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Gary Neilsen ...
A Gem Amidst the Red Rocks

Gary Neilsen, a Sedona local for some seven years now is known by many people around town. Some know him as a musician. Others for his phenomenal work with gemstones. While a select few know him as the long-haired guy at Sedona Coffee Roasters complimenting the ladies and amusing his friends.

A cloudy spring morning found me approaching his quaint little home tucked away in rural Sedona. Having spoken to him casually over the years, I only knew to expect the unexpected.

He yelled from another room for me to come in. I pushed my way through the portal, into the world of Gary Neilsen. Free to roam about, I began noticing his many treasures. Crystals of all shapes, colors and sizes dotted his unpretentious habitat. Unique artwork of birds and various wildlife adorned the walls in a haphazard kind of fashion. As I turned to enter one of the rooms, he appeared smiling widely. "Oh you'll definitely have to check that room out," he said emphatically. "But first come out to my workshop."

Passing through the porch where several bird feeders hung, he greeted a small hummingbird dining nearby. Sharing a love for the little dynamos, we traded stories before entering into his humble place of work and play. There were tools I recognized having seen them in my dad's woodshop many years ago, and others I'd never seen the likes of. Diamond saws, lapidary tools, wheels and drill bits you'd find in a dentist's office, to name a few. Neilsen told me diamond tools were the best and the only ones he uses on his gemstones. This provides superior quality in the execution of his work. Something I would come to understand better as I viewed his art.

Chatting easily, we returned to the living room to make ourselves comfortable. Here I would further discover the many facets of Neilsen.

Born in Chicago the seventh child of nine, Neilsen seemed to be the black sheep of the family. An attribute many share here in Sedona and one that seems to make for a great artist.

Neilsen's first talent showed itself when he was 18. His girlfriend gave him a silver flute as a gift, which he taught himself to play. By the time he was 25, he owned 27 instruments ... violins, drums, guitars and more, all of which he was self-taught. Other than spending a little less than a year in private lessons with a friend on music theory, Neilsen has no formal training. After playing around with so many instruments, he decided on the silver flute and hand drums.

An avid fan of classical flutist Ram Pal, jazz giant Joe Farrell of Chic Corea and the man who brought the silver flute to rock, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Neilsen had a hard time picking his favorite.

Neilsen's first band, Mothras Revenge, was a 5-piece jazz ensemble out of Chicago. Working all day as the Forman of a factory with 40 people under him, and playing music at night was a life he'd come to know, but not particularly like. Except for the music that is. So at 29, he quit his job, sold everything, threw a backpack over his shoulders and hit the road.

Landing in Canada he met and fell in love with a local "Moongoddess" and they began traveling together. Roaming up and down the coast, they enjoyed a time free of worries and stress. When landing in Bisbee, Arizona they came upon Al, a one-legged bass player. He took them on a hike up the worn out railroad tracks between the old mine and smelter where Neilsen found a piece of azurite malachite. Al cut it for him turning it into a piece of jewelry.

"It fascinated me that you could pick a stone up off the ground, cut and shape it, turn it into a finished product and suddenly it's worth a lot of money, and, it's really beautiful!"

Traveling with his Moongoddess, they stayed at every campground from Van Couver to San Diego. After a short return to Chicago, he moved to Canada and the two began doing craft work together. Using feathers they found locally, they sewed them into hat clips and things of that nature. (Robert, he actually said hat clips and roach clips - that's why I'm saying "things of that nature") Selling them on the streets, at the beach and at local fairs, they did quite well.

They began to travel again only this time from craft fair to craft fair, selling their wares. When returning to Bisbee, Neilsen collected a bunch of malachite and azurite. Once back in Canada, a friend taught him how to cut the stones and let him use his equipment.

And so, another facet of Neilsen's natural ability presented itself. He began working more and more with the stones, learning as he went along and soon purchased his own equipment. This was quite expensive since Neilsen only works with diamond equipment. He explained the use of diamond saws, wheels and lapidary tools to produce the quality of work he does. This is a "painstaking process" of precision and expertise he has perfected over the past 25 years.

He continued, "You can go completely commercial and do it the quick way or you can do it the artists way which is more time consuming and precise. I choose the artists way and, well, I hope it works. I make what I like and then hope the public likes it too." He spends himself and his money for something which he believes in and produces a product he can be proud of.

Neilsen doesn't depend on craft shows anymore to sell his unique items, but still attends the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show every February, as he has for the past 25 years. It is here that he sells many of his pieces but even more importantly where he purchases 90% of his stones. This is because the quality is incomparable. "I buy lapis from an Afghani, Ruby from an Indian or Pakistani, Citrine from a Brazilian. Most of the time I am buying from either the miner or the next guy. You just can't get better quality."

He tells me of a mine he ventured into many years ago that collapsed shortly after he retrieved 2 lbs. of the most beautiful azurite crystal he'd ever seen. Then how he invented a process to set crystals into stone. A 14-step process using all diamond equipment that no one else has done to date. Of his now favorite crystals from the Brandburg Mine in Namibia, Africa that run from flawlessly clear to deepest richest amethyst and smoky. They can be skeletal or have water trapped inside or phantoms. Most grow very deep in the earth in cavities.

As Neilsen continues to talk about his work, I am irresistibly caught up in his story. I see an amazing passion rise out of him as he talks of the different stones he delights in working with. He is amiable and good humored with a lavish sense of beauty, that echoes in his art.

At this point he is surrounded by pieces he has brought from all over the house as we have talked. Gorgeous stones sit among these objects ... jewelry, sculptures, ceremonial pieces. He holds up a pendant of the Madonna with child in her womb. It is the most remarkable composition I have ever seen. The Mother is lapis, the Baby labadarite (spelling?). The back, as fine as the front, is a 12-rayed star. A very precious piece, priced at $6,400, Neilsen believes this is one the grandchildren will inherit.

Next he shows me a magnificent seahorse made of gem silica chryslacola (spelling?). One eye is sapphire, one emona(????) As he shows me he speaks through half closed eyes of his love for exotic crystals.

His newest love and creation in the line of jewelry are his very plump and luscious spirals. Making them in every thing from emeralds to rose quartz, they are 4 sensual, voluptuous twists that many relate to the goddess. They have been very popular and range in price from $96 and up.

The spirals are very labor intensive and have been developed with the use of diamond powder and golf tees. Another one of Neilsen's ingenious inventions to produce a one-of-a-kind item. The spirals are put through an arduous polishing phase using seven wheels.

He is particularly drawn to the spiral and has used the shape over the years in a lot of his work. Creating unicorn horns and free form spirals has led to this next phase.

I asked him if it required a great deal of patience to do this painstaking work. Before the words were completely out he was shaking his head. "I don't believe in patience," he said. "It has nothing to do with patience and everything to do with passion. If you love what your doing, what's to be patient about? It's what you want to be doing!" Some people are driven by quick results, this is obviously not the case with Mr. Neilsen.

Now it was time to enter the room I had ventured towards over an hour ago. It was here that Neilsen explained the three categories of work he performs.

His jewelry which includes crystal settings and free form pendants is made entirely of natural material that has never been treated, stabilized, or resurfaced. All natural gemstones are made with no metal involved. The free forming stones can be put on leather and in some cases, Neilsen has combined wood with the stones. These cost from $16 and up.

Crouching in the corner like a sorcerer among his charms and spells, Neilsen pointed to one of his sculptures. This one in particular was astounding. A gorgeous sculpted piece of mahogany formed the stand that looped over and held - in mid air - a meteorite knife adorned with a lapis handle. The knife blade dangled mysteriously from its point, handle down. Much to my amazement, Neilsen reached over and spun it. He explained that a super magnet was embedded in the top allowing this magic to happen. The blade, which is actually made from nickel-iron meteorite - in other words pieces of shooting stars - are designed by Neilsen and very unique. They glimmer like ancient stones scattered over the floor of some magic wood. Knifes run about $1,500.

Barely able to turn away, Neilsen is now showing me a ceremonial pipe. He uses many exotic woods for the stem, Minnesota pipe stone exclusively for the bowl and decorates some with Bear totems.

His favorite all time pipe was sold last year for $15,000! Made of 3/4 lb. of ruby, lined inside with pipe stone in both directions, it had a crystal setting and a stem of coca bolla wood and star ruby set behind the bowl. From the gleam in his eye I suspected it was hard to let go of. "Not for that kind of money," he laughed.

While the pipes have a Native American feel to them, Neilsen is very respectful and careful not to use their designs. Creating gemstone pipes for over 15 years, he is adamant about not offending any one.

Always creating new products, Neilsen is also now making something he calls "well-balanced labadirites." They are free form shapes of high quality labidirite, some suggestive of animals or birds, on wooden bases. He uses super magnets here to create this "sense of balance." The wooden stands really are a nice way of displaying the stones.

You can see and purchase Neilsen's jewelry, knifes, pipes and his newly created "well-balanced labadirites" in Crystal Magic in West Sedona.

Robert, I have a closing paragraph that talks briefly about his new band and upcoming dates. It also kinds of closes the story as I try to bring it full circle. I’ll bring it in tomorrow — I wasn’t quite finished or happy with it and I’d like it to be strong.

 

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