by Rebecca Sherman
Cowboys & Indians Magazine
From the earliest times, artists have carved in wood. Realistic sculptures of human figures fashioned out of sycamore have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, dating to 4,000 B.C. Continuing a tradition of outstanding craftsmanship, today’s leading talents in contemporary woodworking may embellish with turquoise or iron, or choose to leave the wood grain raw. But for all of the following artists, working with wood is an enduring labor of love.
John Gallis, Norseman Designs West
Wyoming-based woodworker John Gallis explains his passion for his livelihood by telling a joke. It goes something like this: “What does a woodworker do when he wins the lottery? He keeps working until the money runs out.”
It still makes him laugh no matter how often he tells it, and yet it’s also a poignant expression of who he is. “Woodworkers are a different breed,” Gallis says. “We do it because we love it.”
At 59, more than half his life has been devoted to making furniture. Originally from Long Island, New York, he was Bloomingdale’s chief cabinetmaker for 14 years, crafting bookcases, entertainment centers, and workstations for Manhattan condos, including Trump Tower. After a 1995 trip to Yellowstone National Park, Gallis fell in love with Wyoming’s blue sky and snowcapped mountains. Soon after, he quit his job and moved his wife and children to Cody. “There’s not a day I have regrets,” he says.
Gallis has apprenticed with several renowned furniture makers, including Sam Maloof, and has won honors at the prestigious Western Design Conference. With a team of four employees working out of a 5,000-square-foot shop, Gallis’ company, Norseman Designs West, produces custom-made “refined Western furniture,” including specialty desks, club chairs and ottomans, dining and conference tables, entertainment centers, loveseats, beds, armoires, and lamps. He works mainly in Pennsylvania walnut (tabletops are made from 2-inch slabs), reclaimed wormy chestnut from Amish barns, and fallen juniper, which he gathers himself and uses for table and desk legs.
One of his specialties is making door panels and desk details from spalted maple, a process he perfected by burying maple logs in dank humus for 14 months to give the wood interesting lines and figures. His curvaceous yet solidly built furniture takes inspiration from art nouveau and Shaker styles, two of Gallis’ favorites. It takes him about 200 hours to make a single piece of furniture, and he produces only 12 to 14 pieces a year – each of which he delivers personally by truck, with a lifetime refinishing policy.
“I build investment pieces,” Gallis says. And he doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.”