Modern totems forge the gap between past and present
by Lori Currie
When musician Steve Miller came to dinner at the Walsworth residence, it was a turning point in the life of nine-year-old Wes. The young Walsworth had already learned some guitar riffs from his dad, but Miller showed him his distinctive, right-handed strumming, and he was hooked. “That visit changed my world,” says Walsworth. After high school, he crisscrossed the globe, touring with country/surf/punk band, The Scotch Greens, but deep down, the embers of another passion were smoldering, a passion that would allow him to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather: woodworking.
“I guess you could say I have the woodworking gene,” says Walsworth. As a third-generation woodworker, Walsworth–or “Walsy” to friends–apprenticed under his father, Rick, who built custom homes in Sun Valley, Idaho. He learned finish carpentry from Rick at a young age and then went on to become a luthier for world-famous Taylor Guitars. His first inspiration for building furniture came when working on a vineyard in western Australia. He quickly saw potential in the retired wine barrels and began fashioning various things from them: benches, tables, coatracks. “I got really into it,” says Walsworth, “There is so much beauty found in wood that was once something else, and this re-birthing process is exciting to me,” says Walsworth.
In 2008, he founded Walsworth Furnishings, with the goal of crafting quality original designs that push the envelope of form and function and are built to last generations. Walsworth Furnishings makes everything from sconces to dining tables out of reclaimed and dimensional woods. Walsworth uses vintage woodworking tools passed down to him from his father, and he prides himself on designing all of his own pieces. “I’m just as much a designer as a builder,” says Walsworth. “If you build another person’s design, it’s like being in a cover band. Every good musician should be able to play a good cover song and learn from it. But it’s the original pieces and songs that I’m most interested in. I like to express my creative style through my furniture and strive to be like nothing else out there.” He likes to keep his designs simple but with a twist. One of his signature details is adding unique steel details that lend the rustic wood a modern industrial feel. “’Rustic modern’ is kind of my thing. I like the blend of new and old together, whether it’s furniture building or making music,” says Walsworth. “This juxtaposition leads to a pleasant aesthetic that suits many environments.”
“I wouldn’t be able to design furniture and now sculptures without learning music and how to write songs first; they’re very parallel to me. I couldn’t have done one without the other.”
Recently, Walsworth’s work has evolved from furniture to include sculptural, modern totem designs, inspired in part by his mother, Claudia, an archeologist who has worked in Idaho for almost 50 years and was a founding member of the Ketchum/Sun Valley Historical Society. She wrote the grant that funded the research and exhibits of the Elkhorn Springs site as well as countless other projects throughout the Wood River Valley. Growing up, Walsworth accompanied his mom to various sites in the Bennett Hills, during which time he developed a keen interest in Native American history. Therefore, when he was trying to find a worthy project for the sizeable collection of historic wood remnants he’s collected over the years, totems came to mind, and he knew right away he wanted to pursue these art pieces.
“As I began doing the totems, they started to evolve in their own way, sort of dictated by the historic materials used,” says Walsworth. “I feel like I’m giving life back to these old pieces of wood.” For Walsworth, constructing these totems is full-circle: he’s using wood, often from structures built in the early 1900s by white settlers when they took over the land, and he’s turning that wood into an artform that has traditionally been associated with native people.
Walsworth emphasizes that his totems are a reimagining of indigenous totems: “I’m not trying to be traditional at all. They are abstract, mountain modern art pieces nodding to American history, nature, and the universe. I feel like I’m honoring the native people by creating these. I view them as welcoming pieces and guardians, not ancestral.”
“As I began doing the totems, they started to evolve in their own way, sort of dictated by the historic materials used. I feel like I’m giving life back to these old pieces of wood.”
Each totem is carefully crafted from one-of-a-kind wood pieces, salvaged from various sources including water-worn boards used to hold back spring water in the Hagerman Valley, an old sheep wagon, and hand-hewn beams from a decommissioned cabin in Stanley, to name a few. With names like Black Wing, Water Bird, Ala Corta, and Sky Bird, the totems feature wing details of wood and steel and embellishments of turquoise and aluminum, which Walsworth allows to rust in some spots, so they develop different patinas. The current pieces range from a few feet to roughly six-and-a-half-feet tall, although Walsworth is currently commissioned to make one that will soar to 20 feet when done. With the larger totems, he’s exploring ways to make them modular so they can be easily transported and installed. Walsworth’s current totem collection can be found at the Hemmings Gallery in downtown Ketchum.
Though wood and steel working consumes most of his time these days, when not wielding a chisel or welding torch, Walsworth can likely be found in his flats skiff on the Snake River near his home in the Hagerman Valley, casting to carp. “I love saltwater fly fishing,” he says, “and the closest thing we have to that is fly fishing for carp. It’s very similar to bonefishing, and I love it!” And he’s also been busy grooming the next generation of Walsworth woodworkers, his one-and-a-half-year-old son, Rowan, whose interest in tinkering in dad’s shop is rivaled only by his budding curiosity about music. “He recently had a breakthrough on the harmonica,” says Walsworth.
Having previously produced two records for musician and friend, Andrew Sheppard, and played with beloved local bands, Old Death Whisper and the Sun Dogs, Walsworth claims to be retired from gigging–for now. “Never say never, right?” he says. It’s these two influences, music and woodworking, that have been constants in Walsworth’s life since the early days, and to him, they are intricately intertwined. “I wouldn’t be able to design furniture and now sculptures without learning music and how to write songs first; they’re very parallel to me,” says Walsworth. “I couldn’t have done one without the other.”
Follow along with Walsworth’s creations on Instagram & Facebook @walsfurn for furniture and @white_bison_totem for sculpture art and visit his website walsworthfurnishings.com.