Home & Design December 15, 2008

The Master Next Door

Craftsmen Profiles: Sun Valley is not commonly known for its down-to-earth quality. No surprise given its outward appearance, yet, actually, it is down-to-earth. Very hands-on. The thing is, these hands are the quiet ones, usually not the ones with standing appointments for manicures. Meet the hands (and their owners) that garner calluses and broken nails to create the fine touches in our environments. Then, take a closer look at the person next to you at the market. Say hello to a master.

Mary Garrett

When you meet Mary Garrett, it’s hard to get your head around the fact that this handsome blond woman sets steel for a living, that she is an ironworker by trade and union definition. Her craft is precise,unforgiving, risky . . . and, if done correctly, usually goes unnoticed.

Garrett’s most visible work is the fabrication she does for local sculptor Bob Kantor, whose colorful kinetic sculptures can be seen mid-Valley alongside Highway 75. It’s also the work that most challenges and excites her. Collaborating with Kantor to develop the shapes, correct the balance, and assemble the sculptures is a creative outlet for Garrett, whose work is more often based on precision than on an exchange of ideas.

Like most Idahoans, Mary Garrett is a transplant. She moved here from Michigan at the urging of her brothers, both tradesmen who had traveled through the state and decided to put down roots here. Since then, through significant sweat and serious determination, she has established herself with an attractive iron shop, two employees, and an office at her family compound in Shoshone.

Upon graduation from high school, Garrett tried on a number of jobs, including a short spell as a bank teller. Serving the public in pantyhose proved far too prissy for this fiery woman, however. Eventually she landed a job at a local cement plant and, after a few years, boldly joined an apprenticeship program to become a millwright. As part of that program, she learned how to weld—and immediately fell in love with the process.

Garrett eagerly watched and talked with the men who were experts at weaving metals together. The first woman to be involved in the apprenticeship program, she remembers the men being kind and sharing ideas about what they did to make their work more efficient. Yet, despite a supportive atmosphere, there were skeptics—and Garrett was never given any leeway because she was female. She knew she had to prove her skill and, at times, her lack of fear.

After ten years at the cement plant, Garrett was itching to do more work with steel. She set her sights on becoming an ironworker even though she knew the apprenticeship program was highly competitive. When she arrived for orientation, the hall was filled with some 500 people hoping to be chosen. Just four or five of them were women. The trainer warned the group that only a third of them would survive the training process: half would be eliminated by the drug test, and others wouldn’t be able to stomach the physical risk of balancing on a narrow beam suspended hundreds of feet in the air.

After navigating her way through orientation, Garrett was selected as an apprentice ironworker. The day she was to begin, she went directly from her night shift at the cement plant to apprentice school.
Needless to say, union guys don’t always welcome rookies, especially when the rookie is a woman. On one of her first jobs, Garrett remembers the foreman turning to her and saying, “You might as well go home now, lady,” directing her attention to a steel beam that was several hundred feet in the air—the beam she would have to negotiate. Determined to keep the job, Garrett walked out onto the beam, locked on, and completed the day’s work. That earned her a nod and a “Not bad!” from the foreman.

The work she does today varies widely, from setting large structural steel beams for buildings to the more delicate process of fabricating fireplace screens. She is proud of her collaboration with artist Bob Kantor, and shared with me some photos of a colorful, kinetic mobile that was recently placed in the Napa Valley Vintner’s Community Health Center. When asked whether she aspires to create her own sculpture, she smiled and confessed that she has sketches of works that she would like to build someday. And, no doubt, this strong, determined woman will manifest that wish before very long. >>>


Hans Thum

A strong, fit body and a ruddy face identify Hans Thum as an Idahoan, but also reveal his roots. In fact, after nearly forty years spent in the Rockies, it is still his European heritage that most directly shapes his life as a mural painter.

Born in Kitzbühel, Austria, Thum served in World War II and then signed on as apprentice to a master craftsman who taught him the art of traditional Austrian painting. He learned not only fresco mural painting, but also painting as decoration for furniture and architectural elements. The team traveled throughout the Tyrol, depicting fresh mountain scenes on the walls of churches and inns, as well as restoring those that had come before.

In winter, when painting exteriors was prohibited, Thum worked as a ski instructor in the Austrian Alps. Eventually, his love for snow brought him to the United States to teach skiing at Sugarbush in Vermont. A year later, in 1967, he made his way to Idaho to work for Sigi Engl and the Sun Valley Ski School. But it wasn’t until friends suggested he try out a Sun Valley summer that Thum began to share his real expertise with Valley residents.

He began working with Florian Haemmerle, a Bavarian painter who was employed by the Sun Valley Company. They collaborated on murals and decorative architectural details for the Sun Valley Inn and the Opera House. Soon thereafter, Bill and Ann Janss asked Thum to create a mural flanking the doors of the Limelight Room. With some creative input from Ann, Thum produced a spectacular mural that included soldiers, the Austrian countryside, animals, castles, and a number of heraldic shields.

Thum’s first significant private commission was exterior mural work for two Edelweiss condos. The elaborate murals quickly garnered attention from homeowners and builders, and he soon found himself traveling all over the West to work on various
projects. Most of his clients have knowledge of Thum’s homeland and, having skied the Alps, want their mountain home to reflect the warmth and hospitality of Swiss and Austrian inns.

Despite being trained in a specific tradition, Thum is remarkably able to paint in a wide range of styles, from the lushness of the Baroque tradition to the joy and playfulness found in Rococo to the loose style of Modernism. Glancing around his studio, you would see a headboard with a central biblical scene surrounded by a floral pattern with gold leafing. Its origin is in northern Italy, not the Tyrol. Look further, and you’d find a painted sketch of a skier, made up of broad areas of flat color that suggest clothing but don’t specify texture or material. Leaf through his portfolio, and you’d discover an abundance of typical Tyrolean scenes with shepherds and sheep, water, glacier-encrusted mountains. There are girls dancing in meadows and grazing animals.

Rejecting the idea that he has a preferred element or style, Thum enjoys working with clients to execute their vision, and finds satisfaction in the resulting variety. Working first on drawings to share ideas, he eventually presents a full-scale maquette that shows color, style, and specific details. By the time Thum begins his work on a stuccoed wall, he knows the primary elements of what he will include, as well as their color and size. As those major components are completed, his instincts and experience kick in, and the foreground and background are completed intuitively.

After 50 years, Thum is confident that his instincts will direct him correctly. His honed talents and skills are a bit of a rarity in a world that tends to reward the “new and improved.” Although he may deny the title of artist, he clearly knows his craft—and shares it with a grace that reveals his roots in a country and a culture much older than our own.

Paul Bates

If you live in the Wood River Valley for any length of time, sooner or later you’ll run into him—the guy with curly, unkempt hair who wears shorts year-round and who, despite the shards of wood chips and shop dust on his shoulders, always sports a tie on Fridays. A quirky mix of laid-back California hippie and anal rocket scientist, Paul Bates is a legend of sorts. The good news is that his talent far surpasses his eccentricity.

It is hard to discern which is greater: Bates’s ability to craft beautiful wood furniture or his capacity to problem-solve—to listen to a client and find exactly the right solution to satisfy his own discriminating eye as well as the client’s perhaps unspoken expectations. Bates is a craftsman’s craftsman and, while many can tell you stories about him, nearly everyone he has worked for will say that he is the best at what he does.

Bates makes simple, clean, elegant furniture that invites you to touch, to inspect the joints, to look inside the drawer or underneath the lip. He uses glue and plugs, not hammers and nails. Surfaces are luscious and planes match up perfectly. If there are drawers or cabinets on a piece, they are effortless to open—and when they close, they meet and stop and match with a clarity that reveals the attention they have been given.

As a boy, Bates seemed destined for another kind of life. He attended a rigid Baptist prep school and claims he didn’t take a single class that might have been considered fun or creative. He remembers, though, having the desire to make things. After trying his hand at painting houses while in high school, he quickly determined that building was way more fun.

A product of his generation, Bates bailed out of college after a semester, then set out to explore the country. His girlfriend had a relative in Twin Falls, so they headed for the Rockies in an old bread truck they’d purchased for the journey. His first real wood project was fitting the truck with shelves for clothes, cabinets for supplies, and a sleeping platform.

The winter the couple arrived in Idaho was one of the coldest on record. Figuring that if it was going to be so blasted cold it might as well be snowy, they headed north from Twin to Ketchum. Without any real training, Bates did whatever work he could find here, from hauling hot asphalt for a roofer to working construction.

It wasn’t until he was hired by contractor Sid Schneider that Bates fell in love with wood. Schneider had a small crew and would take on only one house a year, scheduling it so it would be done by the time the skiing began. He gave Paul the charge of designing and building the kitchen for the house, and although Bates had typically fled to Belize in the cold months, that winter he realized he wanted to stay in Idaho and work.

Soon thereafter, Bates met Jack McNamara and Earl Engelmann, who were setting up a woodshop to build what was needed for Michael Engl’s home. Joining that team solidified Bates’s sense of his life’s work. Engl’s vision, generosity, and desire to support good craftsmanship allowed him to experience his potential. And, from then on, Engl continued to challenge him. To date, they have worked together on a range of projects from entry tables to desks to television cabinets to cases for Engl’s art collection.

One piece that Bates created for Engl remains his most ambitious—a curved wood and glass case constructed to display an American Indian basket collection. The challenge was to create something beautiful and functional, but also something quiet that wouldn’t overwhelm the baskets or compete with the Wendell Castle dining table that shared the room. Bates spent a year designing the piece with Engl and his wife, Leslie. He had to solve the technical problems of how the wood and glass met, how to keep the dust from accumulating, how to marry the curve of the glass to the curve of the wood.

It is here, in taking an unknown—the vague idea in a client’s head—and teasing it into something tangible, that the real thrill lies for Bates. The process of collaborating with smart patrons, architects, or builders gives him great joy. Asserting that “the dialogue is the best part,” he humbly tosses off the delicate work as “just labor—the performance part.” Putting the pieces together—connecting the physical, functional, and philosophical elements—keeps him going. And fortunately, there are enough stimulating clients in the Valley to keep him showing up in his shorts and Friday tie, ready to put his hands to wood. 

Prior to moving to Idaho, Kristin Poole organized the New Art Forms Exposition in Chicago, which showcased the finest decorative and craft artists in the country. Poole is currently the Artistic Director of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, and American Craft remains a strong area of her interest.

This article appears in the Fall 2005 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.