Tag Archives: Encounter

Nadia Shinkunas

June 13, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The shapes and forms in many of Nadia Shinkunas’ works have a geometric rigidity about them. To achieve their three-dimensional feel, the angles are sharp and defined. Her career path, on the other hand, is anything but a straight line. 

Born in San Bernardino, California, Shinkunas’ family moved to Iowa when she was 5 years old. She returned to California to study at Riverside City College in 2002. In 2005, she moved to Omaha and took photography classes at Metro Community College. She later studied at the Omaha School of Massage Therapy, and moved to Tulsa in 2008. A year later, she returned to Omaha and considered studying architecture, but instead opted to pursue a field in sculpture. In 2014, she received a Bachelor of Studio Arts at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Her education isn’t done yet, though. This year, she is pursuing a tattooist apprenticeship at Artists Unbound. 

“I love everything about tattooing,” Shinkunas says from her studio in Council Bluffs. “I always thought it would be a really cool thing for me to do, but I never focused on drawing.” 

On top of the 30 to 40 hours she puts in a week at her apprenticeship, Shinkunas also runs Random Arts (formerly Random Arts Omaha). The group stages pop-up art exhibits each month with several artists participating in each exhibit. 

“The theme is always really loose,” Shinkunas says. “But even if the theme is love, you can still make a piece about anger or hate, because it all connects.” 

One of Random Arts’ exhibits last year, Portrait of a President, was nominated for an Omaha Entertainment and Arts Award for Best Presentation in a Non-Traditional Format.

Shinkunas’ experience with running exhibits began in 2012 when she submitted a piece of work for Benson First Friday. Alex Jochim, director of Benson First Friday, saw her work at one of the events. Soon after, Shinkunas was asked to handle the First Friday events at Jerry’s Bar. 

“I love working with Nadia,” Jochim says. “She’s all about helping artists in the community.” 

Laura Vranes and John McIntyre, two notable art collectors in Omaha, saw one of Shinkunas’ earliest First Friday forays at Jerry’s Bar. Impressed with Shinkunas’ energy and creativity, the couple began working with her on the Random Arts exhibits. McIntyre focused on promotions while Vranes contacted other artists to submit their work.

 “The common thread was to help Omaha artists have a voice—to be seen by more people,” McIntyre says. 

Like many artists, Shinkunas has worked “non-art” jobs to pay the rent. But last year, one of those jobs briefly sidelined her artistic work. While working in the bakery at Costco, Shinkunas began to experience pain in her arm. She went to the doctor, and had two MRIs. She went back to work, and the pain got worse. 

“I was at work, and my left arm just went dead,” Shinkunas says. “It felt like all my bones were being crushed by a huge vice.” 

More doctor visits followed. She was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease. Then more tests showed she didn’t have an auto-immune disease. She left Costco and went on disability, and the pain started lessening. 

“Now, I have no pain at all,” Shinkunas says. 

This July, Shinkunas’ work will be featured as part of an exhibit in the Michael Phipps Gallery, located on the first floor of the W. Dale Clark Main Library. She’ll share the exhibit with two other artists, Joe Addison and Jamie Hardy. In August, her work will be displayed at Petshop in Benson. Between the apprenticeship and the upcoming exhibits, Shinkunas said she had to put Random Arts on hiatus. 

“With everything else going on, I don’t have time,” Shinkunas says, but not before adding with a laugh, “unless someone wants to pay me.”  

Shinkunas does not take a commission for Random Arts. She says she took on the role because she wanted to see how different artists interpret a theme. 

“Solo shows are great, and I love them, but seeing 50 artists together, and their ideas of love or hate is really, really cool,” Shinkunas says.


Visit nadiashinkunas.com to learn more about the artist. 

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Encounter. 

MILLENNIAL MYTH: We’re Job Hoppers

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I’m a millennial who’s held four different jobs over the past two years. 

This begs the question, “Am I a cliché?”

Gallup called millennials the “job-hopping generation” in a 2016 study. 

An April NBC news article said: “Right now, job-hopping is on the rise because of the good economy and millennials who’ve grown up suspecting that there’s no such thing as loyalty from employers anymore.” 

And a 2016 CNN Money article had the headline: “The new normal: 4 jobs changes by the time you’re 32.”

BTW, I’m 34.

Throughout my job-hopping years, I’ve been an event organizer for/owner of a nightclub, a marketing director for a hip startup, a journalist for a 103-year-old architecture firm, and now a sales manager for an eco-friendly sustainability company.

When I announced my most recent career switch on Facebook, I wrote, “Like a flakey millennial in continual pursuit of purpose, I’ve switched careers…again.” 

One friend resonated with my sentiment by commenting, “Nail on the head lol.” 

In my naive narrative of the generation that I’m a part of, I assumed that millennials do in fact quit their jobs more often than previous generations, and that we do it because we’re driven to find purpose and passion in our work. Which means I once believed the media headline hype, too. 

But in the midst of researching this column in an attempt to reverse engineer my assumptions, I discovered that the numbers say something different, and that I was projecting my own ego onto a whole generation. 

A number of studies do in fact show that millennials are job-hopping quite often. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2014 showed that the typical worker, aged 20-24 at the time, had been in their position for 16 months, as opposed to the five-and-a-half-year median tenure for those aged 25 and older. A widely referenced 2013 study from the consulting firm Millennial Branding said that 60 percent of millennials leave their companies within three years. 

While this all may be true, the problem is how we’re looking at the data. 

Consider this: In a FiveThirtyEight article from 2015, Ben Casselman wrote, “Numbers on job tenure for Americans in their 20s were almost exactly the same in the 1980s as they are today.” And, according to a 2017 Pew Research study, millennials are sticking with their jobs slightly longer than Gen Xers were in 2000. 

What’s the point? The flakiness of millennials is nothing new. It’s not that millennials quit their jobs more than other generations—young people do. 

And while job hopping is simply a symptom of being young and trying to find your place in the world, according to that same FiveThirtyEight article, it also has the benefit of driving up wages. Which is a great thing considering the wage stagnation that’s stemmed from the
Great Recession. 

In other words, as much as I want to think I’m part of a “special generation,” or as much as millennial stereotypes want to perpetuate the myth that my generation is disloyal and complacent, it turns out we have much more in common with Gen X and baby boomers than most might think. (But don’t tell them that.) 

Do you have thoughts, comments, or column ideas? Please share them with us at editor@omahapublications.com. 


This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Encounter. 

Spirit Lives Here

June 12, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Daisies may blow with the wind, but that doesn’t mean they are fragile.

The young members of Daisy Distraction have seen a lot of dilemmas. Dilemma was, in fact, the name of the band that several of the members first played in together. Vocalist Erin Mitchell, guitarist John Staples, bassist and keyboardist Neil Osborn, and vocalist Anna Abbott were members of BluesEd, a youth development program. Staples, Osborn, and Abbott were placed in Dilemma with Mitchell, drummer Eric Shouse, and guitarist Logan Hawkins.

The most ethereal member of the group is also the biggest influence. Abbott, along with Staples and Osborn, joined BluesEd in early 2016. Sweet and shy, she performed live starting in April that year. The band was proud to be part of Omaha Entertainment & Arts Summer Showcase on June 10, and at Bridge Beats on June 24. 

The show on June 24 was the quad’s final performance together. Abbott suffered an asthma attack the next day that sent her into cardiac arrest, and she died on July 2. The band’s next performance was one week later. 

BluesEd gave the heartbroken singers the opportunity to sit out their performance, but the group members knew the ever-positive Abbott wouldn’t want them to miss a performance because of her.

“One time, Anna could see that I was having a bad day,” Mitchell recalls. “I was being negative, but she took the time to show me a photo of a fox because she loves foxes, and it just brightened my day. To this day, when I see a fox it reminds me of that experience and of her.”

The cover band decided to throw caution (and petals) to the wind. Abbott had wanted to perform original music to push herself as an artist, and throughout the summer Dilemma began to perform original songs at their sets, including at a benefit for Anna held at 21st Saloon on July 24, 2016, and as the opening act for the New Generation Music Festival. Dilemma ended their season (and their group) on Aug. 13 with the In the Market for Blues festival.

Aside from the loss of Anna, the group members faced other dilemmas in fall of 2016, one of which was distance. Mitchell stayed in Omaha for classes, but Osborn traveled nearly 170 miles away to college.  

Then there was the dilemma of the music. With the change in their musical style, Mitchell, Osborn, and Staples needed a new identity. Mitchell thought of the name one day while driving past a field of daisies and thinking of Anna. “Man, I need a distraction,” she thought.

It may not have been pure coincidence.

“We talked about [how] she was one with the earth,” Mitchell recalls of Abbott. “She just kind of emulated that.”

The group transitioned to Daisy Distraction in late 2016. They performed as often as possible and began to think about recording an album.
The individual members (including original drummer Alex Holliger, a close friend of Staples) began to write songs and bring them to
practice sessions. 

Osborn took the role of producer and, in between gigs and engineering classes at Iowa State University, the album came together bit by bit, using each member’s basement throughout the ensuing year. Abbott remained a guiding force for the group.

“The theme of the album is her energy and her essence,” Mitchell says. “It started out with us trying to get through stuff for Anna.”

Even while recording and attending school, the group found time to perform. In April 2017 they performed at ISU’s Battle of the Bands and brought back a trophy.  

Record, perform, study, repeat. By late summer, the group had finished the album, titled For Anna, and they released it during a party on Aug. 31, 2017, at Lucy’s Pub. 

The favorite song off the album for many of the members is, naturally, “Sweet Anna Jane.”

“We used a sample of her singing on the last song of the track,” Osborn says. “We thought that was a nice send-off.”

The day after the release party they performed the new music at Femme Fest in Benson. In mid-September they played in Lincoln at the Do-It-Ourselves Fest.

They were nominated for an OEAA in the best alternative/indie and best new artist categories, but did not take home an award.  

The next distraction came in the percussion section. Holliger left in early 2018 when he discovered the rigors of the chemical engineering degree he is obtaining from UNL was keeping him too busy to perform. The group announced the addition of drummer Mark Winkelbauer one week after the OEAAs.

“Before I joined, these guys were one of my favorite bands in Omaha,” Winkelbauer says. 

Through the spring, the group performed about once a month locally. “We make it work,” Staples says. “We all practice on our own time.”

Now, the group has a new dilemma. “John is moving to Mesa, Arizona,” Mitchell wrote in an email in mid-May. “Neil is most likely taking an internship in Maryland. We hope to have some interim members soon until we figure out something more permanent. They will both be playing in Daisy at some point in the future and hopefully contributing from afar as well.”

And like the free-spirited wildflowers they are, these musicians will persevere no matter the directions in which they scatter.  


Visit daisydistraction.com to learn more about the band. 

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Encounter. 

Agustin Delgado

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Agustin Delgado is humble when talking about his work, yet when you see his red-carpet-worthy designs walk the runway, you would never guess the man behind these ethereal, bold looks is quite shy.

Growing up with his great-grandmother, Victoria Hernandez, in the city of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, Delgado got his first taste for fashion at an early age. Hernandez was a seamstress who created and designed hand-sewn embroidered home goods and clothing. Her son, Delgado’s great-uncle, was a tailor. The two shared a design studio where Agustin was immersed in both womens and menswear.

At only 8 years old, Delgado left Mexico and his great-grandmother to be reunited with his parents in the United States in search of the American dream. Now 38 years old, he is a first-generation American, and for the last 16 years he’s called Omaha home.

A self-taught fashion designer, Delgado had his “aha” moment in junior high while learning how to sew in home economics. He stayed after school to get one-on-one lessons on patternmaking and fitting from his teacher, who later became his mentor.

The years between junior high and college were some of the most trying in Delgado’s life. When his family’s visa expired, the paperwork for Delgado and his siblings was lost in the immigration bureaucracy. This setback restricted the opportunities he could pursue, and ultimately led to him putting his dream on hold.

In 2014, he and his fiancee hired “an outstanding immigration attorney.” In a matter of a few weeks, his 25-year-long struggle to become a citizen finally came to an end. He’d made it. 

Fortunately, he always kept sewing as a hobby. Many friends told Delgado he had the talent to be a fashion designer. He wasn’t so sure they were right until he started taking classes at Metropolitan Community College for fashion design last year and his dream was made new again.

“Now I have all this time that I lost because of my citizenship status, and I want to do everything I wasn’t able to do,” Delgado says. “It’s never too late to try something new, follow your dreams, and try to reach them.”

This spring, Delgado took a significant step toward living his dream. He showed in, and won, Omaha Fashion Week’s Innovate Featured Designer Showcase. 

One of those friends he mentioned, Phillip McGuire, says he believes this is just the beginning for Delgado, who has made several pieces for McGuire’s drag alter ego, Phoenix Fallentino.

“His talent is endless. I think what’s so wonderful about him is he doesn’t reflect anyone, he’s truly himself,” McGuire says. “I told him after his Omaha Fashion Week runway show, his life is now changed.” 

While the win was certainly a lovely feather in his cap, Delgado considers himself more artist than fashion designer due to his love for art and for the garments he creates. Drawing inspiration from designers Alexander McQueen, Charles James, and Guo Pei, and artist Frida Kahlo, he takes his time creating hand-beaded haute couture and avant-garde pieces that simply wow.

He says he enjoys learning everything he can about previous eras and incorporates those fashion elements into his work by modernizing them to his taste and today’s society.

“The past itself is where the future is at,” Delgado says.

Since winning the showcase at Omaha Fashion Week this spring, Delgado’s confidence in his work and his voice as a designer has soared. His plans are to expand nation- and worldwide next year and eventually call Paris home.

To live amongst all the oldest fashion houses would be a natural fit for him. His great-grandmother found similar inspiration for her work after seeing Coco Chanel’s house in Paris.

“I’m a strong believer that one must understand the past to understand the future,” he says. “I got it from my great-grandma. She believed our mistakes make us the better person that we’re going to be in the future.”  

Makeup Artist: Natasha Patterson
Hair Stylist: Abigail Talkington
Set Stylist: Re’Chaun Styles
Models: Caitlyn Perman & Lena Makui


Visit amdelgado.com for more information about the designer. 

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Encounter. 

Ugly Yellow and Violet Vividity

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It all started with a knee injury. In 2006, things for the now-24-year-old Jenna Johnson came to a screeching halt when the soccer enthusiast was subjected to multiple surgeries to repair her ACL. While she healed, the Sioux City, Iowa, native discovered her passion for painting. 

“It was the making of something from nothing that grabbed me,” she explains. 

In 2001, Johnson and her family moved to Elkhorn for a job opportunity. She says that, although she received a quality education and played a multitude of sports, she always felt like something was missing.  

“It was exactly what you’d imagine it to be like,” Johnson says. “I had numerous friends. I felt safe, but in a way I also felt boxed in, possibly due to the lack of diversity.” 

When Johnson graduated from Elkhorn South High School in 2012, the self-taught artist moved east and got a studio at Hot Shops downtown, a goal she’d had since she was a teenager. 

“I participated in a high school show that is held there once a year,” she explains. “During our tour, I’d get lost in the building and imagine what it would be like to be an artist there. Now that I have been a resident for almost six years, Hot Shops has given me much wisdom about the art community. With the knowledge of my fellow artists, I’ve gained the skills necessary to keep my business going.” 

Over the years, those fellow artists have taught her how to build and stretch a canvas, and explain, sell, and critique her work. She’s also learned imperative lessons about success and failure, so it’s not surprising Johnson’s current focus is people, done in an unconventional mustardy yellow and shades of violet.  

She initially chose that shade of yellow because she wanted to make an ugly painting to “get it out of her system.” But once she saw it next to the violet, her imagination exploded. The result was a new experience for her.

“People are my favorite right now,” she says. “I hate painting faces, but I love how the two colors simplify the subject. I am infatuated with these two colored portraits [in particular]. All [of them] are large so it is fun to step up to one and stare into the subject’s soul.”

“Ask me this again in a year, I’m sure it will change,” she adds. 

Although she has other hobbies like traveling, hiking, and yoga, Johnson can’t picture her life without working as an artist. 

“I ask myself this question at least once a week and the answer is always the same—I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe cut hair? It terrifies me to imagine doing anything but painting.”

Johnson’s permanent installations can be found throughout Omaha at businesses such as TD Ameritrade (commissioned while she was still in high school) and LinkedIn. Living paycheck to paycheck, she appreciates each and every time someone buys her work. 

“It feels wonderful,” she says. “Since this is my only job, any sale is a good sale.” 

Down the line, Johnson envisions her art breaking out of the Omaha scene, but she insists, “If I am still happily painting in the future, I have succeeded.” 


Visit jennajart.com for more information about the artist. 

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Encounter. 

Encounter Destinations

AKSARBEN VILLAGE

Maha Music Festival (Aug. 17-18 at Stinson Park) marks 10 years in 2018, but the all-day, all-night music cornucopia is anything but stale and wheezy. In fact, it’s fresher than ever—and getting Weezer, who will just be coming off their summer tour. The popular band that cut its chops in the 1990s headlines Saturday night. Also taking the stage will be Father John Misty, TV on the Radio, The Kills, and more than a dozen other acts.

mahamusicfestival.com/2018 

Meanwhile, just getting its start in Aksarben Village is the High Vibe Festival, now on its second year. Omaha’s premier yoga, music, and plant-based food festival happens on Saturday, Aug. 11, and features a 5K run, live music, all-day yoga, conscious workshops, and “good vibes.”

highvibefestival.com 

BENSON

It’s back—but you’ll have to go yourself to see if it’s better than ever. We’re talking about Benson Days, the annual get down in downtown B-town set this year for July 28 and 29. The family-friendly summer festival will feature a pancake breakfast, parade, dozens of vendors, art, live music, children’s activities, and more. And back after a year off is The Indie: Scale the Benson Alps, a 5K/10K road race that takes runners past some of Benson’s hot spots. Perhaps best of all, you can feel good giving your green for all that fun—Benson Days proceeds support neighborhood projects.

bensondays.com 

BLACKSTONE

Know any Nebraska bars certified as a tequileria? If you said Mula in the Blackstone District (40th & Farnam streets), give yourself a pat on the back. Give yourself another if you know what a tequileria is. According to their website, such certification means at least 80 percent of a bar’s staff has studied the history, production, and regulation of tequila—from harvesting the agave plant in Jalisco fields to its fermentation and distillation. That means tequila tastiness for patrons in Old and New World styles. The dedication to perfection extends to Mula’s “street style” menu for lunch and dinner.

mulaomaha.com 

CAPITOL

Got an hour? Good. Use it to get to know your body—or really, everybody’s body—at the nationally touring exhibition Our Body: The Universe Within. The exhibit runs through
July 31 at 225 N. 12th St. Visitors get a look at the inner workings of human anatomy by presentation of actual human specimens, anatomical displays, reproductions of historic anatomical artwork, and more. If you’ve got the guts, you also have the opportunity to touch a human heart, kidney, liver, and brain. The self-guided tour is $15 per person, with discounts for
seniors, students, children, and military personnel.

ourbodyomaha.com  

DUNDEE

Like live music? What about a beer garden? Running? Food? Fun? Then the 18th annual Dundee Day is calling your name. This year’s Dundee Day is set for Saturday, Aug. 25, and begins with the traditional pancake breakfast, early morning Rundee 5K (undies encouraged), and a parade. There’s also an art fair, the Dundee Bank Street Olympics for kids, music from local bands, and a Memorial Park beer garden. Plenty of chow and vendors will be on hand, along with a farmers market.

dundee-memorialpark.org 

MIDTOWN

If no news is good news, does that mean some news is bad news? Not at Midtown Crossing, where there’s been lots of news. The good news is there’s a new place to please your palate, 5168 Brewing Taproom, now open at 3201 Farnam St. (Suite No. 6107). There’s a full lunch and dinner menu to complement 5168’s brews, long popular at the outfit’s original location in Lincoln.

5168brewing.com  

Other good news comes with the announcement of the lineup for Playing with Fire, Midtown’s free summer concert series. The 2018 lineup mixes local and international talent, rocking Turner Park with blues-rock, soul, funk, and R&B. The July 14 jam features five bands, including headliner Jack de Keyzer. On Aug. 25 another five bands kick it, with Paul Reddick Band bringing things to a crescendo.

playingwithfireomaha.net  

NODO

Typically, the Hot Shops Art Center has an open-door policy. The NoDo studio center is closed in June for repairs. But it’s open for business again beginning in July, with at least three events worthy of getting you down to 1301 Nicholas St.—the Mike Godek and Susan Woodford sculpture show, the Claire Caswell exhibit, and Interpretation, (a group show). Be patient, and you will be rewarded.

hotshopsartcenter.com 

OLD MARKET

Looking for something fresh to do in the Old Market? It doesn’t get much fresher than the Omaha Farmer’s Market. With roots going back nearly 100 years, its current incarnation is now celebrating its 25th year. They’ve been offering fresh, locally grown produce, baked goods, and flowers every year since 1994, doing so on 11th Street from Jackson to Howard streets, with nearly 100 vendors in attendance. Keep an eye out for new additions, including a biscuits-and-gravy booth. This market runs 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Saturday through Oct. 13.

omahafarmersmarket.com  

VINTON STREET

Chances are, the name Louis Marcuzzo doesn’t ring a bell. Chances are, Louie M’s Burger Lust does. Consider this entry us ringing the dinner bell—and breakfast and lunch bells—for the iconic Vinton Street restaurant that dates it roots to the catering service Marcuzzo began in 1980. Today they serve breakfast and lunch seven days a week and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. The menu is extensive, showcasing, of course, burgers—nearly two dozen options are listed. But there are also starters, salads, and sandwiches, daily lunch specials, and a plethora of breakfast offerings guaranteed to start your day with a smile.

louiemsburgerlust.com 

24TH AND LAKE

All your future adventures in the 24th and Lake district should include a consideration of the past. And there’s no better place to do so than at the Great Plains Black History Museum at 2221 N. 24th St. For more than 40 years the museum has been preserving, celebrating, and educating visitors about the contributions and achievements of the region’s vibrant African-American heritage. Recent offerings include displays on the Tuskegee Airmen who called Nebraska home, a history of the Omaha chapter of the NAACP, and an exhibit on Nebraska football great Johnny Rodgers. More great looks into the past are coming…in the future.

gpblackhistorymuseum.org 


This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Encounter. 

Big Daddy

Regular readers of Encounter may wonder what’s going on here. We don’t really do an editor’s letter in this publication. We like to let the stories, artwork, and photography speak for themselves and leave the interpretation up to you, the reader. 

However, this issue is special. As many of you know, we lost our fearless leader, Eric Stoakes, this past February. He had only been back at Omaha Publications for a little over a year, but in that time he helped shape and redefine Encounter into what you hold in your hands now. Edgy, earnest, honest, and always pushing the envelope, it was his dream publication—his dream job. He said as much to his friends and coworkers and we’re glad he was able to find his true niche after decades in this industry.  

In this issue, we pay homage to Big Daddy—our creative and spiritual leader, our conscience, our heart. 

The Lime Punch fashion spread was his idea, his way of celebrating the colorful future of fashion. He had a whole storyline planned out in his head, though he never wrote it down (as was often the case, he enjoyed having his surprises). 

We’ve done our best to stay true to the ideas he did discuss, and we think he would approve. 

You may also have noticed the absence of our special farty unicorn kitty as of late. Derek Joy, our extraordinary designer, has replaced kitty with a simple illustration of red glasses, in honor of the ones Eric would often coordinate his own outfits around. (Kitty’s head will still be floating around, though.)

The future of Encounter now depends on us. Not just the staff here at the magazine, but also with you. We will keep bringing you stories of the up-and-coming artists, musicians, and creative visionaries who are reshaping Omaha’s cultural landscape. We ask that you keep giving us your feedback and send us your story ideas. Seriously. The weirder the better. 

Eric wanted to help develop and engage the artistic community of Omaha. It was his life’s passion. And while it may have been cut short, the work he did was important. His impact on many in the arts community is not easily measured, but I’ve encountered many who say they wouldn’t be where they are today had he not pushed them out of their comfort zones. 

So we will continue his work—creating, developing, and sometimes pushing people out of their comfort zones. 

Stay tuned. And stay weird. 

Tara Spencer, Associate editor of Encounter


This letter was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Encounter. 

Alexandria 
Smith

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

After years of tenaciously applying, Brooklyn native Alexandria Smith got the news she’d been waiting for—the mixed-media visual artist had been accepted into the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts residency program. Her patience had finally paid off. 

“Jurors change every year, as does your work,” Smith says. “It’s important to keep pushing forward.”

Following the trek halfway across the country, Smith settled in on May 18. Her impression of Omaha is it’s “a pretty calm, laid-back city with a growing investment in contemporary art.” 

She would know. This is her second visit to Omaha, though she says she didn’t get to explore it much during her first visit in January of last year. She was here to install her piece, “The Pleasure Principle,” at The Union for Contemporary Arts. Smith was the inaugural recipient of the Wanda D. Ewing Fellowship, and the first to mount a solo exhibit in the space. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to experience much of the city since I was installing the majority of the time,” she says. 

Smith’s dreams of becoming a professional artist started when she was 3 years old. “I don’t think I chose art, it chose me. There was never anything else that I had as much love and passion for as I did towards creating.” 

“I was always interested in cartoons and comics and initially had goals of being an animator,”
she says. That interest is evident in her work.

Through her art, Smith aims to put a spotlight on femininity, race, sexuality, and cultural diversity while exploring the many transformative experiences she’s had as a young, black, middle-class woman.  

Although Smith says she’s influenced by a rotating list of different artists, she’s currently inspired by the work of Cuban printmaker/calligraphist Belkis Ayón and illustrator Aaron Douglas, an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. 

“I find Belkis Ayon’s and Aaron Douglas’ command of narrative and their use of a minimal color palette has resulted in a powerful body of work,” she says. “In both of their works, color is another character that transforms the viewer’s experience and relationship with the work.”

Like Ayón and Douglas, Smith pours every ounce of herself into her art, providing her the emotional and spiritual support she craves.

“For me, creating consumes every part of me,” she says. “It sustains me emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. When I am not creating, I am filled with anxiety and discomfort. So, painting grounds me in ways that nothing else can.”

Smith is most proud of the collage installation she completed last year at The Union. It was an ambitious undertaking in terms of content and scale, considering it was a massive 10-by-40-foot piece. 

“The challenge of working on a site-specific commission provided me with an opportunity to conflate, in a more direct manner, my varied research interests with my work and that of another artist,” she explains. “It was the first time that I delved into the concepts and aesthetics of another artist’s work that had so many similarities as my own.”

However, she adds, “The biggest challenge of all was completing this work for a space that was still under construction, creating it in pieces in my studio and ultimately, seeing it in its entirety for the first time on site during the installation. The team at The Union was incredibly supportive and made the experience a positive, memorable one that I am eternally grateful for.” 

Smith, who normally splits her time between the Big Apple and Boston, is hoping the more isolated Midwest environment will give her the kind of stillness that provides more focus. 

Her bio on the Bemis website says her plan during her residency is to put her energy into an “immersive installation that incorporates freestanding mixed-media cutout paintings on wood, mixed-media sculptures, and large mixed-media paintings on canvas that employ various printmaking techniques such as monoprinting, silkscreening, lithography, and
digital printing.”

“I look forward to having an extensive amount of time working away from external distractions,” Smith explains. “I am excited to have access to sculpture facilities, and I look forward to embarking on ambitious projects that have been on hold due to limited equipment access.”

She adds that the Bemis and The Union offer valuable support and opportunities for artists. 

“Without the support of institutions like these, many of us would not be able to thrive as practicing artists. I hope that the local Omaha community and others continue to support both institutions for decades to come.”

Once Smith’s residency at the Bemis Center is completed on Aug. 10, she’s having a solo exhibit at the Stone Gallery at Boston University where she’ll debut a new series of paintings and sculptures, as well as a multimedia installation. While she admits “rejection” is the most challenging aspect of being a professional artist, she finds comfort in her rich creative community. 

“The hardest part about being an artist is holding onto your goals and remaining persistent in the midst of rejection,” she says. “The most important thing I’ve learned is that you have to trust yourself.

But rejection is certainly easier to handle (and move past) when you have a good
support system.

“It’s really important to develop a community, which can look like many different things, but ultimately it’s important to surround yourself with positive people that believe in you just as much as you believe in yourself.” 


Visit alexandriasmith.com to learn more about the artist. 
This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Encounter.