Nathan Giffin – Artisian of the Month
Nathan Giffin has been creating hand-carved decorative concrete for ten years. His calm demeanor and soft-spoken voice cannot disguise the passion he has for his craft. Within minutes of meeting him you are swept into a new realm of possibilities, that of ‘Sculpted Vertical Concrete.’
Nathan is a pioneer in this relatively new artform. Just a look at his website gallery and video snippets transforms your thinking about concrete. His specialty is unique, but what he brings to this specialty is original and distinctive. His style is matchless in the industry.
He was first introduced to sculpted concrete by a friend who showed him photos of work his father was doing in South Africa. “When I was introduced to the craft it was very rough and crude. I was hooked immediately. But I knew it needed to be massaged before introduced into the Chicago area.”
After Nathan saw his South African friend’s portfolio, he began to research on the Internet. He was hoping to find others doing this kind of work. “I saw an unmet demand in the affluent residential market. Nobody in Chicago was doing anything like this 10 years ago,” he continued. “I knew it had to be refined and finessed because I wasn’t looking to start a business building landscape rocks or features.”
Decorative vertical concrete is slowly making its way into residential markets. “The market is untapped today,” Nathan states. “I can count on one hand the artists who are doing this and I know nobody doing my style.” The only work that is similar is something you may find at Disney or Universal or perhaps a Las Vegas casino.
He is the only one teaching his groundbreaking techniques officially at this time through his subscription website. “There are people teaching hand carving but there is nobody in any industry who is teaching this style of stone facing and, if they are teaching it, they learned it from Vertical Artisans.” He has trained people on a one-to-one basis.
When asked about his inspiration he relates the sometimes-bumpy path that lead him to the place he is today. Nathan was in faux finishing for a time before he opened a company in the software industry. He had an unfortunate business experience with a partner, “I lost a lot of money and 2-½ years of my life.” He eventually turned to his pastor and was encouraged. The pastor offered support, prayed over him, and told him that he was going to have a new business and be successful. “Two weeks later a friend from South Africa showed me a picture book of things his family did. As soon as I saw the picture book I knew in my heart that I could do that. I vowed at that moment to become one of the best in the world.”
“I had never sculpted concrete before, However, I could draw and took art classes in college,” Nathan enthused. “Something about the pictures sparked something within me. Therefore, I changed from the software industry to the concrete industry virtually overnight.”
In his research, he could find no one who had ever heard of this craft. “When I first started, I asked people to trust me, and they did,” he says. “I offered something original. I offered something custom. I offered them something you could not get from stone or cultured stone.” Nathan continues, “I essentially sold a couple of projects without sample boards to a few clients who trusted me to sculpt their walls. In ten years I have never had a disgruntled customer and many clients call me back repeatedly.” His best talent seems to be bringing unique elements and an intuitive original style to his artform.
Another major influence on Nathan is the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudí who was famous for his unique style and highly individualistic designs. Something they have in common. Gaudí developed a distinct sculptural style–irregular and fantastically intricate – by studying nature's angles and curves and incorporating them into his designs. Nathan says, “I enjoy his architecture and love looking at European chateaus and castles for inspiration.”
Nathan says that his current project always becomes his favorite because he has never sculpted the same rock twice. “I am never duplicating because each is original and each has its own experience.” He recalls a wine cellar he did a couple years ago because of a remarkable experience during the project. “I remember making a breakthrough in a wall, creating a portal. The response from the client was so wonderful I knew that there were no limits to this craft.” He awakened to the understanding that he was creating structures architecturally with absolutely no limitations of tools or machinery or mindset. Anything is possible and this was an extraordinary adventure.
His motto for teaching is, “Education is an adventure.” Nathan feels the decorative painting industry is no longer bound by flat walls to create movement strictly with paint. “We are bridging the gap between faux and reality because people can touch and feel the texture, but it remains faux–a very realistic look with a faux basis.” He states, “That is what is phenomenal with this craft–the illusion and the reality. People are blown away when the realize it is not real stone.”
The architectural rock formations Nathan creates look like a tremendous amount of hard work. The illusion looks like 10 stonemasons worked days at this and when they realize that it is actually faux stone they have a wide-eyed, awed reaction. This stuff is competing with stonemasons and cultured stone application that take much more labor. Perceived value is real value. This does add real value.
Recently a wine storeowner challenged Nathan to create moveable, lightweight pillars to take outdoors daily to separate wine tasting area. He had to use cellular concrete to make them portable. He injected foam into concrete to fluff it up until it was extremely lightweight for concrete. The foam reduces the PSI about half (the 700-800 psi range) but it is still durable. He is excited about the future of these mixes. You are still dealing with concrete and it has weight, but it is extremely lightweight in comparison. The client is able to move these pillars in and out of her shop alone.
Nathan would advise someone who wants to get started in this field to, “Have fun. Just come to class ready to play. You have to remove some preconceived ideas about working with concrete out of your head. It is concrete, but men and women can both pull it off.” He continues, “You can hire a teenager to apply the concrete to the wall. Then you come in and apply the design elements.”
He advises, “Be patient; there is a lot to learn, see, and experience. This is a completely new craft where much has not been done yet. Stay open minded. People all over the world are doing wonderfully unique things with concrete. It is a departure of sorts from what a decorative painter is used to. There are things to mix and apply and then you come back and faux. The faux is the quickest part of this.”
“Creating and designing relief and texture is all the skill you need to get started.” Nathan encourages. “You can make a good living at this. I am excited about the future of this craft and the unlimited possibilities.”
There are many products to use to acquire the looks Nathan creates. He has developed a product specifically for interior applications that he will make available to his students. He lists several manufacturers’ products under the “Mixes and Materials” section of his website. You can see what they have to offer. Nathan encourages people to experiment with several and come up with their own favorites.
He is offering a special promo code (CIFF) to anyone reading this article. You will save $195 off the Vertical Artisans subscription of $795. The subscription is for one-year access to website including all data and content and upgrades during that year. Every project gets filmed (60 video segments to date) and is uploaded to site. Nathan feels that an instructor cannot give everything he/she wants to a student during a 3- to 5-day class. Therefore, with these very detailed video classes, you get education when you want it and how you want it. You also get other concrete and industry resources. The backside of the website opens up everything Nathan does to you.
Nathan concludes, “I am greatly respectful of the industry pioneers who have come before me. Vertical Artisans is not about Nathan Giffin. It is about the craft and what they can do with it. I am always looking for artists to add value to the site. I want to sow into other people my best and in return, I reap the best of others as well. So if I can teach the tips and techniques and give them all I know, it comes back in ideas and innovations.”
For more information on Nathan Giffin and Creative Rock Forming, visit the website at www.verticalartisans.com or by phone at 708.233.9394.