Man uses tools at a workbench
Artist Kevin McClay of Iowa works at his studio located in Bench, an art workshop located in downtown Omaha. Photo courtesy of Kevin McClay.

A shared love of handmade craftsmanship brings professionals and hobbyists to Bench, a place reserved for the imagination to flourish.

Ben Petersen of Exira, Iowa, opened Bench on North Eleventh Street in Omaha in 2012. It is home to 35 local artists as a public woodworking shop, co-working space, and artisan hub.

“I was working on my own shop at home and wanted an even bigger space and better space to work out of,” Petersen said. “There was nothing like the Bench at the time.”

Jewelers, woodworkers, painters and blacksmiths all rent out of the large warehouse, each having their own studios with a common area where they can all come together to socialize and talk about their projects. According to the website, the shop offers hobbyists and professional makers the community, equipment and space needed to build great pieces.

A community is what Petersen envisioned when creating Bench.

“Yeah, that’s always been what I want (a community),” Petersen said. “I wanted to work around other people.”

Petersen now has a private workshop in Exira, but commutes to Bench a couple times a week to oversee the facility.

Woodworker Kevin McClay has been producing wood mosaics at the Bench for the last seven years. McClay is drawn to the spot because of the community and the daily interactions he has in the same space with other creators.

“You have the bigger individual studios, but there’s that community there,” McClay said. “It’s like hey, what do you think about this? Or you know, this is heavy, can you carry it for me?” 

McClay’s wood mosaics take approximately 10 days to complete. They are made from pine, walnut and maple. McClay said he enjoys seeing his broad ideas shape into reality.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought McClay’s business to a standstill, but things are gradually returning to normal. He uses platforms like Instagram and Etsy to showcase his work, but his studio front door is always open to the public.

Bench is a hub for local artists to create art under one roof. But not everyone who rents space is a full-time artist.

Family physician Dr. Tom McElderry found his love for woodworking five years ago in a 4 by 5-foot space in his Omaha garage.

“I started running out of garden and outdoor projects for my mom and my house, so I decided to try making some pens,” McElderry said. “I fell in love with it.”

Needing more space to work, McElderry made the move to his own space at Bench in spring of 2018.

His hobby is now a part of his daily life. McElderry makes numerous pens and wine bottle stoppers out of wood, acrylic and metal each week.

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Dr. Tom McElderry of Omaha shows off an array of hand-made pens he has produced in his workshop at Bench. Photo by Ben Porter/NNS.

Painter Bill Hoover has been working in the creative field since 1995. Graduating from Creighton with a degree in creative writing, Hoover said he thought it was his calling until a friend suggested he hang his artwork at the Radial Cafe off North 40th. His artwork sold quickly, and Hoover was hooked on doing art for a living.

Hoover continues to produce artwork and has been working at Bench for two and a half years.

“The Bench is a community of artists, and that was just what I was looking for,” Hoover said. “A community.”

Hoover shows his artwork four times a year in private viewings that he holds at Bench. He has a spring, fall, Christmas and group showing. McElderry just started selling his pens earlier this month.

The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed some artists at Bench to spend more time in their shop and has given them extra time to work on new projects.

Hoover worked in the Omaha school system when COVID-19 brought normal living to a halt.

“During the entire pandemic, I had a lot more free time to spend in the studio,” Hoover said. “I had so many more ideas and so much more time.”

For McElderry, pen making distracts him from the ongoing stresses of COVID-19 and the long hours he puts in daily as a family physician.

“I can go to my shop and block out and erase all of the stress and just focus on my projects,” McElderry said. “It is very therapeutic.”

The artists prepare for events to show off their latest work. McElderry prepares for an event called “The Made” which is set in November.

“I want people to see my work and be moved by it,” Hoover said. “I get joy from making it (his artwork) and joy by sharing it.”

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Bench is located on North 11th Street in downtown Omaha. The bus that sits outside of it is a project that is waiting to be completed by one of the artists. Photo by Ben Porter/NNS.