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Scrapwood Sculptor

Domelike dwellings built on boughs, boats, and pickups

Jay Nelson and his Toyota camper in front of his Outer Sunset studio.

Nelson’s 100-square-foot Mollusk pop-up, accessible via a spiral staircase.

Nelson at an in-progress tree house in Mill Valley.

Sketches for the Facebook sphere and campers.

Nelson has created half a dozen campers to date, including boats and scooters.

Cooking in the Toyota camper. Outerlands owner Dave Muller, Nelson’s neighbor, draws a crowd of oglers when he drives it to the farmers’ market each week.

Jay Nelson doesn’t just want you to look at his art pieces—he wants you to clamber into them, cram them with gear, and drive them across the country. Though he’s a trained painter, Nelson has more recently made his name as a builder of geo-faceted campers, tree houses, and podlike hideouts. His sculptural plywood-and- fiberglass retreats are gaining recognition throughout the Bay Area, so much so that Facebook just tapped him as one of its first artists-in-residence. At the company’s Palo Alto campus, he’s building an alternative meeting spot—an eight-foot wooden sphere with in-the-round seating for four. (It will eventually dangle from a footbridge.) And at Mollusk Surf Shop, he just completed an aerial office and occasional pop-up store, a wooden cave accessed by a 10-foot staircase. His latest live-work camper features a bed, a stove a sink, and a water reservoir, all nestled atop a 1986 Toyota truck.

The transition from paintbrush to power tool was prompted largely by NorCal living. A Los Angeles native and an on-again, off-again New Yorker, Nelson relocated to the Outer Sunset in 2007. “I was living in the attic of Mollusk and surfing most days,” he says. “I wanted a car I could drive out to the coast and sleep in.” So he built one, capping his old Honda Civic with a domed camper.

Nelson has since crafted half a dozen similar vehicles, each a two-month process. It starts with the angular Douglas fir skeleton. The bones are covered with plywood, which is sanded and coated in fiberglass. Finally, he cuts out the windows, waterproofs the pod, and takes it on the road. “I appreciate the comforts of having a home,” he says, “but there’s something about the temporary autonomy of setting out and taking a livable space with you.”


Originally published in the May 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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