Tag Archives: author

Ren
ais
sance 
Man

April 13, 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.

From the Heart

March 17, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Upon moving to Omaha in 2010, little suggested Tunette Powell would take the city by storm. She was weighted down by a heavy past and an uncertain future in a new city. But then this dynamo found her calling, and with it the vehicle to use her life to impact others as a motivational speaker, author, blogger, educator, and national commentator.

All before age 29.

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None of it happened yet when she and her husband, Jason, came here from her native Texas for his U.S. Air Force service. She was a first-time mom expecting again. Separated from family and friends and having left her job at the San Antonio Express, the couple suffered financial woes. She also harbored that deep well of hurt. She didn’t know her next step.

“Stripped of everything” and “feeling the most alone I ever felt in my life,” Powell says prayer led her on her current path. Tapping a lifelong expressive flair, she studied speech communication at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, for whom she became an award-winning forensics competitor.

The speech that won her a national oratory title argued against the criminalization of addiction by using her addict father, with whom she’s mended her relationship, as a case study. Their personal story of healing and transformation became her first book, The Other Woman.

The book made her an in-demand inspirational speaker. For her 2013 TEDxOmaha talk she described how, though her father was in and out of prison, “he still had a huge positive influence on my life,” adding, “Three times in my life he was the person that kept me going with words of wisdom. I wanted people to really take the message that no matter what negative situations we’ve been through, there’s a lesson.”

She now mentors TEDx speakers and other presenters. She’s expanding her own speaking base as she finds her messages resonate widely.

“I’ve learned not to put myself in a box. I’m finding I have something to offer people from all sectors. It doesn’t matter how wealthy you are or how poor you are or what you have and don’t have. At the core of it we’re motivated by and get inspired by many of the same things.”

Public speaking for her is more than a gig.

“Every time I get up on stage it’s talking to the kid in me, telling that little girl, ‘You’ve got it, you can keep going.’ It’s a piece of healing for me. I put a lot into it. Every time I leave that stage there’s nothing else left. I just release everything.”

Her appearance on an Oprah show about fatherless daughters led her to write her second book, From Daddyless to Destiny.

“In every chapter are exercises that feed into this same idea that you have to tell your story, let it go and create a new story,” she says. “When a father’s in a healthy spot and a daughter’s in a healthy place, all they need is a little remediation and a lot of forgiveness.”

She and her mother formed The Truth Heals to target fatherless girls and women with a curriculum-based, therapist-designed program. She works with clients at the Urban League of Nebraska, Omaha North High, Girls Inc. Omaha Street School, and Youth Emergency Services.

Her Momaha blog is another forum. Posts she wrote about her two young boys’ suspension from preschool (she’s now expecting a third child), the disproportionate number of black male preschoolers suspended nationwide, and the preschool-to-prison pipeline caught CNN’s attention.

“They had been looking for a champion to talk about the issue,” says Powell, who did a guest appearance on CNN Tonight. Then The Washington Post saw the CNN segment and asked me to write something. And that’s when it all blew up.”

The story went viral. Media contacted her for interviews. She became a sought-after expert. Parents sounded her out for answers.

“Many parents with students who are having these issues have reached out to me to ask, ‘What can we do?’ But it’s not a quick fix.”

She says parents must do as she does and participate in their child’s school to give themselves a voice in being part of the change.

“We can’t complain about the way things are if we’re not willing to do the work.”

CNN’s since made her a go-to panelist to discuss trending stories. She addressed Michael Brown’s killing and the Ferguson (Mo.) protests in a televised town hall.

Most recently, she co-led a social media push seeking the resignation of Pat McPherson, the Nebraska State Board of Education member whose blog, the Objective Conservative, was discovered to host multiple posts (McPherson claimed that they were authored not by him but by a co-contributor) dating back to 2011 that used the slur “half breed” in reference to President
Barack Obama.

Much has come at her in a short time.

“It’s been good and crazy. A lot of love, some hate. I had a lot of people wishing death on me and prison on my children.”

Powell, who also coordinates the Metro Omaha Tobacco Action Coalition, is happy to have arrived at the spot she’s in.

“I feel like I’m in the right space right now and I’ve gotten so much confirmation that all I have to keep on doing is just tell my story.”

She’s spurned the big-time speakers circuit rather than let national agents promote her as something she’s not. Remaining authentic is paramount to her.

“It’s important I stay very true to who I am,” she says. “I have to remember where I started. I never sought this—it found me. I want to stay true to the mission and purpose that, even though I speak for a fee, there is ministry behind it.”

From Frenzied to Functional

December 23, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

January is Get Organized Month, so we asked local author and clutter coach, Cyndy Salzmann, to transform from frenzied to functional the tiny laundry room of a busy Elkhorn family.

Cyndy Salzmann and her bag of tricks.

Cyndy Salzmann and her bag of tricks.

Salzmann is the author of seven books, including her recently released Organized by Design: Using Your Personality to Get and Stay Organized, and she takes a unique approach to organizing a space. “A lot of clients want to start a project by digging into a closet,” says the pro who has also appeared on A&E’s Hoarders. “I insist on first digging into their personalities to make sure we design systems that produce long-term results.”

Dave and Debbie Raymond have a blended family of nine and need every inch of their 2,900 square-foot home. They use the laundry room for much more than just soap and suds—it’s command central for winter wear, cleaning supplies, gift wrapping, and is an overflow area for wayward kitchen items. Unfortunately, the multi-functional room ended up being more of a “multi-mess.”

before

 ASSESSMENT

“I ask each new client to take a personality inventory,” says Salzmann. “Test results as well as discussions with family members indicated that Debbie’s creative bent led to ever-changing systems of organizing things—a source of frustration for Dave, who is orderly and perhaps a bit more right-brained. A collection of sentimental items belonging to Debbie’s recently deceased mother added to the chaos. Finally, poor room design with high shelves and an open area under the counter wasted valuable space.”20131121_bs_3325

DESIGN

“Once I determined the family’s organizing style and needs,” Salzmann continues, “I pulled together a team to transform the room. We used flexible pullouts and open shelving along with other design elements to motivate family members to maintain the space. Debbie is a strong woman of faith with a vibrant personality, so I wanted this room to also feed her spirit.”

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TRANSFORMATION

“A soothing paint color grounds the space while design elements provide splashes of color,” Salzmann explains. “Meaningful objects, such as colorful canisters from Debbie’s mother, provide function and serve to personalize the room.

“I was able to take advantage of unused space by installing pullout shelves under the counter. The contents of two plastic drawer units with a jumble of mittens, hats, and gift-wrapping supplies are neatly organized in a deep pullout with dividers. Dishes formerly stored openly on top of the refrigerator slip neatly into drawers. Shelves for laundry baskets keep the counter clear for folding.

“A clear, plastic bin corrals items Debbie is collecting for her oldest daughter’s upcoming wedding, while the creative label builds excitement for the special day. Cleaning supplies, formerly stored on too-high shelves, are now easily within reach in a pullout shelf under the sink. Infrequently used items, stored in bins on high shelves, have dry erase labels to identify contents.”

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AFTERMATH

So how do the Raymonds feel about their “new” laundry room? “We love it!” says Debbie. “But more importantly, it’s not so overwhelming for us to now think about tackling another space in our home.”

Salzmann will be blogging about her experience throughout January. For more project details and inspiration, visit cyndysalzmann.com.

Salzmann’s Team • Interior design and painting by Renee Quandt, Clean Slate Interiors; Custom pullout shelving by Nick Starkey, ShelfGenie of Omaha

Christopher McLucas thinks laughter 
is the best 
medicine.

December 20, 2013 by
Photography by Keith Binder
Illustration by Bob Donlan

Way down on the Giggle Farm, the Guffaw family grows grinning laughing stalks and chuckleberries by the bushel full. Farmer Guffaw and his wife proudly watch as their children spend days playing outdoors, inventing clever contraptions, daydreaming, and getting lost in reading. Soon, though—as is the case in all families—their children grow up and move away to lead their own lives. The Guffaws become sad and lonely while the laughing stalks wither and the chuckleberries shrivel.

Spoiler alert: The story does have a happy ending. The Giggle Farm, by 25-year-old Christopher McLucas, is a rare kind of children’s book, one that is funny and profound by turns. That’s because the young author didn’t want to write a typical children’s book. Instead, he set out to create the kind of story that would take both parents and children alike on a thoughtful and interactive journey.

Laughter: Something kids and adults love

Focusing on laughter as the book’s theme was a logical choice for McLucas, whose previous book Feint Peace & Other Stories, a collection of science fiction stories, was published in 2012. “I didn’t want the message to be just for children. I wanted it to be for adults, too,” he explains. “I wanted to communicate that laughter really is the best medicine. Laughter is what gets us through a lot. I thought it important to reference what both children and adults would know.”

A laughing stalk shown as a positive rather than a derisive term provided McLucas with his starting point. “I thought, ‘What if laughing stalk was something you could grow?’” he remembers. “The whole story started rolling from there and didn’t stop. I could see the entire idea in my head.”

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That idea involves witty puns, crisp story telling, and an imaginative interpretation of traditional family life. As a child, McLucas was particularly fascinated with how artist Norman Rockwell encapsulated entire narratives in his paintings. “There were stories locked inside them,” he says. “I wanted The Giggle Farm to be like that and to be an ode to Norman Rockwell. I wanted New Age Americana. We can all associate with this family.”

This is what gives the book a charming retro feel. For example, the small town of Gale (as in gales of laughter) has old-fashioned storefronts featuring a barber, a dry goods shop, and a laugh ware store. In place of a traditional county fair, there is instead a more playful Funny Festival. There are no video games, mp3 players, or cell phones. They use their imaginations, which McLucas sees as deeply important to 
childhood development.

It’s another reason why he wanted to make The Giggle Farm interactive and developed it as a coloring book. “I want parents and children to be able to work on it together,” he says. “It changes the dynamic of family reading. It makes reading time a family activity.”

Interaction: Something kids and adults need

McLucas also envisioned using coloring as a way to reinforce reading. The letters are in a plain, white, bubble font so that children can sound out the words as they color them in. Participating in how each page looks makes the experience personal and creates a sense of ownership in the book. “That way,” McLucas says with a smile, “it’s more yours than mine.”

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Illustrator Bob Donlan perfectly captures the Rockwellian mood that McLucas’ words convey. His illustrations have a gentleness to them and are filled with the kinds of details children can get lost in for hours. Donlan says he was impressed with the author’s vision for the book. “Chris wanted an interactive book for children to read and color. He liked the idea of a coloring book that would have sophisticated art,” he says. “He wanted it to have an imaginative quality. It is completely original.”

The element of The Giggle Farm with the most impact, McLucas thinks, is the dialogue that will occur between parents and children. “I really want them to talk about the story and for children to come back to it over and over.”

A book signing and launch party for The Giggle Farm (CreateSpace; $15.00) takes place on Jan. 23, 2014, at 6 p.m. at Legend Comics at 52nd and Leavenworth. You can also find the book at Chapter Two Books in Bellevue and on Amazon.com.

Lydia Kang is in Control.

December 16, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Lydia Kang has delicate, tiny hands. A long ponytail. She wears simple jewelry: a couple bracelets and some earrings.

That’s nearly as much detail as you’ll get about the characters she writes. Kang’s debut novel, Control, will be released the day after Christmas. “I would say I write for the impatient reader,” she says with a laugh. “I won’t spend three pages discussing why a certain scene is meaningful. I’ll try to get to the core of what is important and emotional and move onto that.”

A young-adult novel with a sci-fi twist, Control follows a young woman named Zelia as she overcomes her father’s death, her sister’s kidnapping, and her own introduction to a society of misfit teens that the government wants the world to forget.

While Zelia is kind of a blank slate, Kang does allow a couple extra descriptors for some of Control’s more unique characters. “Hex is Asian,” she says, describing a young man with four arms, “and Vera is Latina, although you can’t really tell because she’s green.” Oh, and Wilbert has two heads. He switches his sentience between them so he never has to sleep.

This is the kind of medical-thriller world readers get when it’s provided by a sci-fi fan who also happens to be a doctor. Kang, a New York City transplant, has worked at University of Nebraska Medical Center for the past seven years as a general internal medicine physician. She minored in English and has been published in a few medical journals, but, she says, “I have to credit Omaha—this is where I really started writing.” 

Shortly after moving to Omaha with husband Yungpo Bernard Su and giving birth to her youngest of three children, Kang took a stab at writing some poetry. “And it was really horrible poetry, really bad stuff,” she says, “but I thought, you know, this is kind of fun.”

After a few writing seminars and a couple of what she calls “practice novels,” Kang was ready in 2010 to put her latest idea to the test—a story centered around a young woman living with Ondine’s curse, an ailment that can cause respiratory arrest during sleep. “I was studying for my boards recertification,” she recalls, “and I couldn’t remember hearing about it in medical school. And I thought it was really fascinating and horrific and sad. And wouldn’t it be interesting to have a character with that?” She wrote her first draft in three months, she signed on with an agent in 2011, and a couple weeks later Control was picked up by Penguin.

To make herself more attractive to the publishing world, Kang also began blogging in 2010. But what to blog about other than the challenges of writing? “There are a million blogs out there like that,” she recalls thinking. “Do I have anything else to offer? And I sat there wondering, what makes me different, what do I have to offer, do I have any skills that I can share with people? And then—oh. I’m a doctor.” She laughs now at how completely she had separated her life in medicine from her writing life.

Kang spread the word online that if a writer were struggling with a fictional medical scenario, she’d assist them with authoritative advice. For example, an author might need a character to wake up after, say, a half hour; Kang could suggest a drug that might work in such a situation. She’s advised on medical situations that have been published in other books, and one author even gave her a cameo appearance in a book as Dr. Kang.

For the foreseeable future, she’ll remain Dr. Kang in both literary and real life. Though she plans to release Control’s sequel, Catalyst, in early 2015 and is currently revising a fantasy novel for her agent’s consideration, Kang says it would take a lot to make her give up practicing medicine to write full-time. “I really love my patients. It’s a bit hectic at times,” she admits, laughing, “but I’m managing.”

 A book release party for Control will be held Jan. 18 from 2-4 p.m. at The Bookworm in Countryside Village, 8701 Pacific St.

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D.

August 26, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., has been teaching and researching business ethics for more than 20 years. She has been professor of Business Ethics at Creighton University since 1991. But the seasoned academic holds a strong belief that ethics discussions should reach outside the classroom and into Omaha’s day-to-day business life.

She found soulmates in many of Omaha’s business leaders who shared her passion for ethics. Working together, Omaha’s business community launched the Business Ethics Alliance in 2008. The group consults, trains, and speaks on ethics.

Founding partners are the Creighton University College of Business, Greater Omaha Chamber, Better Business Bureau, and the Omaha business community. The Business Ethics Alliance isn’t just for business. The group also interacts with college and K-12 students, as well as executives, employees, and entrepreneurs.

Business Ethics Alliance programming focuses on the core values of accountability, community responsibility, integrity, financial vitality, and moral courage. As holder of the Robert B. Daugherty Endowed Chair in Business Ethics & Society, Kracher is free to work outside the classroom. She teaches one Creighton graduate class each year.

Otherwise she leads the Business Ethics Alliance as executive director and CEO, often traveling to countries worldwide.

“Words are power. One of the easiest things we can do is practice articulating our ethics.”

“I spoke in Ethiopia recently, and they said they had never conceived of a relationship between ethics and success in business,” Kracher says.

But companies considering relocating to Omaha are well aware of the relationship, according to David Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber. One Illinois company, reeling from the indictment of the state’s governor, found solace in Omaha’s ethical business community.

“Another client specifically asked us to make part of our presentation about ethical practices in Omaha because they wanted a community that took ethics seriously,” says Brown. “We blew them away.”

Helping found the Business Ethics Alliance brought Kracher a great deal of satisfaction—and an award from the Greater Omaha Chamber as the 2013 Business Woman of the Year. She’s earned it, says Brown: “She has taken a fledgling organization and turned it into something unique to Omaha. It requires business acumen, as well as the ability to work with business leaders.”

Kracher said that ethical business communities have leaders with strong, shared, positive values who are fair to their workforce, give back to their communities, and have honest and accountable employees. The ethical communities have non-corrupt government and nonprofits that partner with for-profits.

She is a columnist for B2B Omaha magazine and co-authored the book Ethinary, An Ethics Dictionary: 50 Ethical Words to Add to Your Conversation. The book sits on many business professionals’ desks around the country. “Words are power,” Kracher said. “One of the easiest things we can do is practice articulating our ethics.”

Professor, researcher, author, columnist, CEO, she also is vice president of Plant Pros of Omaha, which puts her in the small-business arena.

Ethics haven’t changed over the years, she believes: “The ancient Persians used to burn bakers in their ovens for adulterating bread with straw, etc. So bad business has been around for centuries. Good has, too.”

Karen Sokolof Javitch

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The image of Karen Sokolof Javitch singing and camping it up on YouTube in the music video of her song, “I’m Not Obama’s Babe” doesn’t square with the unassuming, quietly engaging, makeup-less woman who buys flavored water at her favorite coffee shop. Not surprising, since there are many facets to the Omaha native: singer, songwriter, author, playwright, radio host, advocate, teacher, wife, mother, daughter, philanthropist.

Music is actually Karen’s second act. After earning a degree at the University of Texas, she began as a teacher of visually impaired children, a career inspired by her late mother, Ruth Sokolof. “My mother taught blind children for years. Everyone loved her. Film Streams Theater is named after her.”

It wasn’t until Karen’s own three children were in school that her life headed in a different direction. “It was around 1993. I was talking to a friend of mine, Jim Conant, and he said he had just written the book for a musical, but he hadn’t written any of the songs. And I said to him, ‘Um, can I try this?’”

Karen proved to be a natural at writing both the words and the lyrics to 13 songs for the production entitled Love! At The Café! The show ran for about seven weeks at a small venue in Benson. “It was like a faucet turned on in my brain. The lyrics came first, and then I could hear the music in my head to go with them.”

Karen next collaborated with her good friend, local actress and author Elaine Jabenis, to write more shows, including the tribute Princess Diana, The Musical. Another key player in Karen’s success, Chuck Penington of Manheim Steamroller, orchestrates her music. Whether a song is catchy, rhythmic, and Broadway-like, or a touching ballad, Karen’s melodies stay with the listener.

“It was like a faucet turned on in my brain. The lyrics came first, and then I could hear the music in my head to go with them.”

Where did her talent come from? “My father, Phil, was a song-and-dance man before he became a successful businessman. He tried his luck in Chicago when he was 17. He finally realized he couldn’t be the next Frank Sinatra.”

Phil Sokolof would later use some of his fortune from his drywall company to wage a one-man crusade against cholesterol—a decades-long fight that resulted in nutrition information on food packaging.

Karen has written hundreds of songs, penned four musicals, and released 13 CDs, singing on many of them. While she should be swimming in royalties, the Westside High graduate has instead followed her parents’ legacy of giving back to their community.

“All proceeds from my music go to charities, mostly in Nebraska,” says Karen.

Does she make any money at all?

“Well, let’s just say my goal is to break even,” she says with a smile.

Over the past 20 years, Karen has raised over $300,000 in service to others. One project in particular remains dear to her heart. The “Nebraska Celebrities Sing for Sight” CD, for which she wrote most of the music and lyrics and featuring 20 celebrities from the area (including a terrific country vocal from former U.S. Senator Ben Nelson), raised money for visually impaired children. The man who couldn’t compete with Frank Sinatra also sings a track.

“Dad was alive when I started to do my music. He was very proud.”

Karen’s CDs can be found at the Nebraska Furniture Mart or online at CD Baby. Her radio show, “It’s the Beat!” with Jody Vinci, airs Saturdays at noon on KOIL 1290.