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With these hands: Shaping metal into $10k cheques, with Nate Tyler

From Stab issue 80: Shaping metal into $10k bills, with Nate Tyler

Words by Theo Lewitt

Nate Tyler didn't live the picket-fence life. Replace the static backyard and pre-fab swimming pool with 20 acres of raw, wooded land in Cayucos (a blip along the central Californian coast) and a house that was slowly built over twelve years and we get closer to his reality. His parents weren’t leaving home before light in suits and ties yielding briefcases and sales reports. They were self-sufficient creatives selling toys and wood-worked crafts. And every dime went straight back into their ever-evolving home. That Nate grew a few creative bones himself shouldn’t be a surprise now. What is rather mysterious, however, is that Nate has been making kinetic metal sculptures (and serious cash from it) for years now and it’s eluded our attention. As do most markets that require a particular buyer, the exchange of large amounts of money and artwork that shimmers at night.

The sculptures are based on mathematical theories. They’re kinetic metal sculptures. That means they’re metal shapes that I’ve incorporated stones and various objects into, and with a bearing system connecting the pieces, they make random kinetic movement with the lightest little puffs of breeze. They have to be perfectly balanced, but also able to move with barely any influence.

Wood has limitations. Especially where all the joints have to be, it’s got to be perfectly precise. With metal you can literally make anything. It’s an empowering feeling. I look at things and just know that I can make them. If you have skills with your hands, you’ll get it. People that are good wood workers would generally be good metal workers, but there’s fucking sparks flying and it’s loud. You get tons of little burns, and can get metal in your eyes, that’s the worst.

Utility versus Art… There was a point where I was 17 and I wasn’t doing well in contests and definitely not making any money. At the time, my dad was making these metal sculptures that were really simple and straight-forward. One gallery would buy from him upfront, before they were even finished. When I was looking to make money and support myself, he let me make those for him when he was out of town, and that gallery would keep buying them from me. I’d work in the shop when he was traveling and sell enough sculptures to save enough to go on a trip for a magazine. At that point I was making them for the money. But I got really familiar with the techniques, the theories, and developed some skills. I had to get good at it if I wanted to make decent money and go on surf trips, so for me, the craft sort of developed from a means of money, to where is now, a type of art.

…Versus Cash. When I’m home and the waves are shitty, I’ll spend my time tinkering on metal projects. If I’m commissioned to do one, or somebody like Joe G wants to shoot something about them, I’ll make one specifically for that. When they sell they’re pretty solid. My dad sells them for almost $20K. The ones that I sell are pretty close to $10K. A number of my projects are in the vineyards around this part of California.

802_01 Photo: Tom Carey

It’s a viable career. When I’m done surfing, I’ll make it my career. It’s not so much just for the money though, it’s the legacy that’s rad to me. To think that I could be making a living doing the things that my parents have done, being your own boss for a while, that’s appealing. I mean, my dad is one of maybe three renowned guys making these things. George Rickey who was one of the best, and Jeffery Laudenslager who’s probably the most renowned living guy making them today, then there’s my dad, John Tyler. I get a kick out of that. My dad was a maths professor and understood the formulas involved. I’m not the math guy, so I just get a kick out of learning it.

The art and surf worlds aren’t too dissimilar. It’s a tough industry. It’s a lot like the surf world in a sense; not a direct reflection by any means, but if it’s slow, it’s really slow. Or, if you have a big name, you’re ripping in the art world, and if not… well, you’re not.

Chandeliers. I just did a large one for my mom’s gallery, called Firefly. All the chandeliers I’ve ever done have incorporated glass insulators and various other pieces for the light housings… pieces I usually don’t make myself. But, for this one, I hammered out copper cups to house the bulbs, so I had to make every little part of it. I ended up hammering out 16 individual copper cups on the anvil. The thing was a total beast. That’s gotta be my favourite so far. I also just made these big orbs for around my house that hang up in this huge, old oak tree. I wired them up and put them on a timer to light up every night. It looks like they’re two moons up in the tree.

Building something useful will reap reward. After taking over 12 years to build their house, my parents divorced and sold the property. My dad took his share of the money and bought the adjacent 15 acres, which was selling cheap. While he was on that new land, I lived down south, kicking around doing the surf thing. I figured instead of paying rent somewhere, I should just put a little yurt on his property, so I lived there for five years. I was on a trip in West Oz and got this email from my brother telling me that the old house was for sale. I freaked out a little, got my funds in line, came home, and bought the house. I didn’t know anything about building before the yurt project. That was like a crash course in construction and look what’s happened since.

You’re a product of your beginnings. If I grew up in city, or somewhere different than where I did, I don’t know whether this would have been as readily available to me. That’s why I feel really fortunate to live where I do, and grow up where I did. Both my mum and dad still work with their hands. I was always working for them when I was a little kid, like, voluntary child labor. I’d be working saws, sanding, and all that stuff when I was just tiny. Now, it’s just so easy to go out and make things. I’ve always been so inspired by surfing, but it’s really cool for me to get inspired by something that’s way outside of the surf world.

802_02 A man and his muse. Nate knows that the career of a wandering freesurfer only lasts so long. Fortunately artistic tendencies run deep in his DNA and metallurgy’s starting to pay some bills at his Central Cal homestead.

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