Tag Archives: artist

Revamped Radio

March 18, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When the band Train came to Omaha’s Baxter Arena for a concert in December 2016, there were plenty of flashing lights and excited fans. “But when the lights go out and the audience starts screaming, there’s no rush like it in the world,” says Andy Ruback, general manager of NRG Media. Ruback knows a great deal about screaming fans—when a big concert comes to town the likelihood is that Ruback had his hand in the planning. His role as general manager has evolved over the years from managing radio stations to include managing events brought to town by NRG Media Live.

The business is a natural fit for NRG, which owns stations ranging from Power 106.9 to 1290 KOIL. The company was looking to the future for broadcasting and leaning toward live shows as a way to increase profitability. NRG used their strengths in connecting people to music to expand into the business of concert production. With the radio stations’ on-air talent knowing their listeners’ preferences, the media company naturally knew what acts had potential to bring in revenue, and which ones might not.

Ruback came to Omaha from Lincoln, where he served as general manager for their NRG stations. Upon his arrival at the NRG offices in Omaha in 2012, Ruback went full speed ahead. He says the intention was never to focus on live shows over radio shows; rather, he called his plans a method for “diversifying for growth.”

Concert production is a challenge that Ruback gladly accepted, but in it, found unique bumps in the road. Some of those bumps included special requirements, such as permits, that needed the legal team’s help. Shock rocker Alice Cooper, for example, required the team to acquire special insurance because of the pyrotechnics involved with his show. Ruback and his team figured out how to get the right insurance, and now know who to ask the next time someone wants to light up fireworks onstage.

Ruback says some of the more surprising challenges he and his team have faced come from smaller, more routine details.

“I would say it’s more about the crowd experience logistics,” Ruback says. “How do we try to work with the arenas to make sure there’s enough concessions on the floor? What should be the entry ticket price? What should be the price for the front row?”

Logistics is the simplest description for the business of producing concerts. Is the specific artist available at the time? Is there enough interest in this artist to fill the seats? Is a venue available on the day needed?

“We could have the great idea, and the right price, but there could be a UNO hockey game and a Lancers game on the night we want, and we’re out of luck,” Ruback says.

It is a revenue stream in which many community businesses desire to participate, and there are many ways for them to participate, including attaching their name to experiences such as meet-and-greets with the band before or after the show, and attaching their name to souvenirs. Attendees at the Train concert, for example, vied for flashing bracelets and cups branded with a sponsor’s logo. Signage prominently displayed throughout Baxter Arena featured sponsor logos.

The scenario is beneficial to everyone involved: the band gets to play to a well-attended venue, the fans get to enjoy the band, and the sponsors get to present their message in an effective way.

“On that day, no other media group is producing a concert,” Ruback says. “So you’re looking at content that advertisers want to be a part of, but no other client can do.”

The diversification proved wildly successful. Ruback says that since 2014, more than 100,000 people have attended an NRG Media Live event. Associate athletic director for University of Nebraska at Omaha Mike Kemp enjoys his business dealings with NRG Media Live and says that when Ruback puts on a concert at Baxter Arena “… it’s not just a concert—it’s an event. He has great vision and ideas and that’s the true charm of what he does.”

“I think NRG Media does a great job of engaging the community to get behind the events,” adds Kemp. NRG Media has the ability to promote coming shows using the radio stations on their roster and their strong social media presence. This equals solid attendance numbers at concerts and happy sponsors.

“Andy’s full of energy and great ideas,” Kemp says of Ruback. “He’s an honest guy with great enthusiasm for what he does.” Rubak’s vision has evolved NRG Media into much more than an organization simply running local radio stations. In fact, the next time there is a popular concert in town, there is an excellent chance that Ruback can be found there, smiling and enjoying the rush.

Visit nrgmedia.com for more information.

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.

Art Rage

February 23, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Editor’s note: Cassils is a gender non-conforming trans-masculine visual artist. Cassils uses plural gender-neutral pronouns (they, them, their) and asks that journalists do likewise when referring to them. This plurality reflects through language the position Cassils occupies as an artist. For more about gender non-conforming issues, go to: glad.org/reference/transgender 

Powerful art does not need to be explained, though for the uninitiated, sometimes it helps.

Canadian-born, Los Angeles-based multimedia artist Cassils thrives on the power of art. The artist (who prefers to be referred to in plural, gender-neutral pronouns) launched their latest exhibit, Cassils: The Phantom Revenant—now on display at the Bemis Center— Feb. 2 with a thrilling live performance called Becoming An Image.

Cassils’ performance involved the transgender, body-building artist attacking a 2,000-pound block of clay using only their body, in complete darkness, with the occasional flash of a camera that illuminated both artist and object, burning the images into viewers retinas.

It was a blend of performance, photography, and sculpture. “I use all parts of my body—my fists, my knees, my elbows,” Cassils says. “I beat this clay to the best of my ability, blind, until I’m basically compromising my ability to hit it properly.”

At the performance, the only sounds were those of Cassils’ labored breathing, as the artist kicked, punched, and even jumped on the earthy clay, accompanied by the click of the camera as the photographer blindly tried to capture the “full-blown attack.”

Becoming An Image was originally conceived of and executed for ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, the oldest existing LGBT organization in the United States, which also happens to house one of the largest repositories of LGBT materials in the world.

“I was asked to make a piece in relationship to the missing gender-queer and trans representation in that archive, because like many archives in museums, it’s filled with the work of, in this case, dead, gay white guys. So rather than making an artwork that spoke to the one or two subjectivities that perhaps matched this description in the archives, I decided to make a piece about the troubling mechanisms of what makes it into the historical canon and what doesn’t.”

Cassils’ Powers That Be installation—on display through April 29—presents a six-channel video that is a simulation of violence, a staged fight that could be taking place between two, three, four, or five people. But in this fight, Cassils plays the role of both victim and perpetrator. “If you have two people doing stage combat, it looks really realistic, but if you take one person out, and the other person’s doing it well, it really looks as if they’re fighting a ghost, or a force.”

Cassils says “Any work is about responding to the socio-political circumstances that we’re living in …  Art doesn’t change things like laws do, but it generates discussion.”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

Ren
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sance 
Man

February 22, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A boozy brunch between girlfriends, a meeting of coworkers over coffee, a couple splitting a glass   of wine—conversations captured around the city, all serve as fodder and inspiration for Brion Poloncic’s work. In the quiet corners of Omaha’s local coffee shops and wine bars, Poloncic puts pen to paper, his ear tuned into the surrounding babble, creating art that he feels represents those around him and the experiences they discuss.

But don’t expect a still life of women gossiping between sips of their Venti mochas. As a visual artist, author, and former musician, Poloncic is a man of many hats but always remains a creator of thought-provoking and idiosyncratic work that paints middle America in a psychedelic wash.

“I’ve always fancied myself an artist,” Poloncic says. “My art is an affirmation of my peculiar skill set, and it just so happens to make me happy. It’s my own blend of therapy.”

It was through chance that Poloncic was first bitten by the creative bug. After he didn’t make the baseball team, he traded mitts for guitars and started writing music. A fan of everyone from Pink Floyd to Johnny Cash, he parlayed his early love for listening to his parent’s records into seven albums, all released under the moniker “A Tomato A Day (helps keep the tornado away).” A prolific songwriter, his discography is filled with character and colorful song titles, including ditties like “You Little Shit” and “Weirdo Park.”

For Poloncic, music wasn’t enough. He needed to sink his teeth into his next artistic outlet. So when a friend needed help setting up an Iowa art studio, he asked Polonic to draw pieces that illustrated his career. With no formal training or experience, unless coloring backpacks with magic markers counts, he dove in.

Two years later, Poloncic sold his first piece at a gallery in Lincoln. He has also shown work in Omaha and Kansas City and has a collection represented at Gallery 72, all those diploma-yielding pros be damned.

“My art isn’t constrained by my knowledge or training, and I think this makes me naturally less critical of my work,” Poloncic says.

Filled with abstract shapes, haunting faces, and stark use of color, his off-kilter yet original drawings mirror the tone of his written work. Through The Journal of Experimental Fiction, he published his first book Xanthous Mermaid Mechanics in 2012, following this up in 2014 with his second printed work On the Shoulders of Madmen. Both explored concepts of the subconscious mind, and the novel he is currently working on will follow suit.

“I’ll be surprised if anyone can read it,” Poloncic says. “It’s got no characters, no story arc, and isn’t about anything in particular.”

And he admits this is his niche, comparing his art to improvisational jazz or free-style rap where “things just happen.” For whatever he’s working on, he says the hardest part is just getting started. Once that happens, everything else just falls into place, and if he can’t get over a block, he always has another craft to turn to.

“If I stumble off the creative wagon with drawing, I get back on with writing and vice versa,” Poloncic says. “As you work on one, the other comes right along with it.”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

Show Of Hands

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If you love trips to the museum and trips to the manicurist, Imagine Uhlenbrock is your one-stop shop for a day of art, style, and self-care all rolled into one stunning experience.

Uhlenbrock is the “nail genie” and artist behind Just Imagine Nails. Keratin is her canvas and her work is constantly showing on the hands of happy clients throughout Omaha.

“I started doing my own nails when I was about 4, because I was an only child and it was something I could do for myself,” Uhlenbrock says.

Her interest in nail art grew through middle school and high school, culminating in her first steady nail job at a downtown Omaha salon. It was meant to be her college job, but Uhlenbrock loved the craft so much she launched her own business doing natural, ethical nails at age 19.

For those skeptical that a manicurist can be a “real” artist, one look at Uhlenbrock’s vibrant Instagram portfolio provides ample evidence of her artistry and talent. Intricate, hand-painted designs, patterns, and messages mingle with hand-placed bling. Colors and textures pop, and unique, creative themes inspire the urge to scroll right on down the rabbit hole because no two sets are alike and your eyeballs will want to collect them all.

 

 “It’s just like commissioning any other piece of art,” Uhlenbrock says. “I always have ideas, so I have clients who just come in and let me do whatever I want every two weeks, or sometimes they come in with a theme or idea in mind. Most of the time it’s a collaborative process and we customize it based on the vision and what they’re feeling like that week.”

This process has resulted in galaxy nails, Vegas- and beach-themed vacation nails, desert sunset nails, snowflake and Christmas nails, Fourth of July “red, white, and bling” nails, Ouija board nails, Netflix and chill nails, ice cream and French fry nails, nails that are geometric, plaid, rainbow, floral, color-blocked, gradient, holographic or chrome, and nails that mimic abstract paintings, among others.

“I take inspiration from everywhere. The print of your dress, the pattern of that chair, the texture of this pillow, someone’s artwork,” Uhlenbrock says.

Then there are the pop culture nails. She’s done sets that honor artists including Eartha Kitt, Prince, Beyoncé, and Frida Kahlo, that appreciate cultural icons ranging from Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson to Grumpy Cat, that recognize the Broadway Hamilton phenomenon, that reference literature from Harry Potter to local author Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, and that celebrate TV shows from The Golden Girls to The Powerpuff Girls. Her popular annual Halloween special has taken inspiration from The Addams Family, Stranger Things, The X-Files, and Hocus Pocus sets, as well as one of her personal all-time favorites: Michael Jackson “Thriller” nails.

“You can see from my themes that I like weird,” Uhlenbrock says. “I’ll put anything on a nail as long as it’s not problematic.”

Uhlenbrock’s political work is also incredibly compelling. She’s done anti-pipeline nails, Black Lives Matter nails, and nails that read “Go Vote,” among others.

“One of the roles of an artist is to get people to think or to spread certain messages. Nail art is no different than any other art form in that way,” Uhlenbrock says. “That’s how art and social justice can intersect by creating visuals, sounds, or whatever the medium to raise awareness, to educate, or to relieve pain and pressure for the oppressed. So, a lot of what I do is people’s regular self-care.”

In December 2016, Uhlenbrock opened her Hand of Gold Beauty Room space in the Fair Deal Village Marketplace, near 24th and Lake streets. She currently shares the space with two subcontractors, Qween Samone and Ria Gold, who help support the service menu of natural nails, makeup, and braiding. Uhlenbrock enjoys working in the thriving area among neighboring small business owners and she’s committed to using her space to support her peers.

“We support small businesses here,” Uhlenbrock says. “Economic disenfranchisement has been a huge tool of oppression against people of color. So, it’s really important to me as I grow and have my own economic development to reach out and empower others through that as well.”

Uhlenbrock stocks body care products from Lincoln-based Miss Kitty and Her Cats, pieces from Omaha’s Amaral Jewelry, and gets all of her regular polishes from Ginger + Liz, a black woman-owned, vegan-friendly, toxin-free nail lacquer company. She also sells jewelry from her other business, The Bigger the Hoops.

Besides providing an important platform for a network of artists and makers, the petite Hand of Gold Beauty Room just feels like a place you want to be. A plush, amber-colored couch beckons from the pedicure platform that Uhlenbrock and her mother hand-built. The walls are decked with striking work by Lincoln artist Brittany Burton, featuring black-and-white depictions of “thick” women with sparse flashes of green and yellow. Soul music fills the air and large windows let ample natural light stream in.

“Everyone should probably go to a therapist, but not everyone does—some people get their nails done instead,” Uhlenbrock says. “They can come here, have a good conversation, and leave feeling like a million bucks with something good to look at for a couple weeks. It’s a lot easier to feel like you have your shit together when your nails are on point.”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

Kim Darling

December 27, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha-based artist Kim Darling (also known as Kim Reid Kuhn) is relishing a moment of “when one door closes, another opens.”

Darling, a prominent Benson First Friday contributor known for curating provocative exhibitions and performances at Sweatshop Gallery—and arguably one of the reasons why Benson’s aura is what it is today—is now applying her passion for community arts advocacy in new ways.

“Sweatshop Gallery was always a launching point for larger social ideas,” she says.

Since the gallery’s closing in October 2015, Darling has accepted four artist residencies at four different Omaha schools. She has collaborated on two projects, Swale and Wetland, with former Bemis Center artist Mary Mattingly. Those “socially engaged projects” were both featured in The New York Times, Art Forum, and ART 21.

Darling is many things to many people: community activist, curator, mother, teacher, advocate, tastemaker, and artist. It is within their nexus that she has found new momentum—namely, public and socially engaged projects that define and build community through art with artists.

Recent iterations include exhibitions and subsequent public programming at both The Union for Contemporary Art and the Michael Phipps Gallery at the Omaha Public Library. Darling presented her paintings and photographs in a gallery setting that later set the backdrop for public conversations around topics of police brutality, definitions of “public-ness,” and how race, gender, and socio-economic realities frame perceptions of place.

Yet despite a very public persona, her zeal for her own private painting practice is on fire.

Darling’s iconography is distinct. With a distilled color pallet of coal black, turquoise, dirty white, and cotton candy pink, her canvases are peppered with oddly familiar shapes and punk references.

Her aptly named “Rat’s Nest Studio” is nearly at capacity with in-progress paintings and sketches of future projects—each influencing the other. It is in her studio where the visible traces of a focused artist are on display. In the duality of social engagement and private studio making, inspiration is constant. For Darling, “these different perspectives feed me, helping keep my marks and ideas raw.”

There is no mistaking Darling’s passion. Navigating a newly trodden path of community building through arts advocacy can be complicated, but for Darling, “there is a simple power in art making and storytelling.” This is where her art and life meet—an intersection of public discourse and art with an emphasis on communal and social concerns.

With Darling’s ongoing efforts, this new chapter will continue to be a revolving door for opportunity, inspiration, and evolution.

Visit kimdarling.net for more information.

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Artist Erin Blayney

October 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For visual artist Erin Blayney, who grew up in the great outdoors, it’s all about light and space. She has plenty of both at her Old Market apartment that doubles as her studio.

Natural light from six large, south-facing windows cascades over her easel and houseplants. “Not only is that perfect for the type of lighting I need to do my best work, it’s healthy for my overall well-being,” says Blayney.

erinblayney2Exposed brickwork, high ceilings, and an open floor plan contribute to a sense of spaciousness. Extra-wide windowsills provide great perches for her collection of succulents.

“I love nature and the outdoors,” she says. “This apartment allows me to integrate that love into my living quarters, and not feel cramped or experience cabin fever.”

Her spot above Urban Abbey in the historic Windsor Hotel building puts her right in the thick of things. “The Old Market for me is very welcoming, unique, and nourishes a diverse group of people of all ages and backgrounds,” she says. “It’s urban yet has some aspect of a small neighborhood as well.”

A Florida transplant and Art Institute of Chicago graduate, Blayney creates figurative drawings and paintings. She previously worked as an art preparator for California museums.

Her mother preceded her to Omaha to be near a sister, and Erin followed. “My mom lives three blocks away from me, so it’s wonderful to conveniently meet for coffee or go for a bike ride together,” she says.

This self-described “people person” is drawn to the human form. She variously works from live models or photographs.

“Drawing and painting people, mostly gestural, seems to be pretty consistent for me,” she says. “It’s capturing the physicality of a person expressed through facial expression or movement. I love capturing the realness of their character, even if it’s subtle.”

Recently, Omaha restaurant mogul Willy Theisen commissioned her portrait of his granddaughter for his new Paragon eatery in Dundee.

When approaching a new work, she says, “I never know how it’s going to look, so it’s a little adventurous. If I stop thinking about what I’m doing and just let it flow, it comes out naturally. That ‘diving into it’ mindset is what I have to be in for the work to really evolve. It’s mysterious.”

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Blayney’s work is not all figurative. “Occasionally, I’ll do still life,” she says, gesturing to an in-progress oyster shell rendered in a swirl of pastels. She is contemplating an oceanic-themed series motivated by her love of the water, marine life, and nature.

“I was brought up on water. I swam in the Gulf of Mexico. So that’s in my bones.”

In Omaha, she has twice worked at Jun Kaneko’s studio (most recently in 2006 as a painting assistant). Of the celebrated artist, she says, “We had a good connection. He’s very quiet, polite, observant, receptive. He was very trusting of me. Like when I did some mixing of colors, pigments—he trusted my instincts. I’m not a ceramicist, but I felt in my natural element.”

She feels at home in Omaha, where she says, “The connections I’ve made are so important.” The same for her day job at Alley Poyner Macchietto, where she curates art shows. She admires the local art-culture scene.

“I feel the creative community in Omaha is very supportive rather than super competitive. The friends I’ve made here are very authentic, genuine, and loyal.”

She enjoys what the Bemis and Joslyn offer as well as how “smaller, contemporary, progressive galleries like Project Project and Darger HQ are pushing the envelope. I’m a huge fan of Garden of the Zodiac. 1516 Gallery is just gorgeous.”

In the spring of 2016, Petshop Gallery in Benson exhibited her portraiture work. She regularly shows in the Bemis Benefit Art Auction and had a piece in the October 28 show (she described the colorful abstract portrait as “a little mysterious looking”).

Blayney also contributed to the Old Market Art Project; hers was one of 37 banners selected (from nearly 300 submissions) to be displayed outside the Mercer Building as renovations followed the M’s Pub fire.

“It’s an abstract painting that took forever,” she says. “There’s a lot going on in it. Finally, it just came together. I collaborated with another artist in the process of painting it, and then I finished it.”

She sees many opportunities for local artists in Omaha, but there is room for improvement, too. “There’s definitely room to grow—I’d like to see even more galleries because there’s so much talent here,” she says.

Going into the fall, several commission projects were “consuming” Blayney’s time. Her projects come from anywhere and everywhere. “Lately, it’s been more people coming to me and asking either for a portrait of themselves or of a family member. I can be surprised. I’ve given my card to someone and then a year later gotten a commission. It’s unpredictable.”

Visit erinblayney.com for more information.

Encounter

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Peter Cales

March 3, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Peter Cales sits on a comfortable couch and rests a glass of orange juice on a coffee table. Nearby sit shelves and shelves of record albums, and atop and beside the albums sit record carriers made by Cales.

He created the table as a summer project while attending college.  The rustic, yet sophisticated, piece foretold his career.

“I alternated between fine arts and English in college [at Creighton], but I didn’t see a clear path between that and making a living,” Cales says of discovering how to meld fine arts and woodworking.

“My father always had a woodshop,” Cales recalls fondly. “I just decided to make furniture. I wanted to do something artistic that had a practical application.”

Cales worked part-time for noted Creighton Associate Professor of Sculpture Littleton Alston, who helped him obtain studio space and taught Cales about the process of building things. He became fascinated by the beauty of woodworking. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he belonged in the woodshop.

In 2009, he became a full time wood artist in launching his studio, Measure Cut Cut. Cales’ process of woodworking turns nature into refined beauty. He finds working out, and on, details meditative. He finds inspiration in music, especially pop and rock ’n roll from the 1960s and 1970s.

Cales says. “I think it’s inspiring hearing something that someone put together perfectly. “I do a lot of furniture design, but I don’t identify as a designer because I think that could be offensive to people who went to school and studied it,” Cales says. “But I also have a hard time identifying as an artist.”

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Along with hand-crafted wood pieces, Cales also sells a line of ceramic hot air balloons.

“I just love how it was the first form of flight, and so much scientific development went on through ballooning,” Cales explains. “My parents took us [Cales and his sister] to a hot air balloon international festival around 1990. It definitely left a mark on my brain.”

Customers won’t see a similar mass production of furniture.

“Furniture is furniture to me,” Cales continues. “It’s the process of making something for someone else. That’s why I’ve never done lines of furniture. There’s nothing personal about that for me.”

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Personalizing pieces is vital to Cales’ craft. When he meets with clients he asks them about their lifestyle and what is important to them. He asks to hear stories, particularly those involving events or locations. From that meeting Cales selects materials from significant locations, particularly reclaimed materials when available.

“I like working with people and creating something that will be in their house for a long time,” Cales says. “It’s a reflection of my brief relationship with them.”

Designs are never repeated. Much thought is put into what will happen to a piece of furniture long-term. Cales wants his work to be retained, to perhaps be passed down to future generations, and he seeks clients who share his aesthetic and personal values.

Keeping these principles creates lasting relationships with the clients.

“Most of the commissions I like I have made for people I ended up being friends with. They were relationship starters.”

Leaving a lasting impression—creating a lasting relationship—that’s the essence of Cales.

Visit measurecutcut.com to learn more.

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Interview with an Alter Ego

April 29, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Isacc French says he was an artist even before Ogo Denim hit him with his car.

“You have to think to yourself: What is art? And then, what is doing art?” French, 31, argues while brushing the tip of my nose with his big toe. “If I go shopping, is that art? It is.”

We had just finished rollerblading in sub-20 degree weather as one of the conditions of his interview, and Isacc—spelled with two c’s to make up for the k, he says — was lying across the arms of two hulking men dressed as Vikings, allowing his feet to breathe.

At least that’s how French’s imagination made it seem.

“If I decide to wake up in the morning and fix my hair, why am I not an artist?” French continues in a shrill, glass-shattering tenor C-sharp. “You have hairstylists and they say that they’re artists and sometimes they’re not, because I went and got my haircut and my bangs are kind of, as you see, messed up.”

Disheveled as it is now, French admits that had his once perfectly groomed pageboy wig not collided with the front grill of Denim’s ’57 Cadillac in Shenandoah, Iowa, over two decades ago, his career would’ve gone in a different trajectory. The New York galleries he crashed, the ribbon dancing that he profited from, and a viral dance video that found its way on the now defunct Attack of the Show might have all been a dream, French says, had he caught the down-and-out art dealer’s eye a moment sooner.

“You know, fate,” he says. “It’s kind of a fate thing.”

Denim, now well into his 70s, according to French, was excommunicated from the art world in 1992 after a scandal involving counterfeit paintings. French explains that this tall, debonair native of Germany was fleeing New York for Las Vegas when he happened upon French’s genius and the abstract paintings that had dripped onto old newspapers underneath French’s drying still lifes of food.

“Mr. Denim saw the paintings on the floor and said, ‘Oh, that’s good! Sorry I hit you, kid!’” French says in his best German accent. “He saw something in me, so he just pretty much picked me up and took me away from my parents.”

After a long run together that peaked with a showing at the Aboriginal Colony Gallery in Australia in 1998, which French describes as mostly sticks and face paintings and a tribe of people who were “trying too hard,” the two split for good. Denim, who French hasn’t spoken to in years, can probably still be found, he says, throwing lavish ice cream and champagne parties somewhere in New England.

As for French, he can now be found in Omaha—at our First Fridays, Fashion Weeks, and galleries—as a living, breathing critique on art and reality, existing alongside our terribly executed fake laughs and our routine social disguises, formal and casual.

And while he doesn’t deny the fact that he is the alter ego of an Omaha artist who refused to give his real name for publication, French assures me that he isn’t a sham. He’s just more elaborately decorated than the rest of us.

“Realistically, I don’t know that I am real, but I put on my clothes and I put on my shoes and I put on everything that anyone else puts on, so I suppose I’m real,” he says. “But at the same time, people decide what’s real or not—I decide what’s real or not.”

French looks away for a moment to catch a glimpse of his reflection in an ornate freestanding mirror.

“I hope I’m real,” he sighs and brushes his hair to the side. “Do you see me?”

Isaac-FrechWeb

Art Meets Information

February 24, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in March/April 2015 Encounter magazine.

At the W. Dale Clark main Omaha Public Library branch, people can check out books, use the Internet, take classes, and research government documents, along with a host of other collection-based activities. And in the Michael Phipps Gallery, they can also view artwork by a wide-range of Omaha artists whose work is by turns beautiful, challenging, provocative, and always engaging.

While the gallery has long offered exhibitions, they haven’t had the same high profile as the library’s other offerings—until, that is, Alex Priest, a 27-year-old independent curator, volunteered his services.

Despite having curated exhibitions featuring works by such famed artists as Josef Albers, Grant Wood, and Robert Rauschenberg, Priest is committed to making the general public feel comfortable viewing them, whether those pieces are traditional landscapes or avant-garde installations. “As a curator, I’m not asking people to spend two hours looking at art work, just two seconds more than usual so they can look a little closer,” he emphasized.

Inspired by the way his public library’s offerings influenced and inspired him while growing up in Iowa, Priest wanted to give back by volunteering his services to the Michael Phipps Gallery. One of his primary goals was to make the space an integral part of the library, not a separate area unto itself. “To me the library is about accessing information in a broad context,” Priest explained. “It’s so important for aggregating information. What I really wanted to do is make the gallery another place to do that.”

To that end, the library added comfortable seating, reading tables, and warm lighting to encourage people to spend time in the space, irrespective if they’re reading a good book, having quiet conversations, or simply viewing the artworks. “This provides a link between the gallery and the library,” Priest said.

The exhibitions, of course, have played a key role in that link. Last July’s Social Studies by artist Laura Carlson served as both an exhibition as well as a platform for collaborative dialogue workshops with the public. It was the kind of exhibition that couldn’t have taken place in a traditional gallery setting, but one that meshed perfectly with the library and its public programming.

Patrons have responded enthusiastically. “Alex has changed the whole feel, and people are noticing,” said Linda Trout, the library’s community outreach and partnership manager. “It’s so exciting. It’s a better atmosphere for reading, talking and visiting. People love the ability to go, sit, and enjoy the space.”

For Priest, this means his curating has been a success. “This is a huge gallery in a major public space,” he noted. “This is a way to access the assets of the library and a way to facilitate dialogues through art.”

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Artist Watie White

February 10, 2015 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Dilapidated houses. Watie White has learned a lot about working with them, but not in the conventional sense. Last year, the artist partnered with Habitat for Humanity to take three homes slated for demolition on Emmet Street in North Omaha and turned them into monumental installations that focused on the history of a poor neighborhood, one often overlooked or completely ignored by the general public.

The project, called All That Ever Was Always Is, involved making 81 paintings, which were turned into vinyl prints and then installed in all the windows of each home. Before making the paintings, White explored the houses’ histories by interviewing previous inhabitants and neighbors. He also used artifacts like letters and photographs left behind to create a narrative history.

“They turned out to be really strong, profound pieces,” says White. “For the people who live in that neighborhood, they’re not just houses—they’re part of a community.”

White additionally hosted community dinners and public talks. “It was important because neighbors thought about the personal value of that kind of situation. It was a chance to bring people together and a lot of beautiful, little things happened, things that were good about their neighborhoods,” he explains. “It was a cathartic experience.”

Although the homes were demolished in December, the artist is already working on his next public art projects. For New Nebraskans, which is in partnership with Justice for Our Neighbors and representatives from the Intercultural Senior Center, public schools, the v, and the Anti-Defamation League, he will create four large-scale murals (a fifth is currently installed at the Justice for our Neighbors’ headquarters). They will feature immigrants and refugees living in Benson, North Omaha, South Omaha, and Little Italy.

For You Are Here, White will partner with inCOMMON Community Development to paint a large-scale banner mural for a public housing building located at Park Avenue adjoining Hanscom Park. Like his Emmet Street work, White will feature community members and is interviewing people so he can portray the neighborhood as accurately as possible. “I want people to be touched or at least feel something about the projects,” says the artist.

Recently White also received high-profile national attention himself. He (along with Angela Drakeford) was chosen to represent Nebraska in State of the Art, an exhibition running through January 19th at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, AR. The selection process began with a list of 10,000 U.S. artists, which was then cut to 1,000. Following nationwide studio visits, he was selected as one of 102 artists to be featured. The inclusion was significant: not every state was represented and such dignitaries as Bill Clinton, Martha Stewart, and Deepak Chopra have visited the prestigious museum founded by Alice Walton, an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune.

“It’s hard to know what will come of it,” White says, “but it’s hard to overstate how much it feels like it legitimizes what you do.”

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