by Carole Cloudwalker
Big Sky Journal
When award-winning Cody, Wyo., woodcrafter John Gallis of Norseman Designs West makes a foray into the woods in search of inspiration, or raw material for the fine art objects he creates from trees, you might envision him taking time to enjoy the scenery, inhale a deep breath of the piney air, and relaxing.
But Gallis, who is filled with endless artistic and creative energy, confesses that he has a big problem in such a circumstance: he can’t see the forest for the furniture.
“Look at all those chairs and loveseats,” he enthuses as he strolls.
“When I go to the woods, I see furniture.”
To Gallis, a gnarled old native cedar tree, for example, is not merely the backdrop for a grizzly bear meandering past. It’s nice to see a bear, of course. But Gallis wants the bear to get on with its life and leave the neighborhood so he can safely examine the tree in question for the furniture possibilities it offers. Its curved branches, forked trunk, knotty burls or healed-over wood wounds might make an interesting element in a desk, table or buffet, and he is eager to get busy studying his options.
“Before I cut a big old juniper tree, I ask it, ‘What do you want to give me?’” he says. “If I can’t get anything out of it, I won’t touch it.”
Where another person on a woodsy outing might merely see a worm-eaten tree that has fallen to the forest floor, Gallis sees artistic treasure: textures, twists and patterns in the wood that might make unique highlights for his future furniture. And not just any furniture, but pieces like the graceful but sturdy fly-tying desk that recently reposed in Gallis’ showroom. It has a price tag of $25,000.
“Who needs a $25,000 fly-tying desk?” Gallis says. But he is aiming not only to build fine pieces of furniture, but to take the word “starving” away from the word “artist,” and to see works sold for the time, creative energy and art that has gone into their creation.
Gallis’ artistic passion is evident to anyone who visits his “dream shop” on – what else – Cottonwood Street, at the eastern edge of Cody.
The shop is fitted with an array of woodworking tools and a built-in vacuuming system. The workroom often is powdered with a patina of fine brown sawdust from the super-finishing that goes into his satiny furniture. Against one wall leans a supply of wood slabs and twists. Some wood he has collected has been tortured by nature, while some was buried temporarily underground (spalted) to give it the interesting crackly textures the artist likes to use for tiny cupboard doors and other components.
Gallis’ blue-grey eyes alight as he describes the uses he envisions for this mighty slab of wood from Africa or that chunk from Pennsylvania’s Amish country.
“See how this piece has a gentle natural curve?” he says. “That will become a headboard for a bed. This piece was cut in two twin halves; they will be the matching ‘bookmatched’ arms of a loveseat someday. I’ve been saving them for several years.”
Behind the shop are rows and rows of more slender bits of wood that strongly resemble an elongated version of the dwelling of A.A. Milne’s fictional Eeyore the Donkey, who lived in a shelter fashioned from sticks. But to Gallis, each twig is being seasoned for a higher purpose, even if he has not yet settled on what that will be. The “sticks” are to Gallis what a diamond mine might be to a jeweler – raw material to be cut, crafted, shaped, sanded down, trimmed up, made beautiful and brought back to life.
Maybe Gallis is so keen to breathe life back into the wood because he was brought back to it about a year ago at West Park Hospital in Cody after he “flat-lined” in the middle of a second heart attack.
While awaiting a helicopter to take him to Billings, Mont., he was given last rites by his priest. He survived a quintuple bypass and is grateful for the gift of having his life back.
“I always feel there’s just one more great piece inside me, and I have to get it done,” Gallis said. For that reason he keeps a notepad and pencil by his bed, so he can sketch out ideas that come to him in the night.
The single most influential event in his own life, he says, was the death of his father when Gallis, who is 57, was 13 and living in Long Island, N.Y. He now feels compelled to achieve what he can in the time he has, to leave a powerful legacy: a family both in flesh (he and his wife, Eileen, have four children), and another in wood.
He applies all that he learned in 14 years as chief cabinetmaker for Bloomingdale’s in New York City, which was less art and more “physics” than his present work, as well as how to make wealthy folks feel “catered to” as he listens to their ideas and puts them down in wood.
At the high-rise buildings where he built cabinets to others’ specifications, Gallis said the challenge was “to fit 10 pounds of potatoes into a five-pound sack.” In other words, to build what the customer wanted, then make sure it would fit in their high-rise homes and could be delivered via elevator.
Though it was a quantum leap from installing plywood and 2×4 cabinets and bookshelves in Trump Tower and other spendy city spots, to making stylish western furniture in Wyoming, Gallis has remained true to the Norse tradition that he has adopted as his own.
“The Norsemen were the first good woodworkers,” he says. “Just look at their ships.”
Standing a lean 5 feet 11 inches tall, Gallis cultivates a blonde goatee and moustache, and a Viking demeanor.
“I once wanted to be a forest ranger,” says Gallis, who knew he would prefer to be his own boss and to work around trees and fashion things with his hands.
“I took some classes, but I could never remember the Latin names of all those trees. So I decided to work with the wood instead.”
“I’m still enthusiastic about what I get to do every day,” Gallis says. “I start working with different scraps of wood, and at the end of the week I end up with a piece of furniture that will outlive all of us.”
From 1995 to 1997, Gallis worked as a craftsman for the late Mike Patrick at Cody’s New West Furniture, making his own pieces after hours and storing them at home. “They all had to be childproof,” because they were part of the Gallis household until they could be taken to shows and ultimately sold, he says.
Sometimes it is difficult to part with special pieces, but “I know I am supporting my family,” Gallis explained. And crafting fine furniture that appears at many shows, such as the Western Design Conference, where it wins recognition and honors, is rewarding.”
“I’ve been doing this ‘work’ for 24 years, and it’s never been work,” he says. “If you’re not passionate about your work, why do it? You’re already dead.”
He focuses on Art Nouveau design, mixed with elements of Shaker style (“honesty of joinery and sleek lines,”) and a “relaxed freedom – kind of like nature, very organic, very sensuous” he says.
In the east, Gallis studied for a time with Daniel Mack, a maker of Adirondack furniture, and learned to enjoy using found items in his pieces. He also studied with Oka Tugal, who opened his shop in Seacliff, N.Y., on weekends to up-and-coming artisans.
“Everything I did prior was to get ready to be here,” says Gallis, who is aided in his shop by foreman Tim Goodwin, Amish furniture maker Mike Esch, and apprentices Kyle Henze and Gallis’ own son, Ian, who is 20.
“I have to experiment with myself and with my furniture, using my hands. It comes naturally, very natural,” Gallis says of his highly original designs. Being stuck in an office cubicle, doing something you hate – that’s a prison sentence,” Gallis says. He focuses instead on his love of life, which flows into the wood he works with.
“I translate that love into each piece of furniture,” he explains.
Gallis says he always hopes to hear people who have ordered custom pieces tell him, “John, it’s better than I expected.”
“If they can see my excitement, then they get it,” he says, recalling the time a blind woman came to the Western Design Conference with her husband. He was describing to her the cantilevered desk Gallis had crafted with just one support rather than two to hold up its substantial top.
“She was kind of perplexed,” Gallis said. “Then she felt the space where the second support normally would have been, and she waved her arms gently around it. A big smile crossed her face. I know she could see the desk. She got it. It was a great experience because I momentarily was able to give her sight, and to give her pleasure.”
Gallis plans to submit pieces for the upcoming Western Design Conference, which will return to Jackson Hole instead of Cody this fall. He will also participate in the new Cody High Style Invitational, which will be held Sept. 19-22 at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.
Wally Reber, associate director of the BBHC, also served for a time as curator of the decorative arts collection. Reber says Gallis “feels a responsibility to the wood to give it a new life.”
Gallis, Reber adds, also brought an entirely new concept to the design of western furniture.
“He formed and shaped the wood, and used the wood’s curves,” not merely applied tops to rustic logs and called it a desk or a table, Reber said. “For us, it was a fresh perspective on western furniture.”
In addition, Gallis “has a real relationship with his furniture,” including the idea that people do not so mulch purchase it as adopt it, Reber adds. “He wants to make sure he has the best child possible.”
Gallis has won 10 awards at past Western Design Conferences, including the coveted Switchback Award. One of his, “Eileen’s Loveseat” is on permanent display at the BBHC; it is the original Gallis fashioned for his wife one year when they first came to Cody and he had no money to buy her a Christmas gift.
Gallis finds it a mixed blessing to have the piece at the museum.
Being selected was a high honor, to be sure, but he said men “wearing white gloves” came to fetch it when he delivered it.
“A curator told me, ‘Say goodbye to it, because this is the last time anyone will touch it.’”
But Gallis builds his pieces to be touched and used, as a sculptor would his art.
“There are a lot of laborers in the world, a lot of craftsmen, but there are not nearly enough artists,” Gallis says.