"I look at this side of my work as a hobby," says San Francisco–based artist, designer, and surfer Jay Nelson. For context, he’s talking about a go-kart he recently transformed using his go-to materials, wood and fiberglass. With an exhaust sticking out the back like a Seussian snorkel, the kart looks like something you might catch a sea otter joyfully driving to their day job at the oyster farm.
The thing is, it takes some imagination to tell when Nelson is tinkering or taking things seriously. The other side of his work—his work work—is just as fun. Every project has a charming, woodsy, oceanic vibe, whether it’s a tree house for a client, a Subaru fitted with a camper and wood-burning stove for funsies, or, in this case, creating a commuter fit for a sea creature for his pals at Mollusk surf shop.
"The cool thing with Mollusk is that John McCambridge, the owner, is really excited about this kind of stuff," Nelson says. "We’ve built a few similar things—a boat, and a motor scooter with a little surf rack. John was a cartoonist, so he really comes from this fantasy world. We’re good working partners."
The duo knew they wanted to add something to Mollusk’s newest shop in Santa Barbara, but Nelson is never one to force things. "If you’re looking for something specific, chances are you probably won’t find it," he says. Instead, as is procedure, he began by daydreaming. He remembers sifting through listings on Craigslist one day, letting his mind wander when he found a guy in Barstow with a yard full of go-karts for sale. The wheels were set in motion, and Nelson’s assistant, Sam Buchanan, volunteered to run out to the desert to grab it. Then the fun began.
"It goes really fast—like, dangerously fast" —Jay Nelson
"With my work, function always follows form—I like to push the envelope of the functional side of things," Nelson says. This becomes abundantly clear when you learn that the go-kart was built for speeding over rugged terrain, yet he chose to attach a wood frame fastened with marine-grade plywood, recycled red cedar, and windowpanes. To seal the wood, he applied cloth sheets of fiberglass and coats of polyester resin, which give it its seafaring look. It also looks heavy, like it would be able to take some licks. Nelson, ever curious, had to find out if it could.
"It goes really fast—like, dangerously fast," he says. (Its variator-style engine, a Predator from Harbor Freight, apparently has something of a cult following.) Zooming across the dunes in Pismo beach at high speeds without any suspension to speak of caused the latch on the door to blow right off. "I was bouncing, and I couldn’t keep the door shut," laughs Nelson. "It was so gnarly."
Its racing days behind it, the kart now lives a quiet life at Mollusk in Santa Barbara where it serves as a conversation starter and set dressing for the shop. "I have a feeling people stand around, like with art, and find inspiration in these kinds of things," Nelson says. "I hope it takes them to a joyful, imaginary world."
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