Photos by Kayleigh Omang
“…Here I mixed the carbon black with the iron oxide black. One black pigment we use is super, super dark, it’s a carbon-based pigment that can get almost a ‘phantom black’ black, but it’s not UV stable. Then there’s an iron oxide black, it doesn’t get quite as dark, but it’s 100% UV stable. So if [the planter] sits outside for five years, eventually the dark black will become lighter than the other black. I want to see what happens! It’s a long game!”
Mike Nelson eagerly explained his process of mixing pigments for a new concrete planter project. He’s excited about the idea that, if he mixes these pigments, sometime many years down the road, the original piece could turn into something new. This exuberant thought-process and zest for experimentation have become the standard within the walls of Mothership Workshop.
Together, Mike Nelson and Josh Zeis make up Mothership Workshop, an art and furniture design studio. Friends for over 15 years, these two design, build and create works of art together in their Unicorn Park area studio. While they dabble in a number of mediums, they specialize in concrete pieces, creating countertops, sinks, furniture, accent pieces, planters and more. Nelson and Zeis both have fine arts backgrounds, so they approach what is typically an industrial craft with the care and intent of fine art. Being classically trained in various disciplines, the two longtime friends are able to accomplish a broad spectrum of design possibilities.
Nelson currently works for Prairie Supply, a local supplier of construction equipment and concrete materials. And Zeis’s current job is at Hebron Brick, where he is a landscape coordinator. Zeis also teaches ceramic classes at the Plains Art Museum and sometimes teaches sculpture at NDSU.
In his career at Prairie Supply, Nelson became the designated expert in the decorative concrete pieces that architects and contractors were requesting. “More and more, we got to realize that there’s not a lot of people doing high-end concrete furniture in the area,” said Nelson. “People would ask if I knew anybody that could do certain things and Josh and I sort of decided we could be the one to do it.” Having discussed the idea of finding a workshop and creating pieces together for nearly a decade, it wasn’t until 2018 that they officially started Mothership Workshop.
Nelson welcomed us into the storage-unit-turned-workshop with a tiny glass mug of freshly-brewed espresso in hand and apologies about the clutter. Within their workshop, located just across the street from Drekker’s Brewhalla, they’ve created a haven that is uniquely them. The front “office space” includes sample tiles of color variations, finished experimental pieces, a painted Iron and Wine-esque self-portrait of Nelson and multiple awards from Frostival snow sculpture competitions.
The studio space itself is spattered with concrete dust and beautiful works-in-progress. Color and texture tests line the shelves, quietly showcasing all these two men are capable of executing. This process of testing different patterns, finishes and shapes is part of Mothership’s DNA. They embrace the anticipation of varying outcomes and continuously work to think further outside the proverbial box. “We don’t like precision, we like to leave at least some element of chance. Nothing is going to be perfect, the surfaces are always going to be a little bit flawed and that’s what makes it cool,” said Nelson. “If we wanted a machine-finish, then we would do it with a machine.”
Mothership’s time is split between custom commissions and personal experimentations. “In between jobs, when we are working on our own art and working on custom pieces, that’s where we can kind of experiment,” said Nelson. In their growing resume of commissioned projects, they’ve completed kitchen remodels, farmhouse sinks, custom furniture, large-scale planters and more. Their work especially lends itself to adjusting to unique measurements, curves and angles, perfect for tricky projects. “We like doing kitchen remodels. A lot of the time, the walls aren’t perfectly right angles or there are sways, and we go in and template it and make sure what we make fits the curves and angles. I like having that and being able to make something so customized,” said Zeis.
The joy that problem-solving brings is part of what energizes the duo. Working to achieve the highest function in a space without giving up aesthetic or quality is always the goal.
We’ve seen a shift in design and decor, where people have access to boundless inspiration, from television shows to Pinterest to magazines. Dream-home mood boards and wishlists abound, and contractors are being asked to create more and more unique things. Mothership Workshop has positioned itself to fill this desire for locally-made and custom pieces.
“We get excited about the people that are interested in letting us do our thing. We want to take what they want, hear what they have to say and then put it through our filters,” said Nelson. “You can feel out the situations, but generally the projects that we have the most fun with are the ones that have the least structure. And with people that are willing to trust us.”
They hope that the more they create custom pieces and get word-of-mouth buzzing about their services, the more people will begin trusting them with creative freedom. With more people knowing their particular style, the more they are hoping clients will come to them and let them play a bit. The two insist that if a client has a vision, they can come up with a way to execute it. “We can carve it, we can stamp it we can stain it. As artists and people who have been in the construction industry, there’s very little we cannot find a solution for,” said Nelson.
Next in the plans for Mothership is perfecting garden planters. Planters are something they get asked to create often and they are looking forward to putting their artful twist on the everyday object. As with many of the items they make from concrete, planters are something where it benefits the consumer to buy locally, as they won’t have the paying for the cost of shipping the heaviness of them. Also in the plans for the Mothership men is expanding further into large-scale public art. They have experience with ice sculpture, winning a number of Frostival Ice Sculpture awards in the past and are hopeful to continue introducing their varying skill sets to the public. “We have the capability and the desire and the enthusiasm to want to make these large things,” Zeis added.
To name off services and products Mothership can create would be a disservice to the vastness of their abilities. But to give it a humble start, products include custom integral kitchen sinks, accent walls, benches, shelving units, conference tables, wall sconces, water features, standing fireplace bases and museum-quality sculptures.
As their space-age name implies, Nelson and Zeis relish in mapping uncharted territories and conquering the unknown. Whether that unknown be how concrete adapts to new pigment blends or the joy of releasing a new creation from its mold. With the array of outcomes they can achieve, Mothership Workshop is successfully reinventing the way we think about industrial mediums like concrete.