Cody businessman turns trees into functional works of art
November 8, 1998
When John Gallis and his family go sightseeing in Yellowstone National Park or the mountains around Cody, his wife and four children look at the sights: the geysers, waterfalls, rocky peaks and scenic views.
John Gallis looks at trees. Or, more specifically, wood.
“I go to Yellowstone to relax,” he said. “But then I find myself looking at this tree, that tree, thinking, ‘Wow. I could do great things with that.'”
Spend a few seconds with Gallis and you’ll soon see that this man never relaxes. If he did, maybe he wouldn’t have learned to turn wood into functional works of art, handmade furniture with smooth, natural lines that seem at once comfortable and inviting. So comfortable and inviting that desks built by Gallis have taken the best of show awards at Cody’s annual Western Design Conference for the last two years. His pieces are sold not in furniture stores, but in the exclusive Martin-Harris Galleries in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
“I more or less let the wood do the talking and see what it wants to be,” he said. “You can’t improve on what God created, so you just go with it.”
For 14 years, Gallis and his New York furniture company served as the chief cabinet maker for the upscale Bloomingdale’s. He crafted spectacular entertainment centers that looked right at home in opulent homes or 40th floor penthouse apartments and kitchens with clean, sharp lines that left little hint of the living, sinewy trees from which they had come. But even as he built furniture that found its way into Trump Towers, Gallis spent the last 25 years of his life collecting raw, unfinished wood.
“Some people collect coins. I collect wood,” he explained, without really explaining.
He would scout out striking pieces of wood that stood out because of their color, grain, or shape, that seemed to hold some unexpressed potential. He found them in lumberyards where their odd shapes or rough edges made them a nuisance and brought them home, like a puppy from the supermarket, to a new life. In the back of his mind was the dream of someday searching out that unexpressed potential, freeing the spirit inside the wood without grinding it down into a fixed, formatted shape.
Then on a trip West he drove through Cody, thought of his harried New York lifestyle and wondered, “Why couldn’t we live here?”
Of course, they could. And now they do.
Gallis and his wife, Eileen, and their four children – 17, 11, 8, and 6 years old – moved to Cody three years ago to slow down.
Guess what? It hasn’t happened.
“In three years, I haven’t slowed down,” said Gallis, 48. “I guess you can take the New Yorker out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of the New Yorker.”
He spends roughly six and a half days every week working in his cavernous shop. When he fretted that he wasn’t spending enough time with his family, he began bringing his family to the shop on weekends where they help him or work on projects of their own. And Gallis describes his wife as the inspiration for his work: One of his early and favorite pieces was a loveseat he built for his wife one Christmas when their finances didn’t allow for a purchased gift.
He calls it “Eileen’s Loveseat” and he has since built and sold five more such loveseats at a price of about $3,800 each. A rolltop desk that won the best of show award at the 1997 Western Design Conference is on sale at the Martin-Harris Galleries for $21,500. Gallis figures he invested about 500 hours in it.
“John is someone who pays incredible attention to detail and the final form, which make his pieces just exquisite,” said Pamela Winters, assistant director of the galleries. “He’s done a nice job coming up with his particular style. His work definitely stands out when you walk in the door.”
Finding a supply of wood
Besides using wood from his longtime collection, Gallis also works with local suppliers such as Hank Ingram of Meeteetse. Gallis draws up a sketch of the wooden shape he needs – say, a curved piece of juniper to form slanting armrests – and then Ingram sets out to find it. Sometimes he also finds and collects other pieces of wood with interesting shapes and colors and brings those back to Gallis, too, to see what the woodworker will do with them.
“That’s why it’s so interesting to work with John,” Ingram said.
Gallis works most often with walnut and juniper but also favors maple, which he buries for 14 months at a site in upstate New York, where mold and other contents of the soil permeate the wood and highlight its natural grain. He spends hours rubbing his wood with oil to bring out the natural colors and sheen, coating rough surfaces with clear epoxy and then sanding it down until it is silky smooth.
“I feel like I’m giving wood a new life,” he said. “If I hadn’t used it, it would have rotted away. This way it’s preserved and people can appreciate it.”
Adjacent slats on a headboard are not independent pieces of wood, but layers from the same tree, so their color and grain matches. Twisted juniper branches that line opposite ends of Gallis’ award-winning rolltop desk are each half of the same tree, split like bookends.
Even though Cody’s art scene is unmistakably western, Gallis has forged his own style apart from the very rustic, unadorned Molesworth-style designs so popular locally. He hesitates even to call his work western; he describes it as a combination of simple Shaker furniture with a bit more feeling and sense of the natural underpinnings of the wood’s original form.
It’s a big step from his start in woodworking as a carpenter who did just about everything – installed roofs, framed in houses – for a buck. He has dreams of eventually offering woodworking classes in Cody, where students could learn that woodworking is “not just two-by-fours, wearing coveralls and walking around with a pencil in your ear.”
Taking up his trade in Cody “is a trade off,” Gallis said. “Yes, it’s worked out for us, but then I think I have to work harder than I did in New York to make a go of it. But then my wife always tells me I’m a workaholic, so maybe I can’t use that as an excuse.”
Article courtesy of the Billings Gazette.