Pleasanton artist hits the nail on the head

Historic Kolln Hardware building is being portrayed on an unusual palette

Artist Gary Winter credits the old Kolln Hardware building on Main Street and Division for the idea that brought him fame in Pleasanton: creating miniature wooden replicas of its historic buildings.

"I've always loved the Kolln Hardware building. That's where it all started," Winter said. "I went to a Christmas party at a house on Second Street, and every room had these little Dickens villages. While at the party I was tripping on all the details."

Driving home via Main Street afterward, he passed under the Arch, and Kolln Hardware caught his eye.

"The light bulb went on: I can make models of this town," Winter recalled. "All of the different old buildings would make a great collection."

A few days later he returned to Kolln Hardware, took the measurements of the front of the building, and asked the manager if he could go up in the cupola.

"I looked down on Main Street, and I saw a dirt road and my grandfather riding in on his horse," said Winter, whose grandfather was a rancher in the Sunol hills.

"I know how to trip," Winter added with a smile. "People bring up kids and say, 'Don't daydream.' But you have to trip. By letting your fantasies go once in a while, it takes you further into that world and lets in creative stuff."

First he began to model the building in miniature out of clay, but it was taking too long. Next he created a prototype of Kolln Hardware out of cardboard. But this, too, required hundreds of hours of labor so he knew it would not be economically feasible to produce in any number.

"Then the thought came to me -- just draw it, put it on a piece of paper," Winter said.

He sketched a detailed likeness of the front of the building, with colors and shadowing, and laminated it onto a piece of wood. Then he sawed around the shape and painted the sides of the wood to match the front.

Soon Pleasanton residents and fans were buying hundreds of the miniatures, which included buildings up and down Main Street and beyond. Winter spread out into nearby communities and by Christmas 2000, he had more than 60 miniatures for sale.

Now Winter is reproducing his beloved Kolln Hardware building once again -- this time using thousands of square nails that were found on the site during recent renovations.

The Kolln Hardware building, with its distinctive cupola and Victorian architectural influences, was built in 1898, part of a commercial building boom on Main Street. It served as a hardware store beginning in 1905 until 2004 when the business owner did not renew his lease.

Pleasanton real estate investor and developer Bud Cornett purchased the building and began an extensive restoration that proved to be costly and time-consuming, taking two years just to get the permits. The building was actually three structures, two in such bad shape that they had to be moved back and completely rebuilt.

The front building that housed Kolln Hardware had to be gutted, and the foundation lowered 20 inches. Workers stripped the interior to the bone, exposing the ground underneath, and adding floor and roof supports.

"I was walking in the building with the owner 10 years ago; it was just a shell, and I picked up a couple of these nails lying in the dirt," Winter remembered. "These nails were, like, 120 years old, and each one was handmade."

Cornett had seen Winter's artwork around town for years, including his mural on the side of Strizzi's on Main at St. Mary Street.

"I met him, and he said, 'I'm an artist and that's all I am,'" Cornett recalled.

Earlier in 2014, Cornett called Winter to his office and showed him buckets full of the nails collected during the renovations; Winter estimated there were 3,000 to 4,000 nails.

"He said, 'What can you do with these?'" Winter asked.

Winter already is renowned as a nail artist. He once presented President Ronald Reagan with a nail art rendition of the presidential seal that is now in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley. He has sold five nail pieces to Ripley's Believe It Or Not! and a $100 bill he made hangs in its museum in Florida.

After some discussion, Cornett commissioned Winter to create a replica of the Kolln Hardware building using the square nails found on the site.

"I think it's a wonderful opportunity to have Gary do it for me, and know how to do it," Cornett said, "especially when he's done it for a president."

"He said it will take a long time, and I said, 'I have time.' I trust his creativity," Cornett added.

Winter recalls doing his first nail art when he was a child living at the family ranch. One day he wandered out to the barn and began to hammer nails into a piece of wood, ending up with a nail portrait of a tree. Years later when trees again captured his imagination he did not want to paint them as so many others were doing. He remembered pounding out the little tree as a kid, and once again he began to tap out nail works of art.

One of Winter's spreading oak trees is on display at Tully's Coffee shop.

"I love the trees," he said. "I start at the bottom and go up. You can't mess up a tree."

That is, after his meticulous preparations.

By early December, Winter had done most of the groundwork for the Kolln Hardware piece, preparing and adhering the 2-inch thick redwood to form a 3-foot-by-3.5-foot base, and bracing the back. He had sketched the building on the wood and was adding details such as shingles that help to guide him with placement of the nails. He still needed to finish cleaning the old square nails, which had accumulated dirt and rust during the last century.

Then comes the drilling in the wood, to prevent splitting, and the tapping of the nails.

"The old square nails are irregular," Winter said. "I will use silver finishing nails for the scrollwork."

"People say I must have a lot of patience," he added, while pointing out that the work is meditative for him. For this project he also relates to the person in the 1800s who made the nails.

"There was some apprentice heating it up -- tap, tap, tap -- heating it up -- tap, tap, tap. They were made right here," he said, a faraway look in his eye. "I'm working from the heart, not the mind right now."

"The nails were forged, heated and pounded," agreed Cornett, noting that the Kolln location had once been the location of a tin shop. "But whether they had a forge in there, I don't know."

Cornett is not sure where the completed nail portrayal of the Kolln Hardware building will hang, but he hopes to share it with the public, perhaps for a while at the Museum on Main or in the window of the Kolln Hardware building itself, which now houses a bank.

About 10 years ago, Winter began making stick figures out of two-by-fours, Gorilla glue and wood screws for Richert Lumber on Sunol Boulevard, where they highlight displays in each department. He created a life-sized stick figure of a window washer that he attached to a second-story window of Kolln Hardware while it was under construction, a touch of whimsy that helped people smile as they waited sometimes impatiently for the renovation to be completed.

Winter's workshop is located at the back of Richert Lumber.

"A man saw me making stick figures back here and he said, 'You should be working in Disneyland,'" Winter said. "I should be working in Disneyland? I am working in Disneyland."

"I always wanted to be an artist," he commented. "Everyone tried to talk me out of it but things kept popping up."

He puts a different twist on things, such as the Zwirl Ball he created with his brother Ben, which has sold more than a million copies. It is the shape of a football but has ridged swirls to make it ergonomic and aerodynamic. Two sizes of the balls are for sale at Richert Lumber.

"I love to turn people's heads," Winter said. "I watch people all the time; they are walking along and talking, and if I can get a reaction from my artwork, if they snap their head and get into it, it's taking their mind off all their crap."

This opens their minds for inspirational thoughts, he continued.

"A lot of people don't know they have beautiful thoughts," he explained, they just have to learn how to open their minds.

Winter is writing a book on the power of the imagination and how to "pull out" the creativity.

"Once I can show you how to catch your creativity, you start paying attention to things," he said. "There is a simple way to pull it out of your head and make it happen."

"Nothing is ever lost if you dream wisely," he added.

He held out a plain yellow pencil with his website on it:

"A pencil is the simplest tool," he said. "If you get an idea and write it down, you've caught it."

Tap into your creativity

Gary Winter will be speaking at the Pleasanton Senior Center at 10:30 a.m. this Tuesday on "Thoughts from the Artist: The Power of Imagination." His contact information is at to arrange a talk on how to catch your creativity. He can also be found each Saturday morning selling his miniatures in front of Berry Patch at the corner of Main Street and Angela.

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4 people like this
Posted by Deborah
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2015 at 8:10 am

Deborah is a registered user.

What a great article. I've often watched Gary at work in his wood/metal shop at the back of Richert's and am fascinated by what he does, and how his ideas come to him. What an inspiration he is- I hope today's kids will read this and take note that great ideas come from daydreaming, which is such a lost art in today's high-tech society, where every free second of a person's day is spent with their head buried in a mobile device, instead of just lost in thought.

2 people like this
Posted by Dave C
a resident of Old Towne
on Jan 9, 2015 at 8:26 am

Great article Dolores. I remember being one one of the early adopters of Zwirl Balls. Great toy for the boat or the pool! Thanks Gary!

1 person likes this
Posted by Claudette
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2015 at 9:31 am

Hey there :) Love your work and uniqueness of the Nail Art ~ It would make a cool exhibit at the Harrington Gallery ~ Looking forward to seeing what "2015 Creative Outbursts" will bring ~ See you around town my friend ~

Like this comment
Posted by Cletus the Petus
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2015 at 10:38 am

Gary is such a fascinating person to talk to; and his knowledge of Pleasanton's history and how he incorporates that into art is a treasure. Gary told me about his work displayed at the Reagan Library, and it was a neat experience to see it during our visit to the Library last year.

Like this comment
Posted by Robert Juniper
a resident of Downtown
on Jan 10, 2015 at 8:39 am

If you are a minimalist I'd guess you'd like his art.

1 person likes this
Posted by Claudette
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jan 15, 2015 at 9:21 am

@Robert Juniper…

There are a lot of different styles in Art and most Artists create in a variety of styles depending on the medium. Gary's replica buildings and nail art are not Minimalistic styles. Perhaps you are speaking of some of the 2x4 wood sculptures…? The Motorcycle wood sculpture is amazing and not in a Minimalistic style at all ~ Not that there is anything wrong with minimalism ;)

1 person likes this
Posted by Linda Krafty
a resident of Ridgeview Commons
on Jan 15, 2015 at 10:42 am

I have a piece of Gary's work that I bought several years ago and I treasure it. It is a signed wood painting of the Pleasanton sign downtown.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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