Steve Malavolta has been in the arts for many decades. His work has evolved over the years but currently has a portfolio of hand-crafted wooden jigsaw puzzles.
This is Apollo road podcast zero zero one my interview with Steve Malavolta. I'm going to keep this intro short. I'll start off with a bio from his website and then we'll jump right into it. "My puzzles are made with the intent to be played creating both visual pleasure and intellectual challenges. Each puzzle piece is hand cut and finished on both sides from select hardwoods. These puzzles range from single layer entertainment to multilayered sculptural challenges. My goal as a woodworker is to create an enjoyable, playable, piece of art of heirloom quality. And my challenge to you is to find piece by piece."
[ Music transition ] .
How long have you considered yourself an artist?
Ah that's a good question. I've been in the arts retailing for probably 38 plus years. 38 years. [chatter] I think I did my first art show in about 1976 or 77.
Ooh right on. So that was like the early, early days when it was really starting to kind of spread around the country, right?
Yeah. It was more local for me. The first one was actually...in that downtown mall, right by...the downtown shopping section underneath by Second [street]. Oh, what was that called?
Um , yeah, the Galleria. Yeah. In the gallery. And this is downtown Albuquerque. Exactly. Yeah . Sorry. I , no , it's good. But that's, that's crazy. They don't , they don't really have any, they didn't have galleries there. Right. And that's like kind of the , yeah, they had a couple of galleries, couple of eateries. I have no idea. I haven't been down there and probably decades, but that was my first attempt selling dulcimers. Do you remember , uh, what the setup was like? Was it a professional or was it already... Folding table? I think I probably even put a cloth on it.
So , uh, it was that with your , uh, puzzles or jewelry or...?
No that was with dulcimers that I was making dulcimers at the time. Wow . That was my first hit with woodworking. I , um, sold a guitar to buy a radial arm saw. Because I wanted to figure out how to make a dulcimer. So that was really my first woodworking tool.
Okay. So you played music and then you're like, all right , I gotta to get into this woodworking thing.
Yeah. I think a buddy of mine showed up with a, with a dulcimer one day. And I said, well that's too easy. I mean, I was never any good at the guitar...so this, I could learn this one pretty quick. And like I said, I got rid of that beautiful little guitar for 125 bucks, bought a Craftsman radial arm saw and tried my hand at making a dulcimer. It turned out pretty darn good and turned into making a bunch for an art show.
Wow. So how long, did it take you to make that first one? Was it kind of like, as soon as you started, you know, cutting things up, you knew you were, you were good at it and you could , you got a good feel for it?
Yeah, it was, it was kinda funny. I um, used another woodworker to re-saw some wood down to the thinness I needed , um, for curving the wood on an instrument, you have to steam it. So I went, there was a laundromat over on central [street] that had a steamer for steaming clothes . And that's where I would go to bend my Wood.
Was this after hours?
No this was in the middle of everything! Well they were 24/7. Anyway, so if they like slowed down and they saw you walk in, they're like, oh yeah, I think we got some time. Yeah. I don't think they had attendees. Um Oh, so you did, they were probably asking questions like, Whoa, what are you doing dude ? Um,
So yeah, the first one came out pretty good and other people saw it and they said, hey, make me one. And that turned into three. And then I said, well I'll try doing an art show.
Okay, so how'd you get the idea to even, you know..."oh I need to steam this would , how can I, you know, use use tools that I don't have. Right. Cause that's like the hardest thing for an artist starting out as you have an idea. But each step of the way, there is some tool or you know , machine or something that I don't have.
Well, you know, when I started, my first source was the fox fire books and there was actually a section in there told you how to make a dulcimer and gave me an idea how to bend wood. There are a couple of different ways. Steaming was one of them . Um, and then as you go along, you know, as your passion falls into this, you say, now I need this tool. So you go out and buy a tool. And you realize that opens a whole door of other techniques. [Alex: I know that well.] And before you know, it , uh, you know, and that now you gotta rent a space to do this and you got bigger than your garage and that turns into building a shop and bringing it back home.
So , uh, so obviously now, you know, almost 40 years later, you've got tools , a shop, the space, you know, a lot of, a lot of skill that you've built up over the years. And so you kind of remember that first dulcimer that you made, comparing it to your process now, as an artist, you're always evolving, right? Can, can you remember what that felt like back then when you're like, oh man, I can't, I made this, or , uh , this was, you know, this came out okay , but I know I can do a better one?
Well, as, as I made each one, they did get better, a little bit smoother, a little bit cleaner, a little bit better sounding . You learn a little bit more about structure and technique. But also as you start making them and you present them for sale. You look at what it takes to refine the time invested. Now, the very first one time made no difference. Right. You know, and I was all about it. I still have it. I made a case with felt and foam in it that holds it perfectly. You know? But as you start to get into the business part of it and realize, I gotta pay for these tools, I gotta pay for overhead. You kind smooth it out. And you become more of a , um, becomes more of a production.
Yeah that's a...well, see you're smart. A lot of people, I think would go down the rabbit hole and just kind of get by as long as they can and never really take it that seriously. Right. And immediately go into, okay, how can I refine it so that I can afford to do more shows or afford to buy better tools? Right. So I think that's the smart approach of saying, okay, I got something here but I need to make it, you know, efficient as I can.
Well, really, I've been self employed all my life. Yeah . So if I jump into any kind of venue I have to consider, is it going to support me? Is it going to make some money? Is it gonna improve itself? If it doesn't support me, if it's not improving itself and it's not supporting me, then it's time to look for another venue or refine your approach, which might be maybe producing an item that can be , made a little bit quicker and a little bit cheaper.
Right. How long does it take you to do that? Is that on the order of a couple hours , couple of days , maybe a month or two to, to kind of make that decision? Well , to make the decision of uh , oh, how long do you go ? It's got some legs. Try to get out there before you're on a park bench. Right. So, okay.
So the first art show, I'd say you could say it's that the table that you set up right in the gallery, in the basement. Do you remember, how much you were selling things for and whether you made a, you made enough to cover all your bills that show?
I'm sure I made enough to cover my bills cause we're talking 40 years ago and overhead was a lot less than it is now. And there , you know, like I said, it was a radio alarm saw and a steamer down at the laundromat. So , um, anything that came to me seemed like a good enough profit. At that time I was married and there was steady income coming from the significant other.
Right. So you had a little, a little cushion on that side. Yeah. Okay. See that's a , I always wondered, some of the artists that I've met, you know, they, they either had, they either had like a base to start from or they were just wild motherfuckers and they just, you know, went for it and you're like, oh, that's a lot of risk either way, but , um, it takes a lot of guts, right. To jump out into whatever project you're ,
Yeah, it does. I mean it takes commitment. Yeah. Um, there are artists out there who like me in the very beginning , are supported by another half. It's not that I was supportive , but if I didn't make it right, we weren't gonna crash over. Right. But there are people out there, I mean, it takes commitment. So when you go out there and then as you start doing shows, you realize you need to refine it. And you look at what other people are doing, who've been doing it for years and how they set up their booth and it's a little bit more professional looking than what I was doing. And you say, well, I've got to refine this more.
That's a great point. As soon as you get at that show, right. And you're like, all right, you know, I'm here, I've got, got my wares, right. I've got my stuff. And you're like, oh shit, look around at your neighbors. That's, that's such a good point because , uh, you know, when you're starting out, you're just, you're just happy to be there, right. And you're having a good time and you realize, Oh wow, there's actually like, you know, professionals or people that do it part time on the side and then you definitely, you know, you see the people that do it year round, couple every other week. Right. They're driving across the country doing another show and.
Yeah, that's, that came much later. You know then I got into making the wooden jigsaw puzzles.
Okay, so tell me how that started.
Well that started with , um , making a Christmas gift for my nephew. And it was really just a little stand up puzzle. And a buddy of mine who had been making wooden buckles for a major company here in town had seen it and he said, that's a cool idea. He's make some up and I'll bring them to one of the art shows now are chose back in those days weren't quite as juried as they are now. I mean, you had to let people know what you were making, right. You could slip stuff in. And so it was a hit , you know, they were $8, $10, $12 for my highest puzzle. [Alex: my god so we're in the 80's now?] Yeah, we're probably late seventies. So it became a hit and actually we got together and did this as a partnership. And they evolved and in the beginning it was, you know, I had a little BMW 2002, and I could fit the whole booth in there. You know you designed your booth with folding table and shelves that break down and a cloth. And so you could take off and, and drive to Austin, Texas and do an art show in this little car and it was a blast.
Right? And so, and so these are 10 by 10 booths. Um, if you don't have a good size reference, that's like, you know, the size of a medium size bathroom, you're basically, it depends on what home your what home. Yeah. But it sounds , it's not a lot of space when you, you know, set up all your tables and yeah. Um, so to fit that, all of that and one of those little beamers that's a pretty good feat.
You know, and again, I was making puzzles so I was the king of making things fit right. And I knew how to break things down and make them expand into a full size booth again. But that's an interesting concept you brought about , um , the 10 by 10 foot space. And that's something I always thought about is: I buy a piece of real estate temporarily for two days, one day, three days. And that's my space. And you create it, you in there, and not only do you show your wares , but you create a space for the public to come in and enter your little home for that time or your retail shop. I always made it a little bit more personal. I looked at it as you are entering my space, right ? And there's a space next to me in the space next to them and they pick and choose who they want to go into, by the presentation. When they walked by and said , just the item, or is that how you threw the item at him ? It's like, wow , look at that backdrop.
Yeah, that's, that's also a really good point. It's, you know, I don't, I don't know that a lot of people really spend the time to think of it that way, that it's, it's, it's more than just a , a white tent on the street, right? It's, it's, it gets real cookie cutter when you are walking by all those tents and it's just, you know, white tent, white tent, what are they selling? What are they selling? Keep walking, you know? But that's such a good point that it's like, no, this is, you know, a space, my property for the weekend. And you know, you're representing yourself, you're representing the show. And it really is for everybody's enjoyment. They just want to have a good time. Right. And whether what are they by work or not is , um, you know, that's secondary to just being out, you know, walking around, talking to people, learning.
There are shows out there where people just meander around. Yeah. You know, there's food booths, there's entertainment there , see artwork, [Alex: grab a Turkey leg and go listen to the music] Exactly! But , um, I always felt when you walked into my tent, as you put it , it was personal space. You came in there and it was time for you to interact with the artists, which is a really rare thing. A lot of people go out, buy artwork at a gallery. They get a little bit of background. They'll read a bio, maybe the attendee at the gallery, it'll tell him a little about this person. But it's a unique opportunity for the public to walk in and interact with the person who made it. And I always thought that was very special. You entered my life when you came into my space.
Right. That's...I agree... You know, making a connection in person. Start to see that, you know, the artists do you see the twinkle in their eye when they're describing their work and you kind of see that it's, oh, it's, you know, whatever the work is, whether it's 2D, 3D, You know, your work is actually unique in that it's both 2D and 3D. You know, it's very, it's playable, right? It's such a complicated item. You can't even really, you know, call it one, it's doesn't fit in one genre but it makes all the difference when they see your enthusiasm for what you made and how you made it come through in person. And that's, it's so lost when you're just kind of browsing in a catalog or in a gallery or you know, wherever you're looking. Right.
I totally agree. And that was what I, why I fell in love with the retail shows because I got to interact with the people who purchase my items. And my best customers are the ones who actually came in and they wanted to know what I was about. What this puzzle is about. Is there a story behind it? Is it a just a generic design or how did you come about with this? Especially with my bigger pieces, there is, there is a story and an evolution with that design. Right? So they were the best customers. Those are the people you really enjoyed.
Yeah. And do you remember, so I have observed this and some, you know, some scenarios where you can kind of tell that the patron in your booth, they would by your work, they'll buy your work regardless of what the work is, it's almost like they don't really, you know...they like it all. And so they just wanna they want to vet you, the artist and figure out whether you're for real or not.
Sometimes I've found people buying me [inaudible] you know, after I did my whole thing, talked to them , got to know that person share part of my life. Shared part of the experience. I could see them even more interested in bringing home a piece. Yeah . So that was like I said, it's a unique space.
Man. That takes a lot of work. I mean if you're out, you know, on a two or three day weekend and you're talking to people left and right and trying to get to know people, I mean that's like, that takes, takes a lot of energy.
You know, it's um, it's really interesting cause after doing years and years it shows, of course you get the standard question all the time. A lot of ours artists refer to it as, Oh god, the stupid question again, I've got to answer the stupid question . Right . And to us it's so obvious to them it's the first time they ever saw it . So you go through this over and over, but then there are many, many examples , um , that they share themselves. Also. It's more than just that next stupid question. Right. I have a story. I sold a puzzle once to a gal in the Minneapolis show and she was completely frustrated. I mean, she couldn't make a decision between this one or that one, this and she went back and forth and back and forth. She finally walked away and almost passed out and she came back and , um, purchased a piece and I said, well that was kind of a strange sale and it was a little bit different than most.
You took your breath away, Steve! [ laughs ].
Yeah, I did. Well hopefully the piece did! I think it's maybe eight or 10 years later, I'm doing a show in Los Angeles now and this gal comes in and she said , so I bought one of your puzzles , let's , you know, this maybe 10,000 puzzles later. I really don't know. And I said, Oh, where was that? And she told me it was in Minneapolis. And , um, she said, don't you remember me? I said, not really. Not yet. She says, I'm, the gal who had a really hard time making a decision. And I actually went out and almost, I sat down and almost passed out. And I said, Oh my God, I do remember this. This is how it normally doesn't happen. She says, I have to tell you something. She says, I have your puzzle. And she pulled it out was like eight, 10 years later. [Wow.] Out of her purse. She says, this puzzle has been therapy for me. This is like, you see I have a hard time making decisions and I'm , I have kind of forget the word, but she gets a little too over involved and it gets too...and she says, I have memorized your puzzle and this happens to me often in life. And when it does, I sit down and I take this puzzle out. It wasn't a big one. She could do it after she memorized that . I bet you she could do it in two, three, four minutes. And she says, it refocuses me. And she had made a little felt bag for this puzzle. She says, I've carried this with me for 10 years now. Wow. So it's those kinds of sales that really make you think about what you're doing and why you're doing it.
Man, that's a good story. I think that's, that's what you'd hope as an artist, right? It's, [Steve: that's what moves you.] Yeah . It's like I'm not just decorating your house or whatever.
Exactly. You know, I mean, money makes a difference, but when you, when you touch someone, they touch you like that. Right? That's what we're all about.
And it keeps the , um , it keeps the process alive, right. Of your work. It's not like you buy it once you look at it and you're like, okay, cool. It's every time you look at it or any time you interact with it, right. There's something new, something different as you grow older. Right. Yesterday she had it for what, eight, eight or 10 years or 10 years. So she probably totally 10 years. So she probably did that puzzle. However many times it's, you know , it means something different for each time.
Exactly. Was a little bit different than a piece of playable artwork that people come in and say, oh my God, this is amazing. They may take a couple of pieces out or talk about it. Um, she actually used it as a therapy tool.
That's so great. And that's actually , um, you have a great , um, I think on your website you have a great , um , line in your p in your bio , peace by piece. Yeah, that's such a good, so it's p e a c e by p i e c e. So that's such a good, I mean that captures kind of the spirit of it. Right?
You know, I've ran this for life changes, kind of took me away from actually being in my studio making puzzles all the time. Now I'm still doing commissions and other pieces occasionally, but life circumstances kind of changed that. But I ran this for many years and it was the peace by piece that did it. It was passion and it was something I really enjoyed doing. Um, like I said, you came into my little 10 foot x 10 foot space , um, and you came in there because you were interested, whether it be looking at me, looking at my booth, looking at the pieces, whatever it was, we connected and you get, I mean, you get it, people come in, they normally don't say, oh, this sucks. You know, they come in and say, oh, this is beautiful. And then it just, you know, it lightens you up. Compliments are worth almost as much as the income even. Although you need the income to create the next show or buy materials for the next piece.
Yeah, and you do get those, you know, those jackasses every once in a while that come in, but overall it's , you know, probably 90%, 99% of the people that walk through, like you said, it just, it helps you and helps you stay on course, you know, keeps you going and keeps you motivated.
I've had people come in and say, I hate doing puzzles, but this is beautiful!
...they try and backtrack. Right. And realize that you're trying to make a living. That's no good. It's , that's a good way of a describing your work too . I mean you literally make it piece by piece cause it's , it's handmade and you want to, so I guess let's back up. How...how'd you get the idea to start doing the kind of multilayered, you know, stretching a two dimensional jigsaw puzzle into more of the three dimensions? Cause that's probably pretty hard to, hard to make.
It's just something that evolved. Um, you realize you could make so many designs from keeping it in a single layer. [inaudible] and then at one point it was like, well, I could start stacking and I could create now dimensional designs. So it's just something that evolves, you know, you, you spend enough time doing one thing, you have to, if you're going to get bored, you're going to have to figure out something else to make it a little bit bigger and better than before.
Hmm. How and how do you incorporate like the, I think there's one piece I saw in your booth once I, where you had a, a mountain range and each kind of, I don't know if there's a a word for the affects , but sometimes when you look at like the Colorado mountain landscape, you'll see the front mountains and in , in the, in the back, you know there's a layer of fog. It kind of makes that next layer mountains, you know, a little dimmer. And there's maybe a third one that's pope peeking out from behind that it's even more...
You know, I , I work with all natural color woods, so yeah, part of it is using color to your advantage, brighter colors, up front, darker colors as they go back. So it kind of gives it a little bit more depth to it.
So you really read the materials, so you literally go into your shop and you have to read the material. Like what, what pieces of wood do I have? So do you start with that or do you kind of start with an idea of what you want the piece to look like?
You know, after awhile you come up with some , like the landscapes were kind of a bread and butter, you know, they were random landscapes. They weren't taken directly from the Sandia mountains or wherever. So they were kind of very routine for me. They're very easy to make, but you do have to look at certain colors. I mean, you don't put green and orange and purple together and expect it to look good. And my pieces were very organic, so I worked with very natural, softer tones. And again, contrast really work well. It was hard to make a really nice looking piece without using a blackwood and a whitish wood mixed in to really highlight your browns in your , your yellow woods and grain. The figure in a grain makes a beautiful sky. So, you know, finding exotic wood.
What kind of wood do you like?
You know, Cocobolo is a beautiful one. All that stuff. It's funny, back in the day when I started, wood was very affordable. Now it's going out there and like buying gold.
Yeah, that's a well, so Albuquerque hardwoods went out let, maybe incomplete years ago, I think even longer than that. Past tense was our best source way back in the day. And Paxton has been gone in Albuquerque for probably 30 years now, 20, 30 years. So I got, I got some wood from the that's in Denver and they still stuck, you know, some of the exotics, but it's a , you know, here in Albuquerque, I was like, Hey, can I get any, any of this stuff here? And there's no retail shop anymore here. Yeah. So that's kind of , that's kind of unfortunate, you know, like you said when you were starting out, it was all, you know, all of it was readily available.
Yeah. I have no idea where Coca-Cola sells for a linear foot. Now I think it's somewhere in the high , $30 back in the day. I remember by a hundred feet of it at $3 a foot you know, and that's how much it's increased. And then, you know, there's the whole issue about abusing the forest, which are, most of the wood I use is scrap size. Um, it's your bigger industries. It's your stripping the forest for a cattle range. Um, because will bring in more money than a forest will.
Well, and then even it's a pretty global product. I mean, a lot of those exotic hardwoods, I mean, they're , they're native to different countries around all around the world. And so they, you know, whether it's in the states or not that they're, you know, harvesting it from, you know, it's, but they, they've all gone up in price and they seemingly all, you know, become harder to get regardless of where they came from.
Yeah. Trees don't grow overnight. [Alex: they sure don't!] But we could use the wood overnight. Right?
Yeah. And that's ah, I mean, I would have thought that the exotic woods maybe would have , uh , not gone up as much just because , you know, people aren't necessarily making huge dining tables out of them, but I guess they're being sought after industries that do use it right. In that realm. Yeah. And so for you it was great because you could use, you know, real, real small quantities and get really nice. My material investment was minimal. Yeah. I use, I mean if I bought a one inch thick piece of wood, I could re-saw it down into many cus. My pieces were probably three sixteenths of an inch thick, finished out , um , or maybe even in a little bit less where it's you're using just , just slices basically just for the... I used very little materials , little cardboard, jigsaw puzzle pieces, a minute. Imagine how thin that is. It's, you know, they're not thick at all. And so, you know , uh , an inch board, it'll go a long way.
It did go a long way. Yup . Out of every linear foot, I got three slabs .
Right. Well that's good too. I mean, that's like, you know, normally that stuff probably wouldn't have been used for a whole lot. And so you were able to pick up these, you know, still valuable pieces of wood and turn it into something even more valuable.
I did work a lot with other people's scraps in the beginning, but then as you start producing more and more, you have to set up more of a production way of approaching it. So, you know, for me to re-saw a piece of wood, it needs to be at least four feet long so I could run it through the belt sander. Otherwise a little piece gets eaten up and it's out in your dust collector somewhere.
Dust collector or it shoots out in your shop or... yeah, that's a , that is , that is a good point. I mean, you have to, like you said, you have to at some point take it seriously and get it more consistent in a way. Your end product is consistent.
Yeah. And I turned up, you know, as you go along, I was, like I said, the landscapes were a bread and butter item. They're very easy to make, very natural to work with. The woodgrains , uh, led themselves to landscapes. But my challenge was coming up with abstracts in something that created more of a challenge as a puzzle, a presented itself as a tabletop or shelf piece just as beautiful. And then I'd start working into, my original educational background was in architecture. So I started doing more architectural pieces.
I love that pyramidal...It was an upside down pyramidal...
551 it was called. Because there were 551 pieces and 36 layers deep.
Yeah. So it looks like you used some wenge , arraiba, sterling silver. That's, I mean I'll , I'll put a link to that. Um, in the show notes. That way people can see it cause it's really spectacular. And you also have the Cradle of Peace. I mean these get very, very impressive. I mean i t's, it's, and especially i f the scale cause t here, you know, think if you had a bigger scale, you might be, it may be, it might be easier to work with just the wood and, but t hat's o n a smaller scale it, I'd imagine that's very tricky to get, you know, get right.
Yeah . It became a very different approach and I really wasn't the kind of guy that would draw out a , an image and say, this is what I'm going to make. I would have a mental image. I would start making it and then realize the restrictions I have with working as delicately as I did. So the original image would very often be very different than the final piece. Right. And it's, for me, it was an evolution. It was more enjoyable than trying to make that drawing [inaudible] we sat down myself in that piece of wood. We'd sit down or those pieces of wood, we'd sit down and we'd watch what happened with it. Right . Have a little conversation with those pieces and sometimes you wouldn't want to hear the words.
That's pretty good. So you said your background is in architecture. Ah , I would say it seems to me like architecture. You start with the boundaries, right? And you try and figure out, okay, how can I get this, this mental image to fit in these boundaries? And it seems like the process you're describing with your puzzles was more of have the image, which boundaries do I need to push, you know, how far can I take them? And so it really is an interesting difference between, you know, pre-made design and architecture. I say pre- made, but it's just, it's more pre-determined. Yeah . You're conforming to the engineering standards and the space and all that. But with your puzzles, I mean, you really, like you said, when you started getting into it, you find out, oh yeah, I can, you know, this is a little bit more difficult, but I can push this, you know, this grain texture into this pattern, or I can,...
yeah. I think out of all the pieces I made, which add up to quite a few , I very rarely scrapped a piece. You know as you go along, you realize, well, it's not gonna work out that way, but I can make it work this way.
That sounds like a true artist. It's not throwing away or scrapping or giving up on something that's...
...giving up is a good way to look at it. I'm not going to give up on this. I could make it this way instead now. That's sometimes the mistakes or this the tangents brought ya to even a better place than your original concept.
How often did that happen do you think?
With the sculptural pieces? [Yeah.] Like I said, they were in evolution, so my self and those pieces would just work with ourselves into as close as what we thought that original concept was going to be.
Did you ever get any real crazy commissions?
Yes. Yeah. Since you can edit this out...there was one point where , um, I was making letter openers because, you know, I have all these beautiful exotic woods at one point. I cannot use them in a puzzle. So I came up with letter openers. Now I could laminate some different woods together. And um, then what was leftover, even smaller than that, I came up with hair sticks, which were used weaving tools sometimes for weavers. And so I had hair sticks up in a gallery in Santa Fe and the owner of the gallery gallery was very conservative gal. And , um, she sends me a letter one day, she said, Steve, I think you would be interested in this. There's a woman who purchased a letter opener and she said, you should consider making a wooden dildo. So I'm thinking, of course, here's this letter fraud, it's one of my artists friends. In the shows, artists can get pretty crazy and we play a lot of pranks on each other. And so I'm thinking, one of my artists , friends visited the gallery, made up this letter, gave it to Jane to give to me and I kind of ignored it. I said, this isn't going to be real. And especially coming from Jane, she was such a conservative gal. Yeah. So here I am, years later doing a show in New York City and this woman comes walking up to me. And um , she goes, did you ever get my letter? I bought her letter opener from you in , in Santa Fe at a gallery and eh , and I said, what letter is that? She said, well, I suggested you make a wooden dildo. I said, that's for real! You were real? And she goes, yes. She says, you know, I have to tell you, I used your letter opener for THAT and I thought you could refine it more for me! And um, she says, you know, my husband would go away. He worked out as a, as a scientist and sometimes he'd be gone for months at a time. And your letter opener helped our relationship. She said, you really should consider doing one for me. Well that was a commission I never did get to , but it was kind of interesting.
So that means that your surface finish on your wood top notch!
I have to say that what is an interesting cause people would command and touch your pieces and hold the letter openers and they, oh, it's so soft. We're literally, you know, you take a piece of (here's a letter opener). You hit a hard surface and it's not soft at all. But if you finish it well enough to the finger would feel so soft and sensual.
Hmm. That's such a interesting material too , because it's, you know, more, it is more human, more relatable than
it is very organic material. It started live.
Yeah. Hmm . That's, that's interesting. I'll, I see I'm not that well versed in woodworking. I can do the very basics. I haven't really thought about that, like you said, like to the touch versus, you know, how strong it is, how durable it is.
Well, it was funny how often people would say how soft it feels.
Yeah. That's interesting. A lot of times at art shows, you know, you'll find that all the people that go into your booth will bring up these small points that either you knew about and didn't want to publicize it or it's not something you'd normally talk about, but everyone keeps mentioning these little things. They're like, oh yeah, I guess that's, you know, that is an interesting thing that I guess the average person is astounded by or they find interesting. But to you it's like, ah , that's just second nature. Right.
Well, I do know that the more you work wood , the more it...the more organic it becomes. You kind of develop smoother , the softer, whatever words they want to use. It is a really strong material and it is quite hard. I mean, you don't want to get hit by a two by four, right. It's not going to bend around your head.
Much less a Cocobolo slab.
Yeah. That's another thing. I mean wood dense wood is really heavy.
Yeah. That, that's like an intuition that you really can't get unless you've been working in an industry or in a , medium for a long time I'd imagine. And I find that with, at least for myself. I would consider myself an artist, but a very amateur artist because I've only been making things for a couple of years really. But I've noticed that the artists that I know who've been working at something in metal, wood, whatever material after the, 10, 20 year mark, 30 year mark, they start getting these...they can feel how the material's gonna react and they can kind of, it's almost like a sixth sense of when you're making something, they know, you know, they can literally read a piece of material and they know how to use it and they know where it's gonna go wrong and where it's going to go right. And I think you've clearly developed that skill. And that's something that I noticed when I hear you talk about it, it's these little details that...
Yeah, you learn your limitations, you know, how far you could push it. Cause you don't want to scrap a piece, especially after you invest a lot of hours.
Right. [verbal stumbling] You can't be overzealous, right? You gotta you gotta Watch both ends of, keep keeping your work in an evolving state, but also keeping the business running and keeping it.
Yeah, that's, that's always a tough balance because I think all, most of the artists I know are very creative spirits and they have to keep that balance between "I am in business, I do have to support this, I want to do this for a living. So what's my compromise? How far?" And that's usually why you see some people out there who have, like for me, my bread and butter line, and then I had my larger pieces, my sculptural pieces. [Right.] And that's where I get to really let my spirit fly . But at the same time, you know, I , I have to let my business mind work too .
[inaudible] yeah. That's like , I silly . That's, that's, so it's not as common as you'd think. I think the fact that you're still here, you know, making work, however often you can get to it, this far down the line after you started. I think that's a testament to how good you were at finding that balance.
Yeah, you know , um , I've seen a lot of people come and go. And the key sometimes I think for me was I was very focused. I was the puzzle guy so they knew, you know, I didn't try to do this and that and this and that. And so when you came to my booth, you were going to buy a puzzle and there were people who are out there who had from year to year buy a puzzle. I just got an email today. Um, someone went to my website and of course, it's a little outdated. I haven't been on it and updated it in awhile and they questioned are you still doing, can I still have you make pieces for me? And I'll get in the email tonight and say yes please.
That's what we'd like to hear. Yeah . If , uh , I'll put a few pieces , um, pictures on my website. Have a link , um , from the podcast. That way you can find Steve's website and you know, you can see the , uh, you can see all the work that he's done and you know, you can maybe get some ideas for some commissions or something. And you can see the, just the breadth of talent , um, that Steve has now.
I have had bigger commissions so I thought that one would be a little bit more entertaining than most of the others. But no, every year there was [something]. I came up with the design that I later scaled down. So it would be more affordable, but I had a patron from the Tucson area that bought from me every year and he bought a sculpture first. He bought a very large, like a $1,200 landscape. And then he got into some of the sculptural pieces and he says, you know, I think I bought like five pieces from you now and I want you to make me something he says. And what we do is every Christmas I bring this to the family and we sit down and do your puzzle and it's a real, that's something I want to talk about to about puzzles. But, so this was an event that he shared each time he bought a piece from me. He says, I want you to now make me something that's going to be really challenging, not only beautiful to look at, but I really want to be challenged. And that's when I came up with what I call the three layer rings. Um, but his first piece was quite big. And then I thought, well, this is a great idea and this really challenging puzzle. And Yeah , we scaled it down to a more sellable piece.
Right. I remember , um, hang on . I remember which ones you're talking about. I'll have to find a picture. Yeah, I think they're on the website.
That was the other thing I wanted to say about the, the puzzles when I got into the puzzles. That's a really, if you're a puzzle person, it's a time when you sit down, you shut down the rest of the world and you focus on a piece and where it goes. And there's a little bit of, with every piece there's a little bit of satisfaction and completion. Every time you make a piece fit. And if you're a puzzle person, you'll relate to what I'm saying. Yeah. And then the closer you get to the end, it's one of those challenges that gets easier the closer you get to the end. So in a way that's even more rewarding because now it's like only this, only this, only this, and then you complete it.
Right? That's the, the energy and momentum of that building.
And now, here's another story too. I have a really, one of my favorite bands is the string cheese incident. And years ago they did a show here in Albuquerque at the [spelling] warehouse and I laminated up a couple of their posters and I cut them up into puzzles. So I laid out tables and during intermission or whatever, it was in a really nice environment , uh , people would come out and I watched people sit and do puzzles, these puzzles together and there'd be interacting like they knew each other forever. They're talking about this and that, and I'm watching people exchanging telephone numbers. They have to sit down and sharing the puzzle together.
That's such a, that's such a good , um, image that, you know, we don't really have that today. And as far as like a place where you can sit down and concentrate and kind of make friends, you know, on a small scale like that, right.
you know, it , it is something that people share. Even when you put , uh , a cardboard puzzle on a table , um, someone walks in and this is my experience. They always look over and say, oh, I found a piece, you know, then they'll walk away. Um, and the difference with my puzzles to a cardboard puzzle, when you were done, you didn't put it back in the box, you put it up on the shelf.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean your pieces are so nice that you put it, you put it on the shelf above your bed, you put, you know , you put it on your altar cause it's...I'd imagine, you know, putting your pieces together, especially like the challenging ones like you said, is, isn't just you know about, okay. Done moving on. It's, you know, you're just pausing and reflecting. I mean that's Satori, right. And it's just a few moments of...
that. And with my puzzles compared to the cardboard puzzles, because it's solid wood, they're finished on both sides. So a lot of times you're looking at a piece upside down and you have to try to visualize it right side up if you want to make it fit in that space that's available. And it's like, is it going to be right if I flip it over? And so it increased the challenge quite a bit too.
That's in a , I don't know why I didn't think about that before, but that, I mean that literally makes it at least twice as hard. Yeah . And then when you brought up before about how I used layering for dimension more , um, even though you only saw a small part of that say second layer, third layer, fourth layer, it went completely under the first ones. So there are a lot more pieces than the puzzle actually presents itself as.
right. And so I'll , I'll make sure that that image , um, is linked below so you can see where it's, you'll see, you'll look at it and you'll see the three layers. But you could basically put the bottom layer together, right ? Do that one first. And it's a complete image in and of itself. And like, like he said, that pieces are finished and then you have to start on the next one.
So it, it really is, it is a universal frame all the ways around, even though you're seeing a partial area of that bottom layer. But there are pieces all the way underneath it.
So Steve, you're a puzzle master then because you put them together, but you all said to cut them. So you knew that like when that guy, when that commission came in and he's like, I want to be challenged, you know, how hard was it for you to actually, think through how difficult do I make this? Um, cause making a puzzle to me sounds, you know, it's like, I guess I could randomly cut shapes, but ultimately it seemed like there's gotta be more, more thought there. And it seems like it'd take a genius to,
I don't think too many people who refer to me as genius, but , um, it's look at as puzzles and you'll, you'll agree with me.
Pieces was a very zen thing. Hmm . Um, once, once you did your design , um, your inlay, your overlay, I did a lot of designed by overlay with the layering. Um, so that was really more of a challenge than cutting the pieces. Cutting the pieces at that point was kind of a zen time. It was a time where I needed to look at what I was doing. I never drew out a piece, you know I cut enough to where I knew I could, what I had to do to make a perfect piece. You come in and I used to call it, you come in and make a turn at the neck and then you enlarge the head area of that lobe and you come back in and tighten up the neck and then move out and make sure you do one of them on how many ever sides you had on that piece.
So it would lock together. It wouldn't come apart. And we'll kind of saw are you using? I use a scroll saw tabletops, curl saw and the blade I use is eight and a half thousand. Seven inch. Tiny in curve. Yeah. Tiny. Yeah . And a good blade. Oh, I'd be lucky if I could get two , three minutes out of a plate. Really. And that's all it evened out . It's a matter of patients . The slower I cut. Of course with any blade, any kind of machine you use, you can only move as fast as the blade is cutting, but you could push it a little bit. But if you push a little bit of blade, that small heats up and there goes your carbon tension and you pop it. So it's a slow process, it moves faster than people imagine. But when you're on this end of the saw, it's pretty, feels pretty. Yeah , I could imagine. Um, and so you got all your fingers still. That's , that is with the blade like that. Even if you stuck your finger in it, you have time to get it out before it does much damage. That's comforting know, because you know, typically woodworking, if you're in woodworking for 30 plus years, I mean you get some close calls.
Yeah. Most, most guys I know with stubs have a joiner . I didn't use a joiner too much. I do use a lot of tools. I mean I saw my, my um, would originally down to the slabs to the thickness I need. So I have a good size bandsaw for that. I , the framework, all the puzzles were backed on a piece of 4/4 alder. Um, so then I trim it with a table saw, radial arm, and then it goes to sanders. So I do use all of my tools. The scroll saw is my main, where I spend most of my time though.
Cool. That's, that's the, I'd say if you were to order all of the tools and machines you have, you know, in your, in your process, there's always, for every artist, there's that one, that one. Right. That really makes it happen. Yeah. That's cool. Anything else? Uh, you want to mention about either doing art shows?
I think we should talk about art shows and the community of people , um , from the artist stand and , uh, I chose to do most of my sales through retail at art shows. I ventured into galleries. They were great. Um, they take quite a hit from you and more than the money part, I liked the interaction of the sale. And along with that came a community of artists that I have not found anywhere else in my life. It's um, it's kind of nomadic. For, I mean, we all have home bases, but we hit the road for a week. Some people go on a circuit down to Florida, do a Florida circuit for two, three months, which I did myself, got a motorhome and lived in Florida out of my motor home for a month or two. And did art shows , the people you meet, the friends I have across the nation, I don't think I could've found in any other business.
Yeah, I, I agree. Um, it's so unique for so many reasons that uh, you know, it is hard to describe and every artist that I know has the same similar story of...it's one thing to just set up your tent and sell whatever you're making and then to drive there and drive back home and make more. Right. But it's everything outside of the show hours that is, you know, it's almost like 80%, 20%. All the artists, all the businesses, 20% of the deal, 80% of the deal is after hours. Friends that you meet that you make the dinners, the gatherings, you know, I in a different city too, so it's such a, it's such a um , changing environment . Same people, different environment there . But yeah, and it's funny, you could drive into Chicago, you know, you find yourself doing the fifth time at a Chicago show and here you are driving it to Chicago and you're at home, you know, just where to go, what restaurants to go to. Uh , you're already already texting each other saying I'll meet you for a beer afterwards. And I think we touched upon this a little bit before our interview that , um, for awhile there I had a , a greyhound bus as a motor home and it seemed like a lot of my close artist friends would end up in the bus. So we kinda took off our , our artists costume, which we wear , which is very real. I mean, it's part of us, but we are answering the questions that same questions over and over again interacting with people. But then afterwards when we get together is when our creative spirits are allowed to fly in conversation and opinions and beliefs and spirituality. And that's when you really get to know the great community. to so interesting too , because I think we talked about this, how there's, you know, a, there's a first layer to the artists that the patrons get when they talk to you in your booth, you know, and they figure out, oh wow. Like , wow . They have, you know , really great ideas about how they built...make their work and design and whatnot. And now you're describing, you know, there's an even second layer to artists when artists get together. It's, there are many layers, many, many layers. And it's so cool though, that there is. If someone's learning at every level, whether it's you, the artist , the patron, your friends, I mean, it seems like it's just a community of, never ending learning and sharing knowledge and experiences.
That's so true. Uh, and they're very sincere group there . There's no facade needed because we're a community that's looked at by the public as being a little eccentric. So we're allowed to be ourselves. We don't have to hide anything.
Right. Yeah. That's so freeing. I had , I imagined that, you know, you're, you're, you're not wearing a suit. You're not, you know, you don't have a script to read off of you. You're just kind of being you and it's very free. I mean, it's a fortunate, a probably a fortunate way to make a living.
I would not trade it for anything. It's not, it hasn't been the highest income I've ever experienced in the different ventures I've taken. But experience-wise , I would never trade it. Yeah. I mean, could you imagine sitting in your personal space with all your personal , production, everything you put your heart and soul into and 500 people come in in a day to talk to you. I mean, that's a treat how many, how often do you get to do that? And most everyone that comes in is in awe of what you do. Right? So you're, you know , you're not, you're not talking to someone who doesn't like you or you work. You're immediately making a friend.
Yeah. That's so interesting. It's, it really is such a , um, I mean, I wouldn't say it's self ingratiating, but really it , it kind of is. It's , it's your time to shine because you've already put in all the hard work ahead of time and then you get the feedback and a lot of it is positive.
Yeah. They wouldn't come in if they really didn't like it.
Right, right. Most [inaudible] you see the thousand people say, yeah , Nah , you get though, you know,
but then you gotta wonder when you do in an art show and you know, the guy next to you in his booth or her booth on the other side, it's like chock-full and they're walking right by yours and you go, "What did I do wrong?"
Yeah. And it's, you know, I'm sure that I've seen that happen many times and you know, it could just be for extraneous reasons. It's always different.
Every show is different. Every city you go to is a different clientele. And my work was pretty focused in to one area. They were, you know, very intricate, exotic, playable pieces and not everyone's into it. But then I do shows where, you know, there are people lined up with three puzzles in their hand waiting for the three people in front of them to make their purchase.
we'll definitely have to do it again.
Okay. That sounds great. All right, thanks Steve. I enjoyed it. Thank you.
thanks for tuning in to Apollo road zero zero one with Steve Malavolta. You can find Steve's work at stevemalavolta.com. That's stevemalavolta.com. You can also head over to Apolloroad.com/podcast to find the show notes and transcript for this episode as well as more Info and links related to Steve and his work. If you enjoyed this podcast, I'd appreciate if you filled out a short survey. I've got a little questionnaire also on Apollo road.com/podcast um, about this episode about what you liked, what you didn't like. Um, if you have any requests for future guests, or even if you have a question for Steve, I can relay it to him. Um, yeah, you can , uh , wander over there and support the podcast. Um, currently I'm bootstrapping this thing. I produce a small line of work , uh, for sale my website. So feel free to show your support any way, any way you can. And , uh, I'm excited for the next episode. Hope you are too. Take care.