Woodwork Art Addresses Form and Function

Amapola Gallery’s Woodwork Art by Neal Drago and Mark McCallaster

“Woodworking requires a completely different kind of thinking and problem-solving ability than writing. With writing, you take a set of facts and ideas, and you reason your way forward to a story that pulls them together. With woodworking, you start with an end product in mind, and reason your way backward to the raw wood.” -Joshua Foer

We have a pair of woodwork art makers at Amapola Gallery: Neal Drago and Mark McAllaster. Neal creates boxes in lyrical, organic shapes. Mark turns graceful bowls in a variety of sizes and shapes. They have some things in common: they’re both men (“Yay! I say.) and they both work in wood. Otherwise…

 This is a tall ring woodwork art box from Neal Drago at Amapola Gallery.

Neal Drago refers to his lovely boxes as “micro-wood working” because he began his wood career by building his own home. He and wife .Martie Anspach (who shows her copperplate etchings at Amapola) began their East Mountain home in 1977. It was habitable, he says, by 1981, but remains a project still on-going.

Their carpenter neighbor provided help and what amounted to a wood-working tutorial. For the big stuff! The boxes began about 15 years ago when Neal retired after 45 years as an auto mechanic. (You swear you never knew an honest mechanic? Come meet Neal!)

This is a square woodwork art box from Neal Drago at Amapola Gallery.

Neal begins with a raw block of wood. He studies the grain structure to see how he can use it to best effect. The shapes evolve. “I can’t draw worth a darn!” He utilizes a series of French Curves in various combinations to please his own eye. A French curve is a template, usually five plastic curve plates in one set. He also utilizes boat curves, which are on a larger scale. A paisley, points out Martie, is a French curve. Neal sketches out an approximate desired shape on the wood block itself. A smooth transition between one curve and the next is critical, and “sanding is the essence of the box.” Neal’s boxes may occasionally seem similar, but no two are ever alike.

Mark McAllaster trained in mechanical design and spent over 40 years at Sandia National Labs, putting  his design expertise to work. He always enjoyed working with his hands, and after retirement he turned a 35-year wood-turning hobby into a passion.


Mark does not construct his boxes, he turns them on a lathe, sort of organized deconstruction of a chunk of wood. Any finished wood bowl that’s round, he says, was spun on a lathe. The wood is held in place and spun, while various tools are used to refine the shape as it’s spinning.

Mark uses New Mexico mountain mahogany, big chunks of mesquite, and Arizona ironwood. Bolivian rosewood, like ironwood, is extremely hard, but because of that, both polish up with great beauty. Some wood cannot be bought in a log or large block, so Mark glues (laminates) the smaller pieces together, matching woods of similar hardness to facilitate not just the turning but the finishing.

This woodwork art is from Mark McAllaster at Amapola Gallery.

Mark says deciding on and cutting each shape is the most fun — the initial generation of form. Sanding is least favorite but most critical. (Sounds like Neal, there.)

Come to think of it, Mark and Neal also share their love of the wood itself. Not such a contrast after all.

Come compare woodwork art for yourself – box or bowl?

After a lifetime batting words around like shuttlecocks in an endless game of badminton, it is a pleasure to use them to promote Old Town and my fellow artists at Amapola Gallery. –Kristin Parrott, carver, painter and acorn stuffer

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