February 25, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

He walks into the comic shop, and he looks like he belongs. Internationally recognized Omaha artist Jeremy Caniglia is wearing a hoodie, jeans, and sneakers. He’s buried under an armload of books. The one thing all the titles have in common is original artwork by Caniglia.

“This is being optioned for a film…the director loved this concept,” he says of one book cover. “They wanted something bleak, simple. That’s one of my earlier works.”

His Wikipedia page is a Who’s Who of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror authors. Max Brooks (World War Z), Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Ray Bradbury (The Devil’s Wine), William Peter Blatty (40th editions of The Exorcist and Legion), and most recently, Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol, 170th anniversary edition) have all produced books that now proudly carry a Caniglia illustration. Anne Rice’s 38th anniversary edition of Interview with a Vampire will also be getting one of his custom covers.

“I guess people labeled me early on. Oh, he’s a horror artist,” Caniglia says. Well, he is nominated for a Hugo award this year. “I mean, my work’s about the human condition, so that’s everything. That’s love and death. I love the idea of redemption. Life throws everything it can at you. That perseverance that individuals have, I’ve just fallen in love with it.”

To convey the multiple facets of humanity, Caniglia exercises multiple facets of artistry. He works in oils, screen-printing, sculpture, and bronze, to name a few. The self-portrait he painted for this cover of Omaha Magazine, however, is something relatively new to his
body of work.

“I never do self-portraits!” he says with a laugh.

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His projects extend to film concept art (season one of Showtime’s Masters of Horror, 2005) to theater (Benson Theatre’s stage adaptation this March of Stephen King’s The Shining), and of course, over 100 book covers. “I try to be a renaissance man in a way.”

By the way, he owns a bakery, La Charlotte, with his wife, Jacqui, an accomplished pastry chef. And he gardens and cooks with their two children, Caravaggio, 16, and Vivian, 14. He writes poetry no one will ever read. And he codes. While still earning his master’s in fine art at Maryland Institute College, he built his first website in ’94, complete with rotating skulls. That’s how author Doug Clegg found him to ask Caniglia to paint his first cover.

“One thing leads to another to another,” Caniglia says. Inquiries came in on his site early on, largely from Europe. “I have this Old World sense that the United States wasn’t really into.”

“I love his dedication to the Old Masters,” says Brigitte McQueen, director of The Union for Contemporary Art. “The way he works is so unlike how any other artist in Omaha is working. The palette, the processes. I remember seeing it and knowing it was different than anything else I was ever going to see.”

Caniglia’s ability to capture light, McQueen says, is itself captivating. “There’s like a luminescence that comes off the canvas,” she says. “The pieces just seem to glow.” Caniglia tips his hat to Caravaggio as his biggest influence in painting light. If you’re   paying attention, yes, he named his son after the Italian artist. Caravaggio popularized the high-contrast light technique chiaroscuro; it’s mimicked in every artistic media today. “You see The Godfather, you see chiaroscuro,” Caniglia says.

The technique highly impacted religious art, which is what Caniglia saw as a child growing up in the Catholic Church. To this day, he says it’s important that even his darkest works have an element of reverence. The artist who produces exhibits like “I Before E Except After Death” is equally passionate about creating the Stations of the Cross for the Omaha parish of Saint Gerald. Perhaps being surrounded by such sacred art from a young age was what drew him to artists like Käthe Kollwitz who tackled the subject of human suffering.

“Best line work, best drawing,” Caniglia says of the painter who ran the Berlin Art Institute. “Actually, I think she’s the best artist of all time.” Kollwitz turned to printmaking in order to produce anti-Nazi art quickly and discreetly. “You could pull like 100 and put them all over Berlin. Her line work…it looks like Mike Mignola.” That’s Hellboy’s artist, to you. “Or Frank Frazetta.” Conan the Barbarian, King Kong, Tarzan, et cetera.

“Understanding form, motion, human condition all in one—wow. If she didn’t have these harsh conditions, I think she would have been the greatest artist.”

That investment in humanity, that passion for the work, is what Caniglia hopes to instill in the young artists he teaches in Omaha. He’s a mentor with Kent Bellows Program and occasionally adjunct teaches painting and drawing at Creighton Prep, where he’s a board member.

“For people to write you off as a high-school student, thinking your art isn’t important…” He shakes his head. “They’re wrong. If you care about something, and you want to develop it, develop it! If I can influence that—if you have passion, and you care, you can do it. Don’t let anybody get in the way of that. And if they do, go around it.”

“A lot of our teenage artists have some self-confidence issues,” says Weston Thomson, community outreach manager at the Joslyn Art Museum Kent Bellows Mentoring Program. “They devalue their work a lot. I remember Jeremy had a student, and he was describing that their work as an artist will be the most important work for their life. And he meant it.”

“I get so excited when I talk art,” Caniglia says. It’s true that enthusiasm is never far removed from a Caniglia conversation. “It is life. I’m excited that I’m doing my work because that’s all I want to do, is my work. I have to do stuff,” he says. “I have to get in the way.”