Growing up in Missoula, Jim Clapham didn’t picture himself an artist.
“I still don’t,” he said last week with a grin that hinted of grimace.
Though publicity shy, Clapham's work for the past decade and a half belies that. After 14½ years at Missoula Sheet Metal, the Hellgate High graduate (class of ’81) stepped into the carless four-car garage he’d built on the east face of Mount Jumbo and began spinning copper magic.
“It is an art,” his wife Pam Sims-Clapham said. “We bill it as handcrafted functional artwork because his hoods and sinks and tabletops are functional pieces of art. They’re great pieces to display in your home.”
Sims-Clapham is the business manager and marketer of Mountain Copper Creations. She made possible Jim’s leap from metal worker to creative craftsman in 2005. He’d already been experimenting at home with copper, first making vanity sinks.
“I played with about six different designs and Pam took them around and we had some interest,” he remembered. “Over that first year we probably got 20 or so out.”
She worked for a local insurance company and used her lunch hour to contact contractors and designers.
“We had this little tiny brochure that we took out, and a couple of samples, and that’s really how we got started,” Sims-Clapham said. “It was pretty basic, back to the old knock-on-doors kind of thing, and it just snowballed.”
That was a good thing, but it also meant the challenge all builders and mom-and-pop businesses face.
“I probably work seven days a week more often than not,” Jim said. “I know I went 100 days in a row a couple times.”
As he honed his craft he added kitchen sinks and countertops to his repertoire. Then he fabricated a couple of unique range hoods for builders at the Canyon River Golf community across the river.
“Once you have those you can show them, and steps just keep happening to do more and more hoods,” he said. “Nowadays I do more hoods than sinks.”
He worked with copper at Missoula Sheet Metal, fabricating outdoor flashing and gutters.
“Then you just try more things and this is where it led,” he said. “It was material I could work with at home. I didn’t need fancy equipment. It’s a warm material that attracts you anyway.”
The 3-foot-by-10-foot metal sheets they order from a manufacturer in Pennsylvania are milled to his specs.
“That’s kind of a big thing. I don’t want recycled copper just because impurities will pop out,” he said. “I actually order it thicker than the standard on the shelf material just because it helps me stretch it more. You can take it further because it gets thinner as you stretch it.”
Clapham has branched out to zinc, brass and bronze, but copper remains his favorite medium. By now there’s a Mountain Copper Creation piece in every state. The hood for a large 48-inch range he’s currently working on is destined for Deerwood, Minnesota, 120 miles north of Minneapolis. The baptismal font Clapham is crafting will wind up at the University of Providence in Great Falls.
“We’ve done a lot of work with people up in, like, Big Sky and Spanish Peaks and those places,” Sims-Clapham said. “We also work with just folks. It’s the same gig whether you’re working with the high end or the regular people, people like us."
While most of the orders come from out of state, Mountain Copper Creations works can be found throughout western Montana. A few years ago the Claphams provided copper vanity sinks for 22 condominiums, two to a unit, for the Pleasant View subdivision west of North Reserve Street.
"Most of our clients end up friends," said Jim.
The Claphams harbor special memories of an out-of-state job in 2013. At a trade show in Reno, Nevada, they met the owner of a swanky outfitters lodge in Alaska’s Wrangell National Park. It's called Ultima Thule, or a place "remote beyond reckoning."
"It's kind of like Paws Up, except more expensive," Clapham said.
Ultima Thule is on a river called Chiti-na — "Copper," in the local native language.
"In honor of these roots we sought out the finest copper craftsmen today and set them to work recovering all the surface areas of our already well-functioning commercial lodge kitchen," said a blog post from Ultima Thule Lodge.
"Despite our proximity to the source, making the idea a reality was not simple. All the pieces were hand crafted in Montana, by Mountain Copper Creations, and then driven to Seattle where they boarded a ship and headed up the Alaska Marine Highway to Anchorage. Still far from the journey's end they were driven another 350 miles and flown piece by piece in our bush planes to their new home in the Thules."
Before all that, the Claphams went on a rare working vacation, flown into Ultima Thule from Anchorage by the lodge owners.
"We measured everything in the kitchen and made a six-foot hood, a whole bunch of countertops and all the drainboard sinks,” Clapham said.
Then came the fun. They were treated to a week stay in May, a warm and beautiful time to be in Alaska. They fished the frigid river just before spring runoff and danced with 16,000-foot mountain peaks in a Super Cub on a bright blue-sky day, with hundreds of Dall sheep on the ridges below.
It’s a good bet a younger Jim Clapham never envisioned how far his artistry would take him.