The Magic of Metal
Nathan Baker is right at home with his upcycled art in Thomas.
Photographed by Elizabeth Roth
Your grandmother’s silver, dad’s trophies, an old trash can—Nathan Baker is on the hunt for metal, but it’s not what you think. “I’m always peeking in dumpsters, knocking on doors. Like, ‘Hey, do you want that hubcap that’s in your yard?’ kind of thing,” he says.
About three-and-a-half years ago Nathan made his first masterpiece out of metal. Now he sells his work to art collectors, motorcyclists, and everyone in between. His pieces sell for anywhere from $28 to $1,200, depending on size, complexity, and how much he’s become attached to them over the many hours he’s spent cutting and bending and banging against them.
Nathan has a reverence for the cardboard boxes and grimy shelves overflowing with old metal that is usually reserved for newly polished silver in a church or museum display case. He talks about the way each piece catches the light and the way it transforms when left outside. “I love how it patinas and messes up. I will even put some outside just to see what happens,” he says of his sculptures. “There are usually half a dozen different metals involved so they’re all going to rust or not rust or patina differently.” Sometimes clients will put his works in their gardens or yards and send him photos as they change.
When you walk into The White Room Art Gallery on East Street in Thomas—easily one of the coolest streets in all of West Virginia—you can’t miss Nathan’s work. It is here, in the back room of the gallery, that Nathan makes everything from small sculptures of spoons and forks to elaborate chandeliers created incredibly out of unwanted trash cans or washbasins. But much of the art you can even glimpse from the street outside, as the gallery’s large windows invite the area’s many summer tourists to peek in. Nathan’s creations hang from the ceiling and jut out from the walls. Shiny, silver points and strange shadows come from towering, contorted collections of forks, spoons, plates, and serving trays. And all around his work are examples of even more local talent—paintings and purses and photos made by folks all across town that keep all of the artists motivated to keep creating.
It can take Nathan anywhere from eight to 50 hours to complete one of his unique pieces, but it all starts with a great find. He once discovered an old washbasin under some boards while hiking in the woods near an old homestead in the area. That discarded relic went on to become a giant, gleaming chandelier that now hangs prominently in The White Room. But it’s that moment in the back of the gallery—in Nathan’s dark studio where he bends and shapes and cuts the metal and the project suddenly reveals itself—that makes it all worthwhile. “Every aspect is enjoyable, but seeing a loose idea all of a sudden come together in a startling and pleasing way—that’s the most important part,” he says. “It’s that moment when it really feels like its happening through me.”
Nathan’s serious endeavors as an artist began when he and three friends—Robin Quinlivan, Sarah Hubbard, and Seth Pitt—opened The White Room Art Gallery in 2008. He fell in love with his art form one night when they were in the gallery hanging out over drinks. “We literally had one of those boxes full of metal stuff that people tend to have, and I worked construction, too, so I had some tin snips and I just cut a pot and opened it up. It all folded out like a radial pattern. I was like, ‘Dang. That is sparkly and cool,’” he laughs. So then he made a few more and stuck them together with rivets and hung the work in the gallery. No sooner than the new shiny piece of art was on the wall did a woman come in and say all the right things to get Nathan’s wheels turning about what his work meant. “I wasn’t even hip to upcycling then, you know? It was like she fleshed out the concept.” The woman was an avid art collector and bought the piece right then and there. “I thought it had a ridiculously high price at the time—I think it was like $200—but I didn’t really consider myself an artist at that point.” Now he thinks about what his art means every day. “Changing the function of what used to be an everyday object that is now discarded refuse—that keeps me interested.”
He says the culture surrounding his medium—the metal, the “found” things—keeps him intrigued, too. “So much of what I find is refuse. Two or three generations ago, so much of it was probably used quite regularly. Then, people our parents’ age, they started to store it more, but it would come out for Thanksgiving. Now, with this generation, it really is discarded. It’s kind of like an old tool that we no longer use.”
Nathan had always dabbled with art—drawing, painting, and even making avant-garde bookcases that looked like they were about to topple over. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing with a poetry emphasis from Michigan State University, and he started working entry-level construction right out of college. “I started using my bachelor’s to make weird bookcases,” he laughs. “And then the art thing really just kind of happened.”
He says he long assumed he’d end up working mostly in carpentry, though he does do a lot of construction still during the day—framing walls for a neighbor, rebuilding a local storefront, or renovating the 1890s home he owns with his partner, Christine Kozan, before working on his art in the evening. Being surrounded by talented, imaginative people in Thomas has spurred his own creativity, and he said art just had to happen when he and his friends started The White Room. “I think one, maybe two, considered themselves artists already. We started with the gallery and then had to fill it. It really did exude creativity—not just with us, but for the community.” Now the work of 25 artists is on display in the gallery.
Nathan says just living in Tucker County makes him a better artist. The cost of living is low, giving all of the artists a little more leeway in terms of creative and personal time. “I think it greatly affects my art,” he says, adding that he doesn’t feel pressure to rush the creative process. “Really, any place where an art community happens, it usually also just so happens that there’s super cheap rent and a bunch of interesting people who have more ideas than money. That’s one of the blessings of being here.”
Nathan grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has lived in Portland, Oregon, and Tucson, Arizona, but it wasn’t until he landed in Thomas that he says he felt at home. His friend Seth was in the area working for AmeriCorps when Nathan visited. “I went west in the country looking for this place—a really interesting town that was small enough but had a really great creative foundation, and I never really found it out west,” he says. “Seth was back here in Thomas for a couple of years. By the time I visited I was like, ‘Oh. I guess you found it.’ I really was looking for a place like Thomas.”
Now Nathan lives walking distance from his studio—he can almost always be found at the gallery or up the street with friends at TipTop, a creative coffee shop, bar, and bakery where he also works part-time. “There are so many interesting folks here that it’s easy to glean energy and creativity,” he says.
But it’s not just the people who live in and around Thomas who make it colorful. The people drawn to the region on day or weekend trips play a part, too. Nathan says he loves to see the wide range of people who become interested in his work. “Within a few moments a pretty rough looking leather-clad guy who just hopped off a Harley will come in and appreciate it, and then there will be a group of 60-year-old ladies who will be talking about similar pieces they own or art that reminds them of things they own—turkey platters or whatnot,” he says. “That’s not something I expected or intended, but it’s been really fulfilling to see.”The White Room Art Gallery
14 East Avenue, Thomas, WV 26292, 304.621.2008