What Inspires Us: Mark Nicholas

Photograph by Ben Lehman

This interview originally appeared on the CREMA blog.

When I read this interview with our son-in-law, Mark Nicholas, I immediately wanted to ask permission to share it with readers of the Art House America Blog. I was so inspired by the conversation between Mark and Ben Lehman (co-owner of CREMA, Nashville's very best coffee roaster and coffee shop). Mark is a true maker, someone whose imagination and creativity runs through everything he is and does: his friendships and family life, his gardening, beekeeping, and canning; his work with songwriters and songs as a music publisher, his metal work, and so much more. When Mark and our daughter Molly met 17 years ago, the first thing they did together was create. She gave him a sewing lesson and he taught her how to make candles. They've been creating together ever since. The project Mark is most excited about currently is the tree house he's building with his son, Robert. I can already tell it's going to be amazing, and I only hope that when it's finished, grandmothers will be welcomed up from time to time!
—Andi Ashworth

One bleary winter day in 2007 during our grueling buildout, Mark walked in. He had one question for us: “You need help making a sign?” Oh right, we’ll need a sign, we thought and then downplayed. “Yeah, we’re gonna do something cool out there on the front of the dealio.” It turns out Mark’s question soon revealed deep roots, beliefs we’ve come to admire and have inspired us along our journey.

Mark is one of the many family and friends who rolled up their sleeves and invested personal time and talent to get us to opening day. On any given day he can be found tending his garden, chickens, moto's, bee’s, or any number of other “hobbies," but metalsmithing is his vice. Without his generosity, we’d probably never have had a sign.

If we could tell the stories of all those who helped us, we would. Mark’s story sums up many, and we hope it inspires you the way it has us.

Ben Lehman: How did you get into metalsmithing?

Mark Nicholas: It all started eleven years ago when we bought this house with a bridge across the creek in front. The old guard railings were just ugly and I thought, “Hey, I could make something that looks better than that!” So I went out and bought an oxyacetylene torch, a chop saw, and a book on how to weld and fumbled my way through those railings. It was challenging but the end result was super fulfilling.

This is a hobby for me on steroids. It became a way for me to support my friends, or people I saw doing something good.

And it was something that was fulfilling for me and challenging. I was looking back at all the stuff I’ve built for people, so many things . . . desks, signs, artwork, you name it. It’s kinda my way to love my neighbor and be part of my community. But parenthood changes things as far as free time goes (laughs) — I can’t even get my garden planted this year.

My metal work is something that’s grown naturally, or . . . what’s the word I’m looking for? Organically! It’s grown organically over the years. When I was just starting out, every little piece I welded was done with that oxyacetylene torch — which is probably the second most primitive way to weld. That method has been around for nearly a 100 years. Some of the things I just finished up for my church were forge welded which is the oldest form of welding that I know of.

To me it’s an adventure, trying something new. Like the power hammer — I still don’t know how to use that thing (laughs).

BL: What’s a power hammer?

MN: Basically it is a mechanism that slams a hammer onto a stationary anvil about 200 times a minute. This is used for forging and shaping steel and there are all types: pneumatic, hydraulic, motorized, etc. Mine actually uses a motor and a spare car tire to drive the hammer — an ingenious design really. The guy who built mine is a retired NASA engineer from Alabama named Clay Spencer. That thing saves me hours of backbreaking work.

BL: What drives your artistry?

MN: I kind of bristle at the idea that I’m an artist. I work with artists every day, and I don’t feel like I have that muse, that drive to create something out of nothing.

For me this is all fueled by my curiosity.

Like when I first saw your logo, it was fireworks going off in my brain — what could we do with this logo? Marrying my curiosity or my imagination with what I think I might be capable of, that’s exciting to me.

You know, I just cussed my way through a sacramental art piece for church, forging the whole time, and I’m like, that’s going to be a bitch. But at the same time I’m still intrigued. There’s a challenge sitting out there for me to build what’s in my head. That intrigues me. Welding my garden shovels back together is not exactly what I’m interested in.

BL: Why?

MN: The reason I’m interested — why I’d make a sign for you, for my friend Scott, or do any kind of thing (fix Reid’s gumball machine!) — is because I’m interested in an interconnected, interdependent community of people. The fact that I have 3 or 4 welders in this shop, which you don’t have, but you have other things you can bring to bear on our relationship, and I have things that I can bring to bear on our relationship — that interests me way more than just money. I can say that because I have a great full-time job, but to me that’s the more beautiful way of saying “Hey, as a person I’m gifted in certain ways and I have certain tools and abilities — you have different ones and when we bring those things together, look what we can do.”

All I tried to do with your sign is create something that says, “Hey look here, there’s something great going on.”

My involvement is about being the guy behind the thing that says, “Pay attention to this.”

If I can be the person that directs others to a special thing, I’m perfectly fine and I like that anonymity. That’s my own job well done.

BL: What’s been your most fulfilling project?

MN: It’s hard to say, but probably the Pinewood Social sign for Benjamin and Max. I love it because at our first meeting, Benjamin handed me a piece of paper with a simple drawing of his idea for their sign. It was so clean and simple that it was brilliant. Half sign, half sculpture really. I love what they’re doing at Pinewood and those brothers’ vision for creating unique spaces and experiences in Nashville. Another reason that project is fulfilling is that I’ve never built something so large and heavy that I couldn’t move it around my shop by myself. I bought a little hydraulic crane, which was a lifesaver. Hydraulic tools are like magic to me.

BL: What/who inspires you?

MN: Not to be cliché, but you and Rachel inspire me. You guys took a risk on principle to bring a better coffee experience to Nashville. I even remember that little online survey you guys set up while Rachel was still working at Sam & Zoe’s with the name Nashville Needs Better Coffee. I didn’t realize it at the time, but you were right. You guys took a risk on your love, passion, and ideals for a better coffee experience in Nashville, and it’s paying off. You guys are playing a part in Nashville’s growing notoriety as a serious culinary town. I have another friend, Peter, who gets a small group of guys together twice a year to ride the Baja peninsula on dirt bikes. When they get to the southern most point on their trip, they stop for two days and help a local organization build houses for migrant farm workers. I think he told me that he and his buddies have helped build over 20 houses so far.

I am always inspired by people who use their love and passion to take risks and make sacrifices for the greater good. Those people inspire me.

Photograph by Mark Nicholas

Mark Nicholas is husband to Molly, dad to Robert, and the rest is just icing on the cake. The icing recipe includes but is not limited to: music publisher, co-founder of noisetrade.com, fermentation experimenter, fireworks enthusiast, chicken wrangler, metalsmith, beekeeper, motorcycle rider, and phone talker who enjoys a good spectacle and finds people endlessly fascinating.

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