Hans Early-Nelson deals in what he calls “untold value.” A welder, blacksmith, and the founder of Primitive Precision, he transforms found objects into everything from meat cleavers to drapery rods to custom wedding bands.
The son of a sculptor, Early-Nelson became fascinated by scrap metal while growing up in
attracts Early-Nelson to scrap metal is its history. A part may have “rattled
around on a car for 40 years, but instead of getting scrapped, it gets melted
down and turned into a bottle opener and can live on in its original state with
some modifications,” he says.
At age 11, he began using his father’s equipment to weld random pieces of metal together. “I made abstract structures, a dental chair — that’s still in my parents’ backyard, rusting — nothing necessarily functional,” he says.
He took a welding class in high school, then at the urging of his German teacher applied and was accepted to the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange. A program for studying abroad in Germany, it also has a vocational component for graduating seniors that he took advantage of. While staying in the Cologne-Bonn region of North Rhine-Westphalia, he worked with Room 8, a furniture builder, and Bernd Scheuvens, a blacksmith.
“It wasn’t my first choice,” Early-Nelson admits. “I wanted to work with a sculptor.”
But he made the best of it and says he felt “privileged” that Room 8 allowed him to develop metal prototypes for chair legs, backs, and arms as well as a bowl for a sink during his apprenticeship.
Another benefit of the program was learning how to interact with clients.
“I got exposed to collaborating with customers commissioning your work,” he says. Through those interactions, Early-Nelson learned the skills necessary to negotiate the clients’ needs with his artistic vision.
Upon his return to
in 2002, Early-Nelson enrolled in the welding program at the Dunwoody College
of Technology, where he graduated in 2004. The program focused primarily on
welding and “lacked a focus on fabrication,” he says. Though the program has
since evolved to include more fabrication training, he says, “I wish I could
have had more of that.”
Early-Nelson got plenty of practice with fabrication at his first job at ATN, a stainless steel fabrication company in the Twin Cities. In teaching him how to do tasks like making frames for CD drives from stainless steel tubing, his boss, Avi Nachmias, “worked really precisely,” Early-Nelson recalls. “He taught me a lot. That really set me up on my path.”
Due to immigration issues, Nachmias moved to Toronto, where he founded a new steel company. “I was left with Avi’s partner, who was more business-minded than craft-minded, and much more profit-driven,” Early-Nelson says.
Shortly before the company folded, Early-Nelson quit and embarked on a contemplative, two-month freight train journey around the country. When he returned from his vagabond voyage, he decided he could no longer work within the rigid schedule of an employer. He founded Minneapolis-based Primitive Precision and initially operated out of a friend’s garage.
“It was a scary transition to make,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was getting into.”
Early-Nelson supplemented his income by painting houses and lived with his sister and brother-in-law to share expenses.
By 2009, the demand for his forged and fabricated metal projects, architectural metalwork, and sculptures was high enough to warrant his own space. His banker recommended the former Canada Dry Shasta bottling plant across from
, where another metal
worker wanted a shopmate. Early-Nelson moved into the space in 2009 and paid
$280 monthly rent. When a space opened up down the hall in 2011, he took it. Bracket
Because people around town know Early-Nelson is a collector, they’ll often drop off items — such as a spool of barbed wire or pieces from a building that was torn down — at his studio. He also likes to hunt for metal along train tracks.
“I’m always looking,” he says. “When I pick something up, I’m like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with this thing.’ It might sit around for a year before I use it.”
Early-Nelson sells his goods at art fairs, where housewares, jewelry, and belt buckles are the hot products. Another big seller is bottle openers, which he makes from scrap metal, nuts, and bolts. He also crafts custom gifts, such as the sculpture he made for the pastor of a church. “People want something unique, not something off the assembly line, which I appreciate,” he says.
Thus far, Early-Nelson hasn’t felt the need to invest in advertising. The bulk of his business comes from word-of-mouth and returning clients. He’s also been picking up new customers from his partner, Liz Parent, who sells jewelry on Etsy. The couple had their first child together this year and Early-Nelson has lent a hand with some of her orders.
“Rather than wait for people to come to me, I’m gregarious wherever I go, find out what other people are interested in, and share what I do every day,” he says.
That approachable attitude helped him form a relationship with Randy Walker, a public artist based in Minneapolis who does specialized, large-scale installations throughout the U.S. After meeting at a Forecast Public Art event, Walker sought out Early-Nelson for several projects, including a 45-foot-tall sculpture called “The Dream Elevator” for the City of St. Louis Park.
“Hans fills a niche that I was looking for,” Walker says. “He has a large base in traditional, straightforward welding processes: aluminum, mild steel, stainless steel. He’s familiar with all the fabricating processes that go along with those. His welding skills are exquisite. He has a lot of in-house machines and tools. He’s very connected; what he can’t do, he’ll search all over the country to get done.”
In a traditional shop, Walker might hand a worker a drawing, get a quote, and then receive the finished product with a quick turnaround. But “if there are mistakes in the drawings or if there’s a better way to do something which I haven’t thought of, that doesn’t get discussed,” Walker points out. He finds that the personal attention and collaborative spirit Early-Nelson provides is more conducive to his projects. “Hans really pours himself into the work,” Walker says. “He thinks it through to the level that he helps avoid expensive mistakes and comes up with more efficient ways to do it. That’s invaluable. Working with fixed budgets, I can’t pay for a job twice.”
If anything, Early-Nelson’s main challenge with Primitive Precision has been learning the administrative side of business. In 2009, he sought out a mentor from Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis. Together, they wrote a business plan and budget; unfortunately, one important topic wasn’t covered in the program: sales tax. In 2011, Early-Nelson found out “the hard way” that he should have been charging and paying sales tax. That experience “really pushed me to look at all the different areas of my business, from the books, to what kind of insurance I need, to keeping up-to-date with the laws as they change,” he says.
Early-Nelson got squared away financially and took a free class through the Minnesota Department of Revenue that covered the laws regarding sales and use tax on industrial production.
“When I talk to other business owners, I say, ‘Do you know about this?’ and they don’t even want to talk about it,” Early-Nelson says of the tax laws. “A lot of people avoid it because they’re afraid or it’s time-consuming.”
Early-Nelson learned his lessons just in time, because business has been booming lately. Thanks to the recovery of the housing market, Early-Nelson has been making frames for ABC (Automated Building Components), a window and door manufacturer in
Prairie, to store its products on. He’s also working
with Walker on
two new commissions. One piece is called “The Connections Gallery,” a permanent
steel structure for Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis. The other is a
stainless steel cylinder that will be suspended 20 feet in the air as part of a
sculpture for the
Balloon Museum New Mexico.
The newly renovated Birchwood Café also features a pot rack Early-Nelson made.
Because of the workload, Early-Nelson recently promoted his part-time welder, Charlie Parent, to a full-time position. Parent is a graduate of MCTC and a welder with five years of experience. They met when Early-Nelson began dating his sister, Liz. They bonded immediately over their shared interest in welding, and Early-Nelson has since taught Parent blacksmithing.
The plan for Primitive Precision is to grow slowly. Next on Early-Nelson’s wish list is adding 400 square feet to the front of his space for a small showroom and customer service area. The hire of another employee may be a consideration in a year’s time. He would also like to exhibit his creations in galleries around town.
“I prefer working on artistic projects,” he says, “but I also enjoy being versatile and incorporating a wedding band project and industrial welding on the same workday.”
That versatility is what makes Primitive Precision unique and has proven essential for the success of the business.
MAKING THE SCENE: ADAM TURMAN
"I call myself an illustrator, not a fine artist," Adam Turman, 38, says during an interview from his print studio.
Turman is a captivating mash-up of dirty blonde Californian, tattooed badass, beefy mountain biker, and extroverted artist. He's like Dennis the Menace, grown up and gone good.
The Berkeley-born, Edina-bred Turman graduated from the
with a graphic design
degree in 1999. He was hired right out of the gate by Yamamoto Moss's
interactive design firm Aisle Five. He later moved on to Larsen Design, then
landed a long-term gig at the in-house marketing department of the U of M's University
of Minnesota . College
of Continuing Education
Working on the U's shoestring budget, Turman did "just about everything. If they needed something, you basically did it or learned how to do it," he says. The position was good for financial stability and a benefits package, but one side of Turman's talents remained untapped: illustration. "They didn't even really know I did that," he says.
It wouldn't be long until the entire Twin Cities arts community knew. In 2003, Turman befriended David Witt, a
Paul artist who goes by the name DWITT, at a poster
show called Plaster the Town. DWITT referred Turman to a colleague, and soon
Turman was working with a design collective, doing pro bono gig posters for First
Avenue, the Triple Rock Social Club, and Radio K. Turman
initially garnered attention for his sultry pinups, iconic skylines, and
vibrant colors. Locals soon started recognizing his art and contacting him to
collaborate on projects.
Turman's favorite format is murals, and the one he did for the Minneapolis restaurant Butcher and the Boar was epic. Originally, Turman was hired to cover a 20- by 10-foot section of the exterior of the downtown restaurant.
"All you need to do is give Adam a spark and he will set it on fire," says Tim Rooney, a co-owner of the restaurant who cherry-picked Turman for the mural.
Rooney provided the palette and the landscape, then Turman went to town, incorporating a foxy bicyclist surrounded by wheat stalks, set against the backdrop of the Twin Cities skyline.
"He doesn't want to reproduce himself," Rooney says of the breadth of Turman's art.
Turman completed the project in October 2011, Butcher and the Boar opened, and patrons praised the work so much that Turman was asked back to extend the mural, totaling 180 feet by June 2012. Now you'll find lovely ladies frolicking in the snow and local landmarks reflected in a woman's sunglasses, among other Turman trademarks, all over the walls.
"I'm not interested in stuff unless I have a purpose to do it. I really like limitations, I like an assignment," Turman says.
And he's had plenty. Turman's art appears on products for the Current, Curt's Salsa, the Electric Fetus, Peace Coffee, and Speedhound Bikes, among many other companies. He exhibits his work at craft fairs, poster shows, and private galleries throughout
"Adam does four things really well," says Robert Kasak, who commissioned Turman for a mural at 612Brew, a brewery and tap room he cofounded in northeast
"He does cityscapes, bicycles, beer, and girls. And those are my four
favorite things. So it was an absolute lock for us."
Turman worked on the 15- by 15-foot wall of the brewery in the evenings. Because 612Brew was still in its build-out stage, there was no power. Turman plowed ahead anyway, aided by propane heaters and lights connected to a generator. "He'd be in there every night, adding more and more detail until it was done," Kasak says. "It was so amazing to watch him paint. We'd sit around and we'd bullshit, we'd have some beers, and we really got to know each other and we really connected. It was a great experience."
Turman's completed design incorporated the brewery's street signs, a bicycle bearing a growler, the
, and, of course, a babe in
boots, beer in hand. Lowry
"It's by far the marquee of the brewery," Kasak says.
Taking the plunge
At this point, Turman's workload was steady, but he wanted to make sure he had a "huge safety net" before dedicating himself full-time to his art. "I have run my small business very, very, very conservatively," Turman says.
But after his wife told him, "You need to try this and have the opportunity to get to the next level," Turman wrote up a business plan and a financial schedule. With their children in school during the day and the family's health insurance provided through his wife's employer, Turman finally took the plunge and left his day job in January 2013. He's been consistently busy ever since.
Turman's main challenge now is that he doesn't have a clone. Maintaining a balance between the bureaucratic side of the business and his creativity has been tricky. "It's my hand, so I can't have someone else do the drawings," he says. While he has hired a part-time printing assistant (Brian Geihl, a graphic design grad from
Turman's presence is still paramount. "I'm the one picking the colors, I'm
the one who knows how it should look," he says. St. Cloud
As for steps to success, Turman insists that the best thing he did was launch his website with a URL that's easy to remember. "Making it easy for people to find me was really important," Turman says. "There are other artists — like Bansky — who are incredibly difficult to find, and that's super intriguing, people love that, but for my audience, that's not true."
On adamturman.com, you'll find a portfolio, time-lapse videos of Turman painting murals, a map of galleries that sell his work, a FAQ, a guide to working with him, and an online shopping system.
Turman has also put in ample face time on the local scene. Being sociable, networking, and saying "yes" as often as possible were other strategies that paid off. Last but not least: Don't forget your manners! "Do good work, be a good person, and be responsible," Turman says.
As for art education, Turman sees it as beneficial, both for learning about the history of one's craft as well as adding caché to a résumé. "It ultimately makes life easier," he says of a college degree, although, "I really believe there's a core talent that is really hard to learn and is next to impossible to teach. It's in there and it just comes out."
From the looks of it, Turman's talent supply isn't running out anytime soon.
AN ARTISTIC BENT: FRIEDMAN IVERSON
"We didn't open this business just to follow some roadmap that somebody else designed," David Friedman says from the conference room in the
Northeast Minneapolis office he
shares with his law partner, Blake Iverson.
Atypical attorneys who eschew ties and sometimes wear shorts to the office, Friedman and Iverson are two of the Twin Cities' most relatable—and enterprising—esquires.
Their "bromance" began at Bar Review, a weekly law school drinking ritual at the
, where Friedman was
found chatting up a classmate Iverson had taken "a shine to." Words
were exchanged, Iverson got the girl, and the guys discovered they had similar
tastes in music. Friedman and Iverson later became bandmates, roommates, and
wingmen for one another. University
After graduation, Friedman relocated to
York, while Iverson stayed in the Twin Cities to
start Iverson Law Group (the "group" consisted of Iverson and his two
cats). Using contacts from his former stints as a musician and writer, Iverson
focused on entertainment law. There was one hitch with representing artists,
"I slowly discovered that those people didn't have any money," Iverson says. "You either need to help a lot of them, or you need to have some of them who have some money to balance out the ones who didn't."
By 2009, Iverson had lured Friedman back to
Armed with nothing but their law degrees and laptops, the two rented an 11-by-11
office furnished with an $8 table from Ikea's cafeteria. Managing bankruptcy
cases kept the lights on. "Dave and I would meet clients together because
we didn't have anything else to do," Iverson explains. "Dave would do
the hard-core bankruptcy work, and I would charm people."
The two-for-one approach worked, but Iverson didn't feel fulfilled. Representing artists was his calling. "We started identifying the kinds of businesses that fit within the description of creative businesses," Friedman says. "Businesses that came out of the Kickstarter age."
Dubbing himself the "Broadway Danny Rose of the law business," Iverson pursued advertising and design agencies, restaurants, food trucks, and breweries. Demand for legal services grew, and this summer the firm Friedman Iverson moved from its Uptown office to an industrial-chic space adjacent to the Red Stag. Recently the firm also brought attorneys Betsy Butwin and Todd Murray on board, plus four support staff. The crew handles everything from wills and trusts to auto fraud, debt collection defense, foreclosure prevention, and intellectual property cases in addition to small business, entertainment, and consumer cases.
One of the primary concerns Friedman and Iverson address in their practice are contracts. "There is a major disparity in power between anyone offering a contract and the recipient of that contract," Iverson explains. "Companies will exploit that power inequality. So [the artists] will agree to things they would never agree to if they knew what they meant."
"If you write contracts that are in legalese, 10 pages of nine-point type, nobody's going to understand what's in there and you're bound to run into conflicts later," Friedman says. "But when you're writing a contract in a way where each party knows their rights and responsibilities up front, you're going to have a good business relationship."
Coherent contracts are crucial given how many business owners are working with their friends these days. "The best ideas are a couple of guys, a couple of girls, in a garage, coming up with some genius innovation," Iverson says. "When an idea you have when you have don't have two nickels to rub together turns into something that's worth a million dollars, people get a little more territorial. All of sudden you're doing 90 percent of the work but giving up half of the money."
Operating under the adage that "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Friedman and Iverson prefer to help clients at the front-end of such arrangements. "Undoing bad deals is probably the most lucrative thing we do—and the one we dislike the most," Iverson says.
Community is a cornerstone of the firm's business practices, a philosophy salient in their open-to-the-public parties, their office-cum-art-gallery, and the promotion of innovative creative endeavors on their Twitter feed. "We are engrossed in this world," Friedman says of the artistic hotbed that is the Twin Cities. "It's something that's part of our daily lives and it's a language that we speak fluently."
Given the firm's rapid expansion, Friedman and Iverson's unorthodox approach appears to meet a need in this niche customer base. "What resonates with people is that we're honest, that we don't pretend to be into things we're not into, and that we don't front," Iverson says.
As for the creative energy these two used to expend onstage? It's now funneled into building their brand—though Iverson insists, "I'll play guitar with anyone who asks."
BH BUTTON COMPANY
Sean Besser Hank has been sewing since the age of four, but it wasn’t until October 2013 that he began to capitalize on his talent. BH Button Co. is his brand of pocket squares made in
“I’ve always been fashion forward and had been looking for pocket squares that were a bit more casual and realistically priced,” Besser Hank says of the inspiration for the company. He found some vintage fabric on eBay from which he cut and sewed his own pocket squares.
“I wore them around and people liked them,” he says. He started adding buttons to his designs to make them stand out and listed them on Etsy for $18. Soon Nick Kosevich of Eat Street Social became a fan, as did newscaster Jason DeRusha, who posted a picture of the product on Instagram, sparking an uptick in business for BH Button Co.
From rodeo scenes to polka dots, Besser Hank believes in reviving “forgotten textiles.” Lately, he’s gravitated towards old feed sacks. “They have funky patterns and it’s cool to think people used to use them for flour,” he says. “I cut them open and sew the squares from there. They get a new life put into them.”
Besser Hank’s mother also finds fabrics at antique stores that she passes along to him in addition to treasures from her lifelong button collection. Whether it’s a mother-of-pearl or a shell button, the burgeoning entrepreneur is always on the hunt for the next best unique detail.
On the horizon for BH Button Co. are neck ties and bow ties that will coordinate—but not match—the pocket squares. Besser Hank has also been amassing watches and “field testing” his handmade bands. No matter what comes next, it’s sure to be classy.
For more of Erica Rivera's business writing, please see the Publications page.