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Omaha Magazine

The Accidental Artist: Wood Artisan Kevin McClay Crafts Works of Wonder

Dec 27, 2020 02:29PM ● By Kim Reiner
Wood artisan Kevin McClay in workshop

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Like the exquisite patterns he creates in his work—a weaving of slabs of burnt and stained wood—Kevin McClay is an artist with a tinge of darkness in an otherwise light personality. He possesses a dark sense of humor, a self-deprecating nature, and a modesty that belies the quiet brilliance of a self-taught woodworker whose creations make one pause and study with awe.

As the founder of Fortress Hill Co., McClay crafts commissioned statement pieces for the home and office made from sustainably sourced wood—everything from geometric wood art and wall installations to dining and reception tables to desk trays, art lamps, and other decor. They’re mostly modern or midcentury in style and often crafted with mixed media; sometimes incorporating glass tiles, brass and copper accents, and traditional art elements, but also reclaimed materials from barns, photocopiers, and other found objects. The end result is always something truly original.

The Colorado native’s path to woodworking was not the typical artist’s story. He wasn’t born into an artistic family. His dad owned a gas station. And rather than growing up appreciating classic art, he preferred music. McClay did not attend art school either. In fact, up until about 2010, he worked as a media analyst for a news service. He was a “corporate job kind of guy.” It took losing his job to propel him into woodworking. “Any kind of art background I have is totally accidental,” he said.

McClay said that it was his wife, Ellene, who discovered his talent with tools; though he joked it was more that he “was handy” fixing things around the house. His efforts grew from crafting small decorative boxes to sell on Etsy to building furniture pieces commissioned by high-end residential customers and commercial businesses around town. But you won’t hear him brag about any of that. The tables he built for Hardy Coffee in Benson? “I’m not a [traditionally] trained carpenter. I just know what’s not going to fall apart,” he said, humbly. 

And the reception desk in Woodmen Tower he built? He used 900 1 x 8-inch pieces of burned wood to create the piece, giving a “really cool effect.” He’s quietly proud of the work, but not boastful.

McClay usually skips sketching his ideas on paper and instead lets what’s in his head take physical form as he works. “The hard part is getting it started and then it builds momentum and I let the piece go,” he said. He credits his wife, an elementary art teacher with Omaha Public Schools, for some of his design inspirations. His work evolves as he tweaks techniques on subsequent projects. 

McClay has his Fortress studio at Bench, a coworking space for artisans in north downtown Omaha, and has participated in art festivals in the region in years past. In 2020, he was a featured artist at the Artists’ Cooperative Gallery in Omaha, and he took part in the Handmade Omaha Cyber Show in April. 

McClay said he enjoys the collaborative environment at Bench. He makes art frame backings for another Bench artist, Bill Hoover. The friendship between McClay and Hoover goes back nearly three decades. “We met when we were both in the music scene, and I was always a fan of his music and just his persona...which was funny, irreverent, and kind,” wrote Hoover in an email. “He has a nice balance of dark and light in his work...Some of his work is whimsical, and other pieces are hard and uncompromising.”

Ever the “super morning person,” McClay starts his day between 4:30 and 5 a.m. when the world is quiet. He works a full day in his studio, sometimes plugging away on a project for 12 hours. “He is always here,” Hoover said of his friend. “I like to think I have a strong work ethic, but his is amazing and an inspiration to me.”


See more of McClay’s work at facebook.com/FORTRESShillco/.   

This article first appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Home Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.