January 16, 2015 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A greater depth. That’s what Omaha-based artist John Lajba focuses on when creating his varied body of work. No matter how compellingly lifelike or profoundly abstract, it’s the human condition—with all its emotions and complexities—that he strives to explore.

“Emotion is the most important to me, whether it’s figurative or not,” emphasizes Lajba. “I look at my work as a journey more than anything.”

This journey and sense of heightened emotion are evident in one of his most famous and readily recognizable sculptures, the TD Ameritrade Park Omaha “Road to Omaha,” which portrays the joy a winning team experiences after the last out of a College World Series. “You come to Omaha as a player, and it’s about what it takes to get here, what it takes to get to that level,” the sculptor says. “You think of the conversations in the buses—‘Hey, we’re almost to Omaha!’ I wanted to celebrate this.”

Other works are similarly moving. He’s created sculptures for over a dozen Omaha parishes, including St. Cecilia’s, as well as several works for the St. Benedict Center in Schuyler, NE. One includes a font that requires visitors to reach into rocklike crevices to touch the holy water, thus interacting directly with the piece. Another depicts the Virgin Mary standing upon the universe fittingly emerging from a cluster of Nebraska cornhusks. Her face is serene, and her gaze focuses directly on the viewer—contrary to the usual depiction of her with piously downcast eyes.

Despite such seemingly perfect sculptures, Lajba concentrates on life’s imperfections. “I work on body posture and focus on very small subtleties, like the curve of scoliosis,” he says. “People have gone through life, which is very beautiful, but also very challenging both physically and emotionally. I like to get at what that person is about and show that we’re not perfect human beings.”

Even his abstract luminous black square honoring the philanthropist Phil Schrager demonstrates his ongoing exploration of the human experience. Situated in Temple Israel’s courtyard, the sculpture emphasizes the essence of the late art collector. “I didn’t want to make a bust,” he says. “I wanted to show how collecting art gave him energy and how his life touched a lot of people.”

While the majority of Lajba’s sculptures are unique—he typically doesn’t recast—he’s created one of the same works for 18 years: the winning trophy for the Daytona 500 held in February, which is painstakingly made over several months. “It’s always exciting for me,” he notes. “The drivers are tense and full of adrenaline, and when they win the trophy, it means so much to them.”

Despite this reproduction, Lajba focuses on a common theme throughout all his works—life’s journey. “I don’t set out with an outcome,” says the sculptor. “I like to see how things evolve. I try not to have a point of view, and I don’t have the answers when I start. I like to discover.”

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