Matt’s Barn

🕔Apr 07, 2009

If you have ever come across Matt Lewis—high in the mountains on a drill exploration platform, or tearing through the powder on his telemark skis—you will have met an affable giant of a man. He is quick with a smile and an offer of a tequila shot, and may lift you from your feet with the biggest of bear hugs.

Within the heart of this easy-living Kispiox Valley local lies the spirit of an artist. And just as art often reflects its surroundings, Matt’s gigantic post-and-beam barn is a mirror that reflects the rugged land around it.

In 2007, when Matt’s Kispiox Barn Company was commissioned to submit a plan to The Cliffs—a Kispiox Valley resort—for a barn to house its horses, no one could have envisioned the end result. A run-of-the-mill pole barn perhaps…or maybe a post-and-beam timber-frame to match the existing Bearclaw Lodge.

But the eventual result was a seemingly animate, multi-hued, shimmering structure that incorporates locally harvested third-growth cedar and hemlock trees. It features a co-operative collation of local craftsmanship including oversized doors, a mortise-and-tenon circular staircase, intricate one-of-a-kind chandeliers, and hand-carved centre-post totem poles.

A statement of values
The vision and execution of the structure is as much a statement of Matt’s values as it is of his art. As well as his soft touch and keen eye, Matt is emboldened by a spirit that is found aplenty in the valley: look after your own and take care of your backyard.

Growing up in the Kispiox, Matt’s life—like most of the residents there—intermingled closely with local First Nations. His easy relationship with many of the Anspiox Village residents is wrought out of a lifetime of sharing space, experiences, and common values that include an avid love of the landscape. Well known and liked by many villagers, he still hears himself referred to as ‘Moonie,’ an abbreviation of a grade-school nickname conferred upon him by an elder who thought he should be called Moonhead, in reference to his large promontory.

With a crew of local labourers, many of whom were friends, construction on the barn took place in phases. While the 30-by-60-foot concrete slab was poured, wood from Don Messier’s nearby woodlot was being harvested.

When you drive onto Don’s woodlot you cannot help but feel you are far away—perhaps on Vancouver Island or Haida Gwaii. The overstory is thick and shady, and the big trees reach into the sky. You look around for signs of logging, but there is not a clearcut to be seen—just a few pieces of equipment and some road work. Selected trees on their third harvest rotation are taken, while intermediate and smaller growth is left for another time—perhaps a few decades from now, when another project warrants this meticulously maintained wood.

Certain logs were selected for their pleasing curves and emphatically flared root systems. Normally, these pieces would be passed over for straight, homogenous sticks, but Matt’s use of the non-traditional or discarded pieces is what gives his work so much character. The corner-posts with their flared butts, the façade rafters fore and aft, and the inverted entrance arch all flow in sweeping curves—like the turns and bends of the Skeena River, and the forest along it which is the barn’s inspiration.

Perhaps the finest example of this is the decorative chandeliers that hang from the rafters, illuminating the interior of the barn. The light-shades are discarded stumps, painstakingly hollowed out.

Normally the rotted stumps would be piled and burned, but instead they have been rescued from the pyre to go on to a swan’s existence from an ugly-duckling’s beginning. Using the brute force of a chain saw as his artist’s brush, Matt follows the curves of the root system. Once the stumps are freed of their bulky internal mass, the hollowing is followed by hours of sanding and polishing until all that remains of the once rugged stump is what could best be described as an oversized cedar flower. Most of the chandeliers are very large—about four feet tall by three feet wide—yet belying their size they are elegant and even sensual. Before they are mounted one can hardly resist tracing one’s hand along the contours, caressing its smooth curves.

Artistic gamble
As progress was made and the barn began to take shape, Matt secretly took a gamble and commissioned local First Nations artist Art Wilson to carve the two centre posts that would border the entrance. When Matt had submitted his plan to Bearclaw’s manager, Joy Allen, it had not included the carved poles. As the posts were taking more time than expected, Matt began to feel the pressure of both the late fall weather and the potential wrath of the ‘First Lady of the Kispiox.’ Fortunately, Art made the deadline, and the poles were erected by the time Joy stopped by the next day. While she was astounded by the grizzly bear carvings on the poles, it was the pride emanating from the trio of carpenters, standing between the poles and looking down at her, that made the moment euphoric for everyone.

The final features of note are the mortise and tenon circular staircase leading up to the hayloft, and the oversized doors on the front and back of the barn. Nathan Murdoch, an ‘import’ craftsman from the Bulkley Valley, fashioned the stairs. The loft, though meant to hold hay, is more apt to host a dance, and the sturdy stairs can easily absorb the heavy boots of revellers scrambling up to whatever party might be taking place upstairs. The huge doors are the product of local cabinet-maker Cody Smith. Using three-inch clear hemlock and cedar from his family woodlot, Cody so heavily constructed the doors that Matt could not find hinges that would hold their weight. Always industrious, he salvaged leaf springs from a five-ton truck, took them to his father Dan Lewis’s blacksmithing shop, and together they forged the required ‘superduty’ hinges.

When the gigantic doors were finally opened to allow the horses into their stalls, they entered slowly—almost reverently—with heads raised, seemingly assessing the beauty of the building that would become their home. By Joy’s estimation the barn garners more photos by clients and visitors than even the gorgeous lodge itself. It is no surprise because, like the river that runs next to it and the mountains and forests that surround it, the barn is an extension and reflection of all the beauty around. It is one man’s artistic rendition of the exquisite elements that have been part of his environment since childhood.