Nate LeFever (Photo: Kelley Crawford)
Who: Nate LeFever
What: Craftsman, museum curator, and historian
Artist’s Chosen Location for Interview: Exchange Alley—behind Bevolo Gas and Electric
Q: What’s a decision you’ve made in your life that most people weren’t expecting to make?
A: Probably moving to California. My family has been in northeast Indiana since around 1840, and not many of them leave. It wasn’t quite for me.
I started working in a hardware store when I was 14 years old, and then in college I was managing a hardware store while getting my history degree. I became really interested in historic preservation, and I ended up visiting the Bay Area—my wife was going to school there at the time—and I landed a job at a three-acre salvage yard.
Even before moving to Oakland, I knew I would one day end up in New Orleans. One of the last papers I wrote at Butler was the capture of New Orleans during the Civil War. I got to do a lot of research through an inner-library loan through the Historic New Orleans Collection. I was going through a lot of old Times-Picayune articles and personal account information. So I was so immersed in New Orleans and at the same time—for a different class—I was working on a paper about the Grateful Dead from 1959-69. That kept me in the Bay, but then I was also dreaming about living in New Orleans.
Eventually when my wife finished school we said, ‘Well, how about we pack the truck and go?’ We had to leave the ‘68 VW van in California, though. That was the sacrifice.
It’s a bit of relief to my family because now we’re closer. They drove down to Nola for the museum opening on November 5th. My mom is also happy that I moved closer because she wants me to get all of my junk out of her basement. That’s the thing about parents’ houses in Indiana. They have basements to store all your junk.
Q: What do you notice most about your hands?
A: That they’re green. I can’t get this green stain to go away. I have these built up calluses on my hands, and from working with the copper here, I can’t get this green hue to go away. And the other people that work here also work with copper, but their hands aren’t green. Only mine.
Luckily, I’ve never lost a finger or broken any of them. I can basically hold a flame with my fingers and just say, ‘Hmm…I can feel that.”
Q: Whose life do you feel like you could accurately fake for one month?
A: I keep going back to Halloween costumes. I always get hounded because I always do Castro. But, I don’t think I could pull that accent off.
I would like to say I could pull off Zack Galifinakas. I could try to pull that off for a month. Or, hell, let’s try Hemmingway. I already have a list of nasty habits as it is. Here or Key West—there’s no other place to impersonate Hemmingway.
At the shop people ask me all the time, ‘What’s with the Hemmingway portrait?’ I have it hanging out right behind me. There was so much stuff that I moved from California that I couldn’t get rid of but there isn’t space in my house. An old civil defense helmet. A portrait of FDR.
If I were 70 and had a den, these portraits would look great with all of my model trains that I could have. One day I might have a den. That’s something to aim for. Or I could be the first guy in New Orleans to have a basement. I’m sure there’s grants for that sort of stuff.
Q: What’s your most favorite lamp in your house?
A: The gaslight I have out front of my house is pretty amazing. Oh, but, I have this old square-stock 1920s floor lamp. It has all this hand-painted décor. I got this shade that was probably made in the late ‘40s, and it has watercolor paintings of scenes from the French Quarter on each of the shade’s panels.
And, I got this in California before moving.
It’s in our study here, and it’s right next to my record collection and comfy chair. When I have that den there’ll also be a great selection of Scotch.
Also, my dad had a building that used to be a department store in northeast Indiana. At the turn of the century, it was the county offices. There’s a guy from my hometown named Thomas R. Marshall, and he was the vice president under Woodrow Wilson. When electricity finally made it to Columbia City, and they decided to do all the municipal offices, they used these great big white globes for lights. We call them schoolhouse lights. They’re on a copper chain with a copper canopy. My dad had about 40 of them in his basement.
He told me I could take them, so I took one of them and hung it in my place here. Technically, it was in the vice president’s office at one time, so all important decisions in our house are made under that light.
Q: What’s a story other people love to tell about you?
A: I have a lot of friends that are still back in Oakland. We used to go up to a place called Jenner, which is where the Russian River flows into the Pacific Ocean. We would do Easter camping there, and I had been talking about the magic of Cajun boils.
Of course, most of my friends were vegan, which was a really hard thing to compromise on. Well, I did a seafood boil and a vegan boil on an open fire. I had artichokes, beets, carrots, onions—almost a Brunswick stew—but with a ton of Tony’s in there. It took a long, long, long time.
That Easter we had about 25 people camping with us, and when the boil was ready, we ate like mad. That’s something I miss—being able to camp like that. You can find spots in New Orleans, but they don’t come without the imminent risk of being bitten. Or eaten.
Nate LeFever is a craftsman at Bevolo Gas and Electric Lighting (316 Royal Street). He curated the Bevolo Gas and Electric Lighting Museum, which opened on November 5, 2015–it is open and free to the public (316 Royal Street). To see Nate’s work, you can visit Bevolo’s Instagram and Facebook pages.