survived and the tree kept growing and twisting for another 300 years—the older grey entwined with the living, younger wood that has a fresher, yellow hue. The integrated twist is stunning, something Edgar hopes to fit, one day, into a dramatic, possibly circular, staircase and handrail. Mantles, chandeliers, doors and vanities are just some of Edgar’s unique creations. Then, there are the bars and not just in Bellevue.
“I kind of like bars,” Edgar said.
In the shop’s “Room of No Profit,” many treasures await homes, including a canoe bathtub with a custom pedestal prepped for tile and a burl wood vanity with a bronze sink cast in lost wax, complete with a motion-activated faucet and waterfall.
One of the ironies of the octagon is that Shaughnessy helps pupils find their reading groove and Edgar is dyslexic. He finds his muse in the twists and curls of ancient wood rather than on paper.
“Being dyslexic helps with fitting things together,” Edgar said over coffee at his own outdoor bar. It was hewn from a massive chunk of wood with fist-sized burls that emerge from the edges of the smooth, inviting 12-foot bar top. The smooth, hand-finished shapes of the bar are beautifully formed by Mother Nature and fashioned for endless enjoyment. The bar has a roof over it and a fire circle nearby. Edgar starts winter off with a sheltering stack of wood typically eight cords high and deep that keeps the conversation going in the darker and colder months.
“I can see how things will fit together before I start building. It’s a gift to be able to see things in three dimensions.”
THE FLUID LIFE OF SOLID IMAGINATION
Jon Nasvik Shapes Art from an Unlikely Material
BY Matt Furber
Jon Nasvik, 64, has been working with concrete since he was 14 when the St. Paul, Minn., native worked as a part-time grunt for a tough and terrible German builder who’d been in the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth).
“They’d drop me off at jobs and leave me to work until they picked me up for the next job,” Nasvik said during a conversation at the café tables atop a stained concrete floor inside Ketchum’s Main St. Market. Although construction work started as a way to save money for college, Nasvik said he’s never really applied for a job, and, although he went to the University of Minnesota for four years as a studio art major, he never got a degree. He took extra art classes and failed to satisfy math and science prerequisites. “They would have helped along the way, but art training has been very useful in the work I do now.”
Nasvik makes his own mixes of concrete by combining proportions of cement, aggregate and fibers that fit the custom specifications of surfaces and objects he aims to build. It’s normal work for him to move 1,000 pounds of materials several times during his preparation for installation. Aggregate—the sand, gravel, pebbles and other particles added to concrete mixes for strength—is exposed in all its colors and shapes when, for example, the city grinds down the edges of sidewalks distorted by tree roots pushing from beneath. The artful and surprising surface wrought from a plain grey sidewalk is the kind of look Nasvik loves to produce in his most creative moments.
Nasvik’s house in Zinc Spur just north of Hailey is a playground for concrete construction. In one still-life exercise, Nasvik built a mural of swimming fish revealed in a concrete mosaic. First, he crushed glass that he separated by color and then sprinkled in a design and sealed it in a concrete slip. Then, he ground the surface to expose the swimming fish scene in aggregate. The finished product gives the art a real aquarium feel.
Nasvik’s experience as a self-employed, creative force in the trades took off when he started building concrete formations made to look like real rocks for zoos and hotels around the world. The 62-foot-tall flume ride at the Mall of America is his creation. He recently revisited Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo where Nasvik led the construction of fake rocks for gorillas in the Tropical Forest pavilion 30 years ago.
As his peripatetic career as a concrete mason took him around the world, he eventually decided to make Idaho his base. He still travels to exotic projects like Maui’s Grand Wailea, a hotel where he once built a 300-foot-long waterfall, waterslides, and a smoking volcano with grottos and a bar. “What I gained from that is what you have to do to make fake rock look more real.” His favorite of seven waterfalls he’s built in Golden Eagle is 70 feet long and 18 feet high. It’s hard to discern it from the real McCoy.
“I still do two or three rock installations a year. The beauty of concrete being liquid is it can be morphed into about anything. It’s an amazing material, really.”
He’s working now on a series of concrete Adirondack chairs that have lots of fibers in the mix to add strength. The surfaces of Nasvik’s chair, the arms, legs and seat, are 5/8 of an inch thick, and it’s cast as one piece. It weighs about 110 pounds when pulled from the form, so two people can move it with relative ease. Nasvik’s latest experiment in business with a partner in Vermont is to create a series of objects in concrete, including sinks and the chair that can be easily boxed and shipped directly to the consumer. It’s a very different aesthetic experience from his previous forays into production work. In the 1980s he invented texture stamps that easily replicate in concrete the look of Chicago Brick or the Ashlar Slate pattern. However, Nasvik’s bread and butter today is specialty concrete and decorative work.
“I do a lot of plain functional stuff like remove carpets and add half an inch of cement,” Nasvik said. The work falls into the category of quick refurbishment. “I’m now working on a remodel. We gutted the house,” he said. When complete, sections of the floor, countertops, fireplace spaces and the entry will have concrete finishes.
“Every new project has a new twist,” Nasvik said, explaining that for most of his work the owner is calling the shots. “Every year they’re pushing my limits.”
In turn, Nasvik sometimes pushes code inspectors. One mantle project of his looks as if it has a large rough-hewn beam across the top of the fireplace. The inspector said the beam had to go, but the truth was discovered. The mantle is concrete made to look like wood, not unlike the concrete siding used to lend a similar appearance to the Sun Valley Lodge built in 1936. Nasvik once helped the Sun Valley Resort match the original stain for a renovation to the old Lodge spa.
“We knew about Jon,” said Michael Bulls, an architect with Ruscitto-Latham-Blanton, the firm that recently designed a new spa and renovations at the Lodge. “When we did a locker room addition (years ago), Jon did the staining. That was great work, and you couldn’t tell the new from the old.”
At the time, resort owner Earl Holding came out to inspect the work, which by all accounts pleased him because it was indecipherable from the original finish. However, the recent remodel for the new spa made Nasvik’s Lodge work largely a relic of history, but then, all concrete eventually crumbles, just like real rocks in the mountains.