This is a story about an artist and woodworker, Joshua Longbrake, who makes beautiful live-edge furniture out of his garage in Forest Park.
But it starts with a poem by William Stafford. The poem’s called “With Kit, Age 7, at the Beach,” and it begins with the narrator standing with his daughter watching the storm-ridden ocean, waves and motion and chaos.
The last stanza is this:
“How far could you swim, Daddy,
in such a storm?”
“As far as was needed,” I said,
and as I talked, I swam.
Longbrake included that poem in his most recent newsletter, after describing a dream and depression, and how sometimes signs, like billboards, give us what we need in the moment. For him that particular morning, it was driving and listening to one of his favorite poets, Robert Bly, reading the Stafford poem about the ocean.
After hearing the poem, he said, he thought of his two young boys, “sweet and wild,” and his wife.
“I remembered the why,” he wrote in his newsletter.
It might seem incongruous: a rugged, bearded craftsman sending newsletters that include poetry. Add in his website at longbrakesupply.co, where the FAQ has some laugh-out-loud writing, and the complexity and depth of Longbrake becomes clearer.
First, he sells custom wood, metal and leather products that he makes in his garage in Forest Park, where he’s lived for four years. He has a wife, Kirby, and two young sons. He creates pieces for people, furniture and art for both indoor and outdoor use.
On his website, examples of his work are displayed. For interiors, he creates dining room tables from slabs of wood. End tables. Desks.
For outside, his artistry ranges from dining tables to play equipment. Recently, he made “a really big table for a family; they wanted an outdoor table to gather. And that just tickled me to get to be part of that process. To make something beautiful that facilitated relationships. I hold that stuff in really high regard,” Longbrake said.
He can put up trim. He can do basic carpentry. But his love is to create pieces “that can be manipulated.”
“I like building tree houses or big modern play sets. I love that stuff. I want to build things that can be interacted with.” That applies, he said, to both indoor and outdoor equipment, such as rustic kitchens and firepits.
He made a playset for his own two kids, and they paint it and hammer on it and explore.
“The beauty gets added as they play,” Longbrake said.
He feels the same about indoor pieces he makes too, that it’s the interaction between the furniture and the people using it that makes it special and meaningful.
“I like signs of life in furniture and I say, especially on big slab tables, you can sand them down for the rest of your life and remove marks, but I tend to leave all marks our kids make because all the little marks tell a small story. I love a good worn table.”
Longbrake’s path to woodworking wasn’t straight. The path he was on, actually, led to him first becoming pastor of a church he started, a plan he walked away from when he realized that what he was meant to do was create.
Growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in a religious family, he attended a Christian school, where his father was the principal and his mother a teacher.
“I was on this trajectory my whole life,” Longbrake said, so the natural progression was for him to attend seminary school.
“I went to a very conservative and fairly dogmatic Christian seminary school,” he said. But soon, he wanted something different, so he switched to what he calls “a really progressive seminary.”
“I still wanted to stay within the faith tradition, but I wanted something different,” Longbrake said.
After school, he worked in churches, but he was miserable. “And I couldn’t understand why,” he said.
By the time he realized that creating art, though he wasn’t exactly sure what kind yet, was what he needed to do, he’d already started a church, and he was going to be the pastor.
“It was a hard decision to walk away from that,” he said. “But one that thankfully my spouse was very affirming of and I decided to make a career shift into art making. I didn’t know what that meant.”
The seeds had been planted, already, though. About five years ago, in Arizona where he lived with his wife for about a year and a half, he’d started doing some woodworking at home.
“I just looked up how to build a bench, and I built a very okay bench,” Longbrake said. He used scrap mesquite firewood he found lying around.
“I bought a bandsaw on Craigslist, a very bad but wonderful bandsaw,” he said. And he began to experiment.
“I think that benefited me,” he said. “Just trying to respect the tool and respect the materials and do my best to listen to them. To say, ‘I’m the newcomer here. So how does this all work?’ So it started with a small bench and then a bigger bench.”
He also built garden planters and, he said, for the first time ever sought help for mental health issues.
“My anxiety and fear lessened substantially. I allowed myself to play and gave myself room to try things without needing an outcome. My perfectionism died down just enough that I gave myself room to learn.”
Back in Chicago, he got a job at a bronze foundry, and he loved the shop environment and creating every day. He stayed there for about a year and a half until the pandemic hit. And then he jumped to a new job, but he continued making his own pieces on the side, creating sculptures and furniture.
He got to a point, he said, where he realized he could start his own business.
“I had a lot of affirmation from my family and the community around me saying, ‘Yeah, this is really what you should do.’ And so I’m making the jump to full time on my own.”
Longbrake says he never takes for granted the gift of pursuing art as a career nor does he forget the meaning behind the wood itself.
“There’s something poetic about trees and the materials they provide. It all feels like a gift. And so I feel like it’s my responsibility to somehow steward that gift as best as I’m able and be responsible with the material,” said Longbrake.
Learn more at longbrakesupply.co.