October 23, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A crack appears in the top of the table Todd McCollister is showing me; actually, a couple of thin, ragged splits show through, exposing tiny strips of light. Laid into each is a cross—a kind of smooth wood stitch that echoes a sequence of crosses along the table’s center seam.

“They were inspired by a series of handmade, sculpted stuffed animals an artist I knew was making,” McCollister says. “They were mended together, and that idea of mending was kind of what I felt like I was doing, that allusion to handwork.”

McCollister is no stranger to handwork—or, on a broader scale, to stitching things together. The Omaha native returned home last year.

He attended art school in Texas and then a earned a graduate degree in sculpture on Long Island in New York, where he stayed for six more years, making and exhibiting sculptures. He gradually turned from sculptures to tables for trade shows and cabinetry for galleries. These days, about half of McCollister’s work is commissioned, the other half he builds on spec.

Really, the transition to making furniture was artful.

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“I believe that I use my sculpture training for a lot of the formal decisions I make—figuring out proportions, knowing how big something should be, what colors should go together,” McCollister says. “I also try, when I can, to bring some conceptual content into furniture pieces. I’m not afraid to tweak things in a direction that seems wrong.”

He shows me his 5-Degree Coffee Table, all the angles of which are five degrees off from perfect perpendicularity.

We are at Long Grain Furniture, a workshop McCollister set up himself in an emptied-out building in Omaha’s Quartermaster Depot Historic District. The army-space-turned-auto-shop-turned-workshop-space has been open about three months; McCollister spent six months before its opening building storage, buying machines, installing compression air lines, and otherwise readying the shop for business based on the last one where he worked in New York.

He hopes more woodworkers will join him. He wants to rent space in Long Grain for six months or longer to as many as six woodworkers who can use the space and the machines in it.

The kinds of woodwork created in the community McCollister wants to build need not be identical to his. Creativity is less segregated in Omaha than in a larger city like New York, McCollister says.

“In New York, an art gallery doesn’t need to show furniture or functional ceramics or glass,” he says. “One has to define oneself pretty narrowly. Here…it’s much more accessible—the art world and a community of architects and designers.”

One woodworker is using space at Long Grain to make laminate countertops and cabinets.

“We both have learned a lot from each other,” McCollister says, “sharing ideas, sharing experiences, sharing lunch.”

It’s a kind of stitching together that really does feel like what McCollister is doing.

“Here, the boundary between functional things and artworks is much more nebulous,” McCollister says. “I always thought of them as different before I came back to Omaha.”

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