Tag Archives: Connecticut

Ferial Pearson

December 1, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ferial Pearson knows what it is to be an outsider. Born in Kenya, she is an ethnic Indian, and a Muslim. Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, her family was no stranger to prejudice. Kenyans of Indian descent are a minority, and most Indians are Hindu, not Muslim.

Her mother was born in a hut. No one in her family had gone to college. Pearson’s grandfather saved money for much of his life so that she could get a degree. Despite this, her family regularly opened their home to strangers if they needed a place to stay.

Pearson is an instructional coach and clinical practice supervisor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Before that, she taught English at Omaha South High School. Many of her students were outsiders—immigrants, LGBTQ, low-income. Moved by the tragic 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Pearson challenged her students with a question.

Do modest acts of compassion have the power to change a person’s life?

Her students reacted and banded together in taking on the guise of the “Secret Kindness Agents.”

Anonymous acts of random kindness became contagious, and Pearson chronicled the results in a book, The Secret Kindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change The World. Inspired by a classmate suffering from juvenile diabetes, Pearson allowed the class to decide that every dollar from book sales would be donated to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. She told the story last year in a TEDxOmaha talk.

“That’s just the way I was brought up,” says Person. “If there is a need in the community, it is your responsibility. Whatever we have…whether it’s food, shelter, whatever…that’s a privilege. And we have to give back. It’s the Kenyan way.”

As a noted teacher, mentor, adviser, and advocate, Pearson’s passion for inclusion has been felt by a broad array of often disparate constituencies, ones whose common thread is that of “outsiderness.”

In 2010, she received the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s Educator of the Year Respect award. The next year she was the recipient of RESPECT’s Anti-Bullying Award. In 2014, Pearson was named one of Ten Outstanding Young Omahans by the Omaha Jaycees. This year she was the grand marshal of the Heartland Pride Parade.

She has also given her time to the Avenue Scholars Foundation, the Freedom Writers Foundation, and serves on the board of Inclusive Communities.

“I think of my community as my family,” Pearson says. “You can sit in a classroom and have all the resources possible. You can have the best teacher possible. But if you are hungry, if you are scared, if you do not have the vocabulary, if nobody read to you when you were little, if you’ve experienced trauma…how are you going to concentrate on what is going on in that classroom?”

Search Secret Kindness Agents on YouTube to learn more.

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Boiling Point

August 14, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August 2015 The Encounter.

I love how isolated I am in downtown Omaha in a parking lot.”

Jill Benz says this from the second floor of her Little Italy home, trees dappling the light through every window. Standing there with her, I can’t disagree that, for a few seconds, I also forgot I am, essentially, at the back end of the Amtrak parking lot.

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(“After three days, you don’t hear the trains,” Benz says.)

Sure, there are trains; and on the west side of the building there’s a 200-foot smokestack that tells the first chapter of the building’s story as a steam power plant for Burlington Station and other buildings in the area. But today, that Burlington-branded stack is the backbone of a waterfall that cascades from five different areas, and the sound of falling water, plus the insulation from the trees around the property, do produce an effect more bucolic than industrial.

That’s not to say Benz’s Burlington isn’t urban, or distinctly Omahan.

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The exposed brick walls of the main living area show photos of old Omaha—weathered images of buildings that no longer exist—along with an old Summer Arts Festival poster.  A thick book detailing 1894 Omaha and South Omaha history perches on a table. On the first level in an open kitchen and entertaining space are old backdrops from the 6 p.m. news—”Channel 7, I think,” Benz says. Back upstairs, a show-stopping white leather banquette hugs the whole length of the living area—its bones are from the old Grandmother’s restaurant at 90th and Dodge streets. And there’s Benz herself, an active member of the Little Italy neighborhood association and a kind of local historian, telling the stories of each part of the history of her home—and her hometown—as we walk.

So, sure, Benz’s home might not feel like it’s in downtown Omaha (in a parking lot)—but it does feel like Omaha.

Jill Benz 4“I found the listing on Trulia,” Benz says. She left Omaha in the 2000s for Connecticut, where her daughter lives. Benz remarried there and established an interior design business. Then, a few years ago, her husband passed away.

Back in Omaha, her mother fell ill. Benz returned.

JillBenz3She looked at a place on the water that was bigger than she needed before she found the Burlington building. It had been on the market for a while—a friend of hers considered buying it himself. She called him, told him she was interested, and he got her in to see it.

“Then I dreamed about it, which has always been a sign for me,” Benz says. “The next day, we started the deal, and by the middle of the afternoon, I got it.”

She didn’t tell her other family members—specifically her older brother—until a month and a half after the deal closed.

“My older brother has a different kind of brain than I do,” Benz says. “There were no furnace ducts or air-conditioning or kitchen. He asked me about all the things the building didn’t have.”

It has all of those things now—most notably the kitchen, on the entry level, designed in an open format with an island workspace. A lit peace sign hangs over the wall-oriented work area, and the whole thing stands adjacent to a garage door that opens to one side of the patio. Entertainment space both indoors and out boasts plenty of tables and stackable seating; outside, gas and wood fire pits stand back from brick walkways.

The second floor living space is decorated in bright blue and white, with graphic Greek- and Moroccan-inspired prints mixed with mid-century chairs and metal and glass tables. The Grandmother’s banquette plays against streamlined grey velvet sofas and tulip armchairs.

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“I picked things I liked,” Benz said. “I went classic modern. I thought it would work.”

A white metal spiral staircase leads from the second floor to the third and fourth floors, where Benz’s bold print choices continue. The fourth-floor space has a cozy seating area with more modern leather chairs.

The building’s roof offers a view of downtown Omaha. A raised, framed structure houses a few outdoor sofas; curtains can be let loose to give the space privacy.

Benz said the floors inside the building’s steel walls are heated now, though she’s tried to be as energy-efficient as possible. The building’s only enclosed area houses a geothermal heating and air-conditiong unit—a kind of new-era nod, perhaps, to the building’s past life.

“It’s such an unusual building,” Benz says. “It’s taken a while to get it right. I do love it. It takes a different kind of a person to live in this kind of a place. It’s such an adventure.”

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Q&A: Andy Colley

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A creative from a very young age, Andy Colley tells us how he found his calling in woodworking early and what he most enjoys about about being a craftsman.

Q: How did you first discover your interest in woodworking? When did you decide to pursue it as a career?

A: Originally from Connecticut, I spent my childhood at Air Force bases in Japan, Hawaii, and the upper East Coast. I settled in Omaha about the time I entered high school. Throughout my youth, creativity in many forms had been an outlet, but never woodwork. Unsure of my future path after graduating, I started an entry-level position at a production cabinet shop. Within a few weeks, I was operating a production saw and then moved on to a bench, becoming a custom builder. After working at a couple shops in town, I started my own company. Ironically, a year later, I talked with an uncle who I hadn’t contacted in years and was told woodworking ran deep in my Connecticut roots.20 November 2012- Andy Colley is photographed at his studio for Omaha Magazine.

Q: How has your craft and your studio progressed over the years?

A: Colley Furniture has been through many changes in 12 years. As I develop and hone my skills, my work evolves…an endless pursuit for a craftsman. With this growth have come increasing budgets as well as complexity of projects. I’ve been involved with projects from coast to coast and collaborated with many great artists, architects, and designers constantly trying to push our expectations of furniture. Located in Benson for 10 years, I moved downtown last summer. For the first time, the shop now has a showroom and a storefront.20 November 2012- Andy Colley is photographed at his studio for Omaha Magazine.

Q: Describe your approach to furniture design. What sets your furniture apart from other work out there?

A:  Typically, materials dictate the design of my work. I am fortunate as an artist to work in a medium that presents me with a great base to start. Every single piece of wood in my shop is unique in color, grain characteristics, and mechanical properties, from large slabs of walnut to slivers of highly figured maple. All of these attributes guide the way in which that particular piece is utilized. A certain piece [of wood] might look better, but it might not have the characteristics you need for that component. Humility and respect are rewarded. Use of hand tools and joinery in construction intensify the relationship to wood and provide otherwise unobtainable strength and longevity to [pieces]. Many times the most complicated, most time-consuming parts are hidden from view. Some bakers rely on fancy, over-the-top frosting; others devote their attention to a more refined use of ingredients and methods. My intention is always to reveal and share the beauty of the wood without interference from design.20 November 2012- Andy Colley is photographed at his studio for Omaha Magazine.

Q: What do you most enjoy about your work? What message do you hope your pieces convey?

A: One of my goals is to show people that furniture can be so much more than disposable, uninspired places to sit or set things on. It can be something so much more—from Grandma’s favorite rocking chair to your parents’ dining set that has been a gathering place for so many occasions and emotions—[furniture] can be very personal. It can have a positive effect on our lives, and when we respect the resources we use, we have a positive effect in this world. Inspiration surrounds us. The more aware we become of the world, the more we can understand and appreciate every aspect of life.

Q: What are your professional plans moving forward?

A: [The studio] is planning to show artists of all mediums here, with a focus on process…bridging the gap between an artist’s conception of a work and an art patron’s purchase of a finished piece. Face-to-face events, such as workshops, presentations, and even small dinner parties are in the works to help achieve this. Retirement is not a part of my plans, as creating is essential to my being. Art is life, life is art.