Being in the construction industry his whole life, Dion Battles made the unsurprising leap to decorative concrete, specifically the vertical carving and theming part of the industry, after the nationwide recession hit the residential building industry hard in 2007.
Although this was the lowest point in his life — he pretty much lost everything he had worked so hard for — it was also one of the greatest.
“I realized a lot about myself and what I wanted out of life. At that point I decided that I was going to start making myself happy every day while I was at work,” says Battles.
That’s when he decided to start his own company that would allow him to get back to his artistic side. In January 2010, Vertical Concrete Creations was born in Nampa, Idaho. “I knew inside that if I started having fun in what I designed and created in my business, then happiness and success would come,” says Battles.
Listening to his inner child
Battles says he draws most of his inspiration from his “inner child” and it’s not unusual for him to bring up this side of himself in initial client meetings, as well as ongoing design and construction meetings. “We stop listening to our inner child and allowing it to thrive and be present,” he says. “VCC is based on allowing our inner child to thrive and have fun in daily life.”
VCC specializes in designing and creating cool spaces that are just plain fun within larger residential and commercial projects. “Because everybody deserves a little Vegas or Disney in their lives!” He says this tag line works well for his company’s advertising approach because he feels everyone he meets loves the idea of a fantasy world where they can get lost and be taken back to childhood.
Another tag line he’s fond of is “No more looking down at concrete.” This is the phrase he uses for branding on the company’s jackets, coats and hoodies.
If you look at some of the carving work that Battles has done, you should notice each project is drastically different. “We don’t always use the same colors, styles and techniques when creating our projects. That way we always grow, learn or develop new techniques,” says Battles.
He notes a lot of carving artists find their style and stick to it, but he doesn’t feel he can do that with the projects he designs and builds.
While Battles has paid for training and soaked up as much information as he could, he’s also attended industry trade shows and expos to help keep him up to date. And when he needs advice, he’s not afraid to cold call people such as manufacturers, suppliers and artists to ask for it.
He attributes his success to surrounding himself with some of the best artists, company owners and trade leaders in the industry. A few noteworthy artists are Thom Hunt, Nathan Giffin and Mike Vernelson, along with his business partner, Jeff Kirt.
“I consider all these guys my mentors. They have each taught me some valuable lessons in their own rights and each one has their place in this industry,” says Battles.
Perfecting the mix
Battles’ favorite mix to use is KirtBag Carving Mix partly because he co-owns the company of the same name with Kirt and partially because he feels the mix is hands down the best on the market.
“As I went through the process of meeting, training and working with what I consider some of the best in the industry, I learned about the process and materials used and some of the (so-called) best mixes were not what they said they were,” says Battles. After using these mixes, he and Kirt realized there wasn’t a carving mix on the market that they wanted to use in their own daily carving businesses. So they set out to fine-tune KirtBag Carving Mix to be a consistently reliable high-performance, cost-effective mix. Now when it comes to carving, he adds, it’s the only mix he uses.
As for color, says Battles, “We color all our hand-carved concrete or vertical carving with professional quality exterior flat latex paint.” For precast, “We create our forms by hand and use a high-strength concrete mix to cast the forms.”
For countertops, he adds, he either uses GFRC (glass fiber reinforced concrete) or wet casts them.
Projects worth noting
Some of Battles’ notable projects include the Halloween-themed display that netted him first place in the 2016 Concrete Decor Show in San Diego and the Idaho backcountry-themed exhibit he designed and built inside the Corwin Ford dealership in Nampa, Idaho. The latter, he says, exquisitely replicated Mother Nature’s handiwork. “The people that live there said that we recreated what they experience every time they step foot into that area of the state.”
On a more personal level, Battles notes a special project that involved creating a gravestone/family monument for a lady named Judy Dolby. “When she called me, her husband had passed away almost a year ago and they still had not purchased a gravestone,” says Battles.
Dolby, whose vision was very specific and detailed, had three parameters for the project she proposed: the monument had to be designed around the old cast-iron cross the family had gotten overseas many years ago, it had to have space for multiple family members and it had to look 100 years old.
“I worked closely with her and one of her daughters and we kept adding little features that were very important to the family like the plaque on the back of the monument that reads ‘Sempre Famiglia,’” which translates to “Always Family,” says Battles.
The concrete plaque was cast from a wooden plaque her husband had carved years ago. Battles used a combination of acid stains and water-based latex paints to make the concrete piece look weathered and old.
“I think the hardest part of this project was making sure I delivered a piece that was better than the expectations of my clients,” says Battles.
Helping others is important
One of the biggest challenges Battles faces is growing his abilities by trying new things, new techniques and not always creating the same look. He thinks being a manufacturer as well as a home remodeler gives him an edge.
“Being co-owner of KirtBag Carving Mix, I see the industry not only as an artist but as a manufacturer and that definitely changes how you navigate and grow in the industry,” says Battles.
Battles’ advice to newcomers is to reach out to others, ask questions and be fearless in their carving. He also urges them to contact him as he loves talking to newcomers, and spends a lot of time on the phone helping them understand every aspect of what they are getting into.
“I want them to succeed and enjoy this business because I believe they are the future of this industry,” says Battles.