IF YOU SQUINT, the whorls of wooden branches in Jayson Fann’s spirit nests have the appearance of stars in a van Gogh painting. Often accessed by a ladder, the human-sized nests are made of fallen tree branches and evoke a sense of movement — the center an aperture either opening or closing, depending on your point of view. But they also convey a sense of safety and coziness. Marrying form and function, play and rest, the nests are a unique kind of environmental installation, and can be experienced as both art objects and dwellings.
It’s comforting to think about spending a night inside of one of Fann’s creations, looking out on the elements yet not truly exposed to them.
It’s comforting to think about spending a night inside of one of Fann’s creations, looking out on the elements yet not truly exposed to them. Maybe that security is required in order to set our creativity free, I muse to him as our interview begins, and he smiles. “I’m always interested to find out what [my work] means to different people,” he tells me. “The nest has a very deep archetypal significance. People connect to it in a deep way.” Nests reflect an impulse to collect and arrange things, to experience a feeling of protection and well-being. “Some people just do it with their laundry,” Fann laughs. “They just dump their laundry on their bed and they crawl in.”
For Fann, a fascination with natural materials also plays a big role. As a child, the Omaha, Nebraska, native used to play in the Platte River. “I would drag home driftwood,” he says. “I was always finding these cool pieces of wood, sanded down by the river, and thinking, What was its story? How far did it come?”
Fann began building these structures three decades ago, and they have appealed to travelers ever since. His work, which is accessible, sustainable, and hip, has received wide acclaim. For years, he was commissioned to make pieces for resorts like Treebones, a cluster of yurts and other glamping sites in Big Sur on the California coastline, as well as for individual clients. He’s built more than 50 nests throughout the U.S. Taking commissions from families and individuals enabled him to actualize other dreams, like opening Spirit Garden, a cultural center, botanical garden, and space for dance, theater, and performance art in his hometown of Big Sur. Over the 10 years that Fann ran it, he brought artists from all over the world to share their work. And more and more, he is focused on doing work at this scale — for entire communities to enjoy.
When we talk over Zoom, Fann is in his music studio, which is housed in a dance school in Monterey, California. He has just returned from finishing a recent commission for the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Clermont, Kentucky, where he constructed part of Bernheim’s Playcosystem, a 10-acre natural playground designed in harmony with nature to promote unstructured play opportunities for children. “I’m really excited about creating alternative education spaces that are more hands-on, grassroots learning environments,” he says, “a little bit outside of the box of the normal school system.” The artist’s interest in offering an alternative is personal: “I was one of those kids who absolutely hated school,” he says.
When he was approached by Jenny Zeller, the arts in nature curator at Bernheim, the collaboration seemed like an obvious fit. Fann loved that they were creating a space for what he called “natural landscape play” and “moving away from the plastic playground equipment that we’re so often seeing.” Though he’s the first to admit he’s not an expert on child development. “I know my process. I was allowed to explore and play and that’s a real privilege that not all kids get.”
Fann has observed many kids who have experienced trauma or struggled in some way, as he’s been working intermittently as an artist in residency in public schools for the last 30 years. He enjoys giving kids unprecedented freedom to create, a kind of freedom that frequently blows their minds. When the Arts Council for Monterey County brought him into the schools, he took everything out of the classroom, then brought in loads — really, truckloads — of bamboo so that he and the students could “construct our own world.” Together, they built a waterfall and a bamboo forest, made musical instruments out of all-natural materials, and created a soundscape using gongs from Indonesia.
A spirit of playful discovery runs through all of Fann’s work. Recently, he built 10 nests for the Denver Public Library system, each one made from a different material, like bamboo or gourds. Some have a QR code that visitors can scan to be taken on a virtual tour of the material’s use around the globe. Scan the code while sitting in the bamboo structure and you might learn about the bamboo shakuhachi flute in Japan, for example, or the construction of bamboo canoes in Mali. “Each sculpture becomes like an entire curriculum,” says Fann.
Before he was known as the nest guy, Fann was a musician. Even as a kid, he felt like an artist. He loved dance — specifically ballet, hip hop, and breakdancing — as well as percussion and drumming, which he studied from a young age. Eventually touring with bands, he played jazz and African music festivals around the world.
Fann was mentored by Nigerian drummer and civil rights activist Babatunde Olatunji, whose final album Fann recorded in the Monterey studio in which he currently sits. “He was a big influence on me,” he says of Olatunji, who collaborated with John Coltrane, Carlos Santana, and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, among others. “[Olatunji] gave me a scholarship to study music in West Africa ... I’d been listening to his music since I was 14, so it was an honor to apprentice him.” Fann studied at the University of Ghana, and has also studied in Cuba and Brazil. “I’ve always been traveling, studying, immersing myself in different cultural environments,” he says, “and bringing those experiences back home to share.”
It’s easy to see Fann’s music and art as separate endeavors, but talking to him, it’s clear they seamlessly form a whole. When the composer John Christopher Wineglass invited him to perform with the Oakland Symphony in California, Fann built a giant drum from a 2,000-year-old redwood that had fallen, and a 15-foot-high “musical nest” on which to play it.
His work merges his personal love of architecture, music, nature, travel, and community building. And more than an auteur, Fann is a producer, committed to creating educational and cultural spaces and facilitating expression and communication within them. “I’m connecting a lot of pieces,” he tells me. One is “the language of the wood,” but he most enjoys using it to enable other modes of performance and storytelling.
To celebrate the completion of his work at the Bernheim Arboretum in Kentucky, Fann invited artists and musicians from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere. Members of the Ojibwe, Navajo, and Lakota communities came out for the opening and did a presentation of dance and music. The event was co-sponsored by Kentucky Refugee Ministries, an organization that works with refugees and immigrants who have newly arrived. “I wasn’t expecting the diversity,” he says, but he was thrilled to discover “there are all these amazing musicians and artists who have now landed in Kentucky.”
Nests reflect an impulse to collect and arrange things, to experience a feeling of protection and well-being.
These days, the artist is on the road pretty much full time. He builds his sculptures and transports them in pieces — sometimes in multiple truckloads — around the country. His family is in Big Sur, the place he’s called home for the past 30 years.
About 100 instruments are currently under construction in his Monterey studio. While we talk, he shows me a drum weighing more than a ton. “I hollow out the tree,” he says. “It’s quite an amazing experience because you’re inside the tree.” He shows me one giant palm tree trunk he’s in the process of hollowing out — it’s taller than Fann himself. The enormous collection of massive pieces of wood is from trees that have naturally fallen; he doesn’t cut anything down. “I’m constantly gathering wood, really interesting, beautiful pieces that come down the rivers. I have thousands of these that I build with.”
Hindsight brings clarity, and looking back now on decades of creativity, Fann can see many through lines: from his childhood interest in set design to the wooden amphitheaters he’s built; from his preference for collecting driftwood (over doing schoolwork) to his work in classrooms; and from banging on the kitchen table to a lifetime of playing, and making, percussion instruments.
These connections abound. When he was a teenager, Fann’s family home burned in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, so only a few childhood photographs of him survive. One is of the artist at about 5 years old, banging a drum in the Oakland Symphony orchestra pit — his mother knew someone there at the time. Looking at the image now, having then played there as an adult, Fann experiences one of those magical, full-circle moment he lives for. His eyes twinkle a bit when he says, “We never know how these moments will make an imprint in our mind and in our consciousness.”
Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Mark Hartman Photographer
Mark Hartman is a photographer and director based in New York City.