Brunswick, with the Mount Everest Bellmaker
Jeff Clapp’s family has been vacationing in Brunswick since 1929 when his great-grandfather built a family camp here on Princess Point. The ecological artist—who transforms trashed oxygen canisters from Mount Everest into inspirational bells—now lives nearby with his wife, Wendy Rawson. From the side of the world’s most notorious mountain to his workshop in Mid-Coast Maine, Clapp’s creations have completed quite a journey, not unlike the man himself.
“It’s a little bit of a jump, isn’t it?” Clapp acknowledges of his transformation from professional chef to professional artist. “I was this fat, old chef, and suddenly I’m watching a National Geographic special of Mount Everest and they shoot this shot of the mountain with all these rusting cylinders. It was like an epiphany.”
Where others saw junk, Clapp saw artistic material that no one else was using. So, in 2003, just after the documentary, he located Dan Mazur, the celebrated mountain climber who would later appear in Greg Mortenson’s best-selling book, “Three Cups of Tea.”
Could the mountaineer help him procure the cylinders? Clapp inquired via email.
“Sure,” Mazur replied. “I’ll bring you one for $200.”
“You don’t understand,” Clapp responded. “I don’t want just one, I want all of them.”
A 1985 graduate of Johnson & Wales University and the recipient of its Trustee Award, Clapp had spent twenty years cooking throughout New England, including locally as the pastry chef at the Captain Daniel Stone Inn. During that time, he’d also gone from carving cubes of ice for banquet tables to carving wood, even serving as president of the Maine Wood Turners Association.
“I got tired of the ice melting,” he explained. “So I started going to galleries and looking at sculptures and decided to make sculptures out of wood. Then I bought a lathe and started turning bowls and got into multiple galleries across the country.”
Around that time, someone gave Clapp a discarded oxygen tank from a restaurant. He turned it into a shiny bell. People liked it, but it lacked the individuality and beauty of natural wood. So he’d given up the idea a decade before viewing the special on Everest. But seeing all those cylinders got him thinking of the stories behind each one, all the dreams of individuals wanting to stand on top of the world. Most never would have made it, Clapp said, without the cylinders.
“It is a link between technology and us,” he explained. “A mountain climber is using this to reach a goal in life, and the history of Everest is so predominant in the world, I thought if I could get some and make something out of them, there would be some value there.”
And that’s how Clapp, a life-long skier who’d only hiked a couple Maine mountains, went from baking soufflés and turning wood to trekking through the Kumbu Valley in Nepal along the lower reaches of the world’s tallest mountain. Only by the time he arrived in 2004, most the cylinders had already been cleaned up. They were in Katmandu, stacked like cord wood behind the headquarters of the Nepal Mountaineering Association. Clapp spent $6,500 to buy 132 empty canisters and ship them home. In return he received the official thanks of the Nepalese for buying their garbage.
Back in Brunswick, Clapp went to work in his small shop, slicing the bottoms off the empty tanks to form bowls and using the tops for bells. Soon his shop was filled with tinsel-like silver curls. Rather than rescuing the canisters from a landfill in Katmandu only to dump the shavings in a landfill in Maine, he used them to fill glass Christmas ornaments, which he sells for $15—significantly less than the $1,800-$3,500 price of the bells.
“I’m selling something that transcends,” Clapp said, noting that each bell takes about a week to make. “It is the history of the thing more than what the thing is.”
For his creative efforts, Clapp was recently selected as a finalist for the National Geographic TOGA Award. His bells have also been featured in a Neiman Marcus catalog. But how many he sells, Clapp said, is not the point. For him, it’s more about the imagination, opening oneself up to life’s possibilities, following a new path—even when that path leads back home.
Brunswick has held a prominent place in Clapp’s life ever since the water barrel outside his family’s camp held the water for his kitchen bath when he was three. He returned to the area permanently in 1992, building a house behind the original cabin, and praising the artsy college town for its educational atmosphere, close community and great restaurants. Following is his list of what not-to-miss when in town.
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