Kids make some of the coolest bunkers. One of my favorite local artists, Jay Nelson, grew up making castles.
As he describes them to me while we tour his place mere blocks from the beach, they don’t sound like regal abodes — more like really cool huts he and his teenage buddies would lord over. As a Southern Californian wave chaser, Jay spent his adolescence learning about the history of surf shacks. His dad was a USC physics professor and inventor, which may help explain why Jay's early hideouts were more elaborate than the typical lean-to. By high school, he had built makeshift patios into beach cliffs, and incorporated driftwood, concrete, and palm fronds into his surf shacks. As a respite from long days in the waves or a simple spot to camp, I imagine that these castles in the sand were pretty idyllic.
Fast-forward to post-CCA and Bard College and Jay has held onto the surf theme in his recent structures. I was first attracted to his work when I saw it in a magazine: a cozy dome on wheels he called the Golden Gate . The pod fits into a general earthy style I love, which I like to think of as “mod hippie.” I then fell down the Jay wormhole, discovering a whole collection of tree houses, a boat dome, the awesome camper shell he built onto the back of an old Honda CRX, and the latest, a submarine – all these various bunkers crafted from plywood into funky geometric shapes.
I’m at Jay’s house the week he’s heading to Hawaii to build a three-level tree house with a deck for his buddies, a famous surfing couple named Aamion and Daize Goodwin. Jay lives in the tight-knit “small town” of the Outer Sunset, down the street from Mollusk Surf Shop. Along with his wife Rachel Kaye and their dog Johnny, he’s renting a house from his surf buddy Dave and his wife Lana (who are the owners of my favorite grub spot, Outerlands). Jay and Rachel combined their artistry skills in their cute one-bedroom in-law. The succulents on shelves, outdoor shower, and floaters from boats dangling on the fence definitely give the place a special beach cabana vibe.
Jay tells me about the ideas behind his work, which basically come down to trial and error (he also studied painting in school, and continues to paint now). After grabbing pastries and coffee from his favorite new bakery, Devil’s Teeth, we walk down the street to photograph his wood-collaged tree forts at Mollusk. Jay tells me he built them when he was the sole employee here, living in the attic of the surf shop. These structures add a dreamy, folksy edge to the store. You want to scale the layers of the framed illustrations and carved leaves circling the tree trunks and spend an afternoon hiding out.
Then again, I could pull a Max and sail to where the wild things are in Jay’s little ship nestled into the center of the store. He built the vessel from an old fishing boat he bought in Point Reyes. He says he likes the challenge of designing on top of existing structures (like the surfboard roof he added to a moped). We peer into the boat’s cozy quarters as he explains that the trial run in Tomales Bay didn’t go smoothly enough for him to actually sail the thing. So now it’s docked among Mollusk’s custom T-shirts.
The water-bound vessel theme continues in the new Mollusk shop that’s part of the Voyager collective space in the Mission. Jay takes your imagination leagues under the sea with his amazing wooden submarine, which looks to me like something straight out of a Wes Anderson fantasy. I think it’s the most creative retail design in the city, and I wish it were my private clubhouse.
I like that you can stumble into Jay’s art outside the gallery scene. Although he’s had shows in spaces around the city, including Triple Base, he enjoys making structures people can interact with. Jay says he builds all kinds of private sanctuaries for his friends – including a tree deck with octagon skylights and few tree houses. One of the tree houses was forBerkeley Art Museum Director Lawrence Rinder, for whom he’s now working with a group to construct a larger home.
Learning the building trade is something different for Jay, who has a DIY attitude I can appreciate. “Instead of coming up with something practical,” he tells me of his work, “I dream up what I want to build and do it.” (The flip side, though, is that his tree house for Larry lasted only five years.)
I encourage keeping an eye out for domes on wheels, boats, and up in the branches – Jay’s playful structures are slowing populating the city. I look forward seeing the new creative domicile he concocts next.
You can visit Jay’s tree houses and boat at Mollusk in the Outer Sunset, or step inside his submarine inside Mollusk’s Voyager space in the Mission. He occasionally has shows at galleries around the city too. Keep an eye on his blog to stay up on where his next pods will pop up.