the Rake December 2003

Behind Bars

Did this man carve the woodwork in your favorite public house?

From the Article: Handsome Work by Katie Quirk

Nathan Stanley is very much the bohemian artist one likes to imagine hanging out int the cafés of Paris. Disheveled and emotional, the woodcarver flies from topic to topic in conversation, has plans with friends to begin skipping around Powderhorn Park, and occasionally drinks beer before noon, even on a Monday. His eccentricities don’t always charm some of his customers, but his work certainly does. An instinctively great artist, Stanley has outfitted barrooms, law firms, and suburban studies with his work, taking risks to create designs he says he infuses with music and emotion. A cross between Robin Williams and Richard Simmons, Stanley is often childlike, with a high pitched giggle reminiscent of Sesame Street’s Elmo. His own wine cellar, tucked into a closet in his tiny basement, is nothing more than a few unfinished shelves and a dozen bottles of wine; Stanley shows the modest space with pride, and with a genuinely happy exclamation of “Isn’t it wonderful?”

Stanley is the son of a carpenter. He grew up hoping to escape his woodworking genes and become a pianist, but his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing forced him to refuse a college music scholarship. After floundering for a bit, he finally gave in to a craft he had been doing since he was twelve. At first, he worked as a stock-in-trade carpenter, hanging doors and making furniture (”boring , soulless work”) in Great Britain and New York. Back in Minneapolis, Stanley says he’s been able to do the work he enjoys–creating without boundaries or guidelines–almost exclusively for about a decade. ”I only have to prostitute myself about ten percent of the time now,” he says, referring to the traditional furniture he occasionally makes.

The money he earns from such work gives him the freedom to work on more interesting but noncommissioned works, such as the piece “Of Man’s Disobedience.” Also known as “the snake bed,” the mahogany “three-poster” bed has three angry snakes climbing and writhing up the posts before extending their fanged mouths outward. It’s an incredible, if challenging, piece of furniture, one that makes its creator proud. When I ask why no one has bought the two-year-old piece, he lightheartedly scoffs. “Who would want a snake bed?” Later, I find out that he was offered $23,000 for the piece a year ago. Today, the bed sits in a spare bedroom in Stanley’s Powderhorn Park home.

More readily salable are the creations Stanley has made for Keiran Folliard, owner of Keiran’s Irish Pub, the Local, and the Liffey. His first piece for Folliard was the clock that graces the entrance of Kieran’s, and he later built the back bar of the Local, adorning it with gargoyles, chameleons, and a girl on a swing. Through Folliard, Stanley met Henry Cousineau and Damian Topousis, for whom he created a study and a barroom, receptively, in their suburban homes. One of the first questions he asks of those who allow him to create unfettered is if the customer is more Rolling Stones or more Beatles, so as to get a feel for their tastes. For Cousineau, a bit edgier and more “Rolling Stones” Stanley created a rich and inviting room adorned with carved bats, cherubs, and a female figurine lying gracefully above the fireplace; Topusis’s “Bealtlesesque” barroom, plush and dark, is adorned with more traditional carvings.

Stanley’s next project will be for Folliard’s home, a bookshelf for the study. He enjoys working for the Irishman, although he was not pleased when the barkeep chose to import a mass-produced bar from Ireland for his first St. Paul offering, the Liffey. “Which [pub] would Edgar Allan Poe or Oscar Wilde have chosen to drink in? Stanley asked Folliard in a letter rebuking the decision. Stanley has yet to call at the Liffey. When Paris isn’t an option, it seems artists prefer the Local.