Tag Archives: feature

Weird Is Good

July 14, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Since transplanting from Pennsylvania nearly a decade ago, Christopher Vaughn Couse has made the observation that Omaha is downright weird—but in a good way.

From the hipster-laden streets of Benson to the apex of West Omaha’s suburbs, where cul-de-sacs meet cornfields—and of course there’s our friendly local billionaire, Mr. Buffett, who you may just spot snacking on a Dilly Bar—Couse is right: There’s no place like Homaha. As an artist, to pay homage to all the things that make Omaha, well, Omaha, Couse painted a simple black-and-white design with text that reads “Keep Omaha Good Weird.” It was part of Benson First Friday’s Tiny Mural Project.

“It’s about celebrating the city’s diversity and everyone’s willingness to embrace others for doing their own thing,” Couse says. Of course, it’s also a mix of the almost-revoked Nebraska mantra, “The Good Life,” and the “Keep Austin/Portland Weird” slogans.

If you’ve walked the streets of Benson or Dundee, stopped in at one of the latest oh-so-trendy and oh-so-healthy Eat Fit Go restaurants, or are familiar with the Omaha Chamber of Commerce’s “We Don’t Coast” campaign, you’ve likely seen Couse’s work. He may not be a Nebraska native, but with roots firmly planted in this city, his work as a freelancer, photographer, and illustrator seems to be sprouting up everywhere.

And that’s pretty darn good for a self-described “art school dropout.” It took just two years of classes in the art photography program at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania for Couse to discover he needed to try a different path —and eventually a different city—to forge his career. Determined to utilize his keen eye and knack for creative styling as a professional artist, he knew it was time to move on from the world of lectures and syllabi when a professor told him art photography was a dead-end job.

“Just like that, tuition money became payments for nicer photography equipment,” Couse says.

Just because Couse was done with school didn’t mean he was done with education. He took his lack of professional training as a chance to personally develop his craft and began learning new mediums.

While he had been taking photographs since his teen years, the next evolution of his artistry came when he began combining his shots with handwritten notes to make collages. Then came illustrating and painting, then printmaking, and even working on zines. One glance at his Instagram, @christography, and you could argue he’s made social media his next canvas.

“I delve into different genres of art, figure out what I like, and begin incorporating these aesthetics into my own work,” Couse says. “I’ll admit, I have a bad problem of not sticking with one thing and instead trying to tackle a lot of things.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any similarities across mediums. Stylistically, his work is usually filled with color, idiosyncratic humor, and his emotions as each piece reflects what he was feeling when it was created. Thematically, he regularly combines text with imagery, and he’s often inspired by the conversations, people, and the city surrounding him.

For one of his most popular series, a combination of party gossip and local lore inspired him. Shortly after moving, he heard boozed-up friends describing metro movers and shakers as “Omaha Famous.” Using his love for pop culture, he decided to borrow this phrase and started illustrating portraits of actual famous people who were born in Omaha. Perhaps nowhere else will you find a collection that includes the likes of activist Malcolm X, President Gerald R. Ford, and Lady Gaga’s ex and “cool Nebraska guy” Lüc Carl. There’s even a coloring book available online, so you too can shade the mugs of Conor Oberst and Marlon Brando for only $4.

“What I love about Omaha—and why it inspires me—is it has a small-town feel but in a big-city atmosphere. I haven’t found that elsewhere,” Couse says.

Couse has further made an impact in the community through his creative freelance work. Often collaborating with branding agency Secret Penguin, he’s helped design packaging for Eat Fit Go, design signs for Flagship Commons, and developed promotional material for
“We Don’t Coast.”

As if all that combined with balancing a full-time retail job and playing daddy to a newborn wasn’t enough, he also preps collections of his work to show at local galleries, with a recent exhibit at Harney Street Gallery.

“I’m always searching for ways I can do better in life, better in my craft,” Couse says.

With Omaha and all of its oddities keeping him so busy, art projects get done when he can find the time. If one makes him a sweet penny, then great. If not, that’s A-OK with Couse, too.

“My end goal is to have fun and inspire other people to create things,” Couse says. “It’s not complicated. I just hope my art makes people smile for even a second.”

And there’s nothing downright weird about that at all.

Visit christophervaughncouse.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Encounter.

Christopher Couse

Seamus Campbell Takes the Stage

June 14, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Like so many kids, 9-year-old Seamus Campbell loves The Jungle Book. He’s one of countless children to be enchanted by the thought of boppin’ around the jungle with cool, scat-singing Baloo, relishing the “Bare Necessities” that can make life so grand.

But he’s not just another kid imagining himself to be Mowgli, the freewheeling man-cub searching for his place in the jungle. This year, Campbell became Mowgli.

Omaha Performing Arts’ Disney Musicals in Schools program, produced in collaboration with Disney Theatrical Group, let Campbell and some of his Harrison Elementary classmates take on the role of storyteller and perform in their own production of The Jungle Book.

Campbell, who played the role of Mowgli, uses words like “proud” and “fun” a lot when describing his experience.

“It’s been so fun,” Campbell says. “Mowgli gets a lot of lines and gets to move around a lot. I like the dancing, running around, talking, getting to put on costumes…It’s fun that we all get to know each other better.”

Campbell’s love of The Jungle Book—particularly Disney’s 1967 animated movie version—was his original inspiration to participate. He describes Mowgli as “very stubborn,” but says his character learns “a whole lot, like trusting your friends and listening to others.”

Kathleen Lawler Hustead, Omaha Performing Arts’ education manager, says her team kicked off the program for the 2016/2017 school year, letting third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students from five OPS elementary schools explore musical theater from a new angle. Omaha Performing Arts is the 13th arts organization in the nation to implement the Disney Musicals in Schools program, which began in 2009.

“Disney only selects performing arts organizations with strong education departments, so we were thrilled to be among the select few brought into the program,” Lawler Hustead says.

The program is designed for sustainability, so Disney-trained, local teaching artists work with each school in its first year to develop school team members into music directors, choreographers, and stage managers, with the skills and confidence to continue the program when the teaching artists transition to the next batch of first-year schools.

“The great part about this program is it will continue for many years to come,” Lawler Hustead says, noting that after schools complete year one, they move to alumni status and continue to receive support and free or discounted materials in subsequent years. “We’ll add five new schools each year, with the eventual goal of nearly every elementary school in the Omaha area, and potentially beyond, having these sustainable musical theater programs.”

“It’s been so fun,” Campbell says. “Mowgli gets a lot of lines and gets to move around a lot. I like the dancing, running around, talking, getting to put on costumes…It’s fun that we all get to know each other better.”

Participating elementary schools are chosen based on need and commitment to sustaining the program in coming years. In addition to Harrison performing The Jungle Book, Omaha’s other Disney Musicals in Schools pioneers were Crestridge, Kennedy, and Wilson Focus—each performing The Lion King—and Liberty performing Aladdin.

After 17 weeks of preparation and rehearsal, Campbell and the other participating students performed the 30-minute shows at their schools. They also performed select songs at an all-school Student Share Celebration, produced by Omaha Performing Arts and held at the Holland Center.

“I am so proud of our kids and staff,” Harrison Principal Andrea Haynes says. “It just shows you that kids have this capacity and latent talent, and it’s our job to give them opportunities to cultivate that.”

Teaching artists Kelsey Schwenker and Sarah Gibson coached the Harrison team, which consisted of (director) fourth grade teacher Callen Goodrich, (music director) first grade teacher Anna Rivedal, (choreographer) librarian Rachel Prieksat, (stage manager) parent Danielle Herzog, (costume and set designer) paraprofessional Elizabeth Newman, and (production assistant) school secretary Linda Davey.

While the team successfully conjured Disney magic, there was much more to it than a simple flick of Tinker Bell’s wand. The school team and students devoted many extra hours of hard work and practice. Campbell is quick to agree that being in a musical is part work and part play—so what made him want to devote extra time between busy school days and evening Boy Scouts meetings?

“To make everyone like the play,” he says. “Since my parents and everyone are going to see it, I want to do a good job and make my family proud.”

Campbell’s eyes light up when he describes seeing the set and costumes for the first time.

“When the door opened, we saw there were vines, plants, and a rock—and it was raining glitter!” Campbell says.

The Harrison team created a vibrant jungle atmosphere and costumed the cast into a believable band of panthers, monkeys, snakes, tigers, wolves, bears, and, of course, one “man-cub.” At the Student Share, the creative, colorful costumes on display from all the schools were second only to the students’ enthusiasm.

“It’s been so inspiring to see what this program does for students and teachers, and to watch the students light up and grow over the process,” Lawler Hustead says. “Not only are they learning to sing, dance, and act, they’re learning critical thinking skills, problem-solving, communication, self-confidence, and how to be a team player.”

Campbell, who also loves Star Wars, football, and Percy Jackson, says his experience taught him to be brave and, of course, that the show must always go on.

“[If you mess up], you just redo the line or skip by that line,” he says confidently.

Haynes says exposing young kids to the arts fosters an important self-reliance.

“It can plant the seed in them that they can do anything,” she says. “That sense of self-confidence is so important in this world, and will carry you through all kinds of obstacles.”

Visit omahaperformingarts.org for more information.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Seamus Campbell

A New Day Arisen

June 7, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kelly Hill stands on the corner of 30th and Lake streets admiring Salem Baptist Church’s towering cross, which looms over the landscape. A member of the church for more than 15 years, Kelly grew up in the now-demolished Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects not far from the area. He can remember a time before Salem sat atop the hill, when the Hilltop Homes housing projects occupied the area.

“I left Omaha to join the military in 1975, and I didn’t return until 1995. I missed all of the gangs and bad stuff in Hilltop,” Hill remembers. “When I was a kid, it wasn’t a bad area at all. Me and my sister would play around there all the time.”

Within those 20 years, Hill was fortunate to have missed Hilltop’s downfall, as it would eventually become one of Omaha’s most notorious housing projects.

A major blight on North Omaha’s image in the 1980s to mid-1990s, Hilltop Homes would eventually be the second major housing project demolished in the metro area after Logan Fontenelle.

Before Hilltop Home’s razing in 1995—which had the unfortunate consequence of displacing many lower-income minority residents—the plague of drugs, murders, and gang activity had turned the area’s housing projects into a localized war zone.

It was a far cry from their humble beginnings as proud housing tenements for Omaha’s burgeoning minority population that exploded in the 1940s.

Edwin Benson

Built around Omaha’s oldest pioneer resting place, the neighborhood takes its name from Prospect Hill Cemetery on 32nd and Parker streets. Prospect Place was repurposed by the U.S. government to house a large influx of minority and low-income residents, mostly African-Americans, who migrated to Omaha seeking opportunities outside the oppressive South during the mid-20th century. Some 700 units of public housing emerged across the city in the 1940s, including Hilltop Homes and the nearby Pleasantview Apartments.

The projects were conveniently situated. Hilltop’s 225 units were positioned in a centralized location along 30th and Lake streets, near the factory and meatpacking plants on 16th Street to the east, with Omaha Technical High School to the south (the largest high school west of Chicago at the time).

Multiple generations of families would come to call Hilltop and Pleasantview their first homes; however, the collapse of the job structure on the north side of Omaha in the late 1960s would be a major catalyst in Prospect Place’s eventual downfall.

Successful factories and stores that kept the area afloat—such as The Storz Brewery and Safeway Grocery Store—closed their doors. At the same time, new civil rights laws prohibiting job discrimination were being passed. Some believe that fear of change, and fear of civil rights era legislations, motivated major employers in the community to move from northeast Omaha westward. A disappointing trend of joblessness and poverty would eventually devolve the community into a powder keg ready to blow.

Multiple riots at the tail end of the 1960s would take an additional toll on North Omaha. Four instances of civil unrest would erupt from 1966 to 1969, decimating the community.

“Too many kids were getting shot, killed, it was pretty bad in Hilltop.” Benson says.

The last North Omaha riot would happen a day after Vivian Strong was shot and killed by Omaha police in the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects not far from Prospect Place. Rioters would go on to fire-bomb and destroy a multitude of businesses and storefronts in the neighborhood.

The local chapter of the Omaha Black Panthers would stand guard outside of black-owned businesses like the Omaha Star building at 24th and Lake streets in order to prevent its destruction. Many businesses would never recover from the millions of dollars in damages caused by the riots.

These disturbances would mark an important time-frame for Hilltop and Pleasantview’s gradual downfall. The turbulence within the community, spearheaded by systematic racism and poverty would take its toll on the area.

The Prospect Place projects would devolve into a dilapidated ghetto, with even harsher times awaiting the neighborhood as gangs and crack-cocaine would hit the city hard in the 1980s.

Omaha wasn’t a place people would have thought the gangs of Los Angeles, California, would make a strong showing. Quite the contrary,  gang members from the West Coast would eventually discover Omaha’s smaller urban landscape to be an untouched and lucrative territory.

Ex-gang member Edwin Benson can remember the switch taking hold in his later teenage years.

“The Crips came first, I’d say around the mid-to-late 1980s. They took over areas like 40th Avenue and Hilltop,” Benson says. “The Bloods’ territory was further east, big in the Logan Fontenelle projects and up and down 16th Street. So, gang-banging kind of took over the city for a long while.”

The isolated, maze-like structure of Hilltop and Pleasantview, along with the high-rise apartments added in the 1960s by the Omaha Housing Authority, would make them ideal locations for the burgeoning Hilltop Crips and other smaller street gangs.

“I can remember kids from Hilltop coming over to Pleasantview and starting trouble.” Benson recalls. “We would fight about who had the better projects! We fought with our fists, rocks, sticks…whatever was close you got hit with!”

A refuge for illicit activity had sprung to life within Prospect Place in the 1980s. Members of the community, as well as police officers, grew hesitant to venture into the area. Hilltop became a forgotten segment of the city, lost to the surrounding metro’s progress, marred by a decade of violent crime and drug offenses.

Hilltop would see an unfortunate trend of senseless homicides and gun violence that would peak in the early ’90s.

In 1990, two young men from Sioux City were shot outside of Hilltop when they stopped to ask for directions to the Omaha Civic Auditorium on their way to an MC Hammer concert.

In 1991, a 14-year-old boy was arrested for stabbing a 13-year-old boy during a fight. That same year, a local Crip gang member was gunned down at the 7-Eleven on 30th and Lake across the street from Hilltop.

In 1993, the pointless murder of another teenager may have finally spelled Hilltop’s doom. 14-year-old Charezetta Swiney—known as “Chucky” to friends and family—was shot in the head from point-blank range over a parking space dispute on Oct. 22. A sad occasion at the beginning of the school year, Benson High School was gracious enough to host the high school freshman’s funeral with more than 700 people in attendance. She was the 31st person slain in Omaha that year.

Jay W. Green, 27, would eventually be found guilty of Swiney’s homicide, charged with second-degree murder and use of a firearm to commit a felony in the summer of 1994. At the end of that same year, Omaha’s City Council would begin laying the groundwork for Hilltop Homes’ eventual razing in 1995.

Benson, the former gang member, believes Swiney’s murder and the rampant gang activity within Prospect Place were the main reasons for Hilltop Homes’ demolition.

“Too many kids were getting shot, killed, it was pretty bad in Hilltop.” Benson says. “Once the projects were gone, I think the Hilltop Crips just kind of faded out. We would joke and call them the ‘Scatter-site Crips’ since everyone was being moved to the scatter-site housing out west! If you hear someone claiming Hilltop these days they are living in the past.”

The demolition would leave a desolate space in its wake. Fortunately, the barren eyesore would not last long, as Salem Baptist Church would make their ambitious proposal for the site in 1996.

“I can remember me and my sister marching from the old church grounds on 3336 Lake St. to the new site on the hilltop,” Hill says, reminiscing with vivid recollection of April 19, 1998, the church’s groundbreaking. It was a glorious Sunday for church members, led by then-senior pastor Maurice Watson, a culmination of Salem’s proposed “Vision to Victory.”

Salem’s groundbreaking ceremony was heralded, marking the once-troubled land of Prospect Place as an “oasis of hope.” The community witnessed the progress as the newly razed 18 acres of land transformed from a vestige of poverty into a church sanctuary seating 1,300 people, in addition to classrooms, a multi-purpose fellowship hall, a nursery, and ample parking. Prospect Place was undergoing a new renaissance which would continue well into the new millennium.

Othello Meadows is the newest pioneer at the head of changing the image of Prospect Place. Having grown up on Omaha’s north side, Meadows remembers the projects as “a place not to linger if you weren’t from there.” After years away from his hometown, seeing the remnants of Hilltop Homes and Pleasantview Apartments was eye-opening.

“When I came back to Omaha, I was surprised by the disinvestment in the area after the projects were gone,” he says. “It went from housing thousands of people, to a sense of abandonment; like, only two houses were occupied on the entire block.”

Meadows’ words ring true. Other than Salem’s deal with Walgreens, which acquired acres of land for around $450,000, no additional development had taken place for years within Prospect Place. Fortunately, Meadows and the 75 North Revitalization Corp. are looking to reinvigorate the area.

As the executive director of 75 North, Meadows refers to Prospect Place as the “Highlander” area, which helps to separate the land from its troubled past. His goal is to bring life back to the area.

The development company now owns the land where the Pleasantview apartments resided before being demolished in 2008. A plan for a new neighborhood with continued growth is the main focus for the area, and he expects tangible progress in the coming months.

“If you drive down 30th Street between Parker and Blondo, you’ll see real work happening and real things going on.” Meadows says. “We have about 12 buildings under construction that are 50-70 percent complete [as of early February 2017], including a community enrichment center called the Accelerator that is 65,000 square feet, a very beautiful building. By late April to early May 2017 we should have some apartments up, and we already have people putting down deposits and signing leases. People are excited to be moving into the neighborhood.”

When asked about the targeted clientele for the new apartments and retail space, Meadows provides a broad answer: “The motto that we follow is—trying to create a mixed-income community. We’re not trying to recreate the projects, of course, but we also don’t want to create a neighborhood where longtime residents can’t afford to live. We have to balance the prospects of affordability and aspirational thinking.”

Indeed, when looking at the seventyfivenorth.org website, the ambitious vision for the Highlander Apartments is a far cry from the projects. Photo galleries and floor plans envision a renewed community akin to Midtown Crossing and Aksarben Village. The images are cheerful, depicting people riding bikes and walking dogs, even an imagined coffee shop.

In a way, the renewed development, optimism, and potential for economic growth in the Highlander area can trace its roots back to the members of Salem and their desire to build a signal of hope where it once was lost.

But Hill (the former Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects resident who left Omaha in 1975 and returned in 1995) doesn’t think the church is given adequate recognition for its contributions.

“If a person didn’t know this place’s history of violence and poverty before Salem was built, they would only see the progress in this area as simple land development,” Hill says. “Salem doesn’t tend to broadcast the things they do for the area other than to its members, so those on the outside don’t necessarily recognize its lasting influence.”

It’s undeniable that the soaring church spire on the hill is a spectacle to behold on a bright, sunny day. It stands as a symbol of hope and belief. Benson still looks at the former site of Prospect Place with a hint of longing.

“I know it might sound crazy, but I was a little sad when Hilltop was torn down.” he admits. “A lot of good memories were made in those projects. But I love seeing the church up there. I hope whatever comes next is good for the community.”

Visit salembc.org for more information about Salem Baptist Church. Visit seventyfivenorth.org for more information about 75 North.

Salem Baptist Church


April 11, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann


“Are you ready to see some flying fish?” asks Rich Porter, tournament director for the Bowfishers of Nebraska. Porter steers toward the river’s confluence, and we nock arrows on bowstrings. We are ready. Or so we think.

Cruising the banks of the Missouri River, we are hunting for Asian carp—the invasive fish wreaking havoc across Midwestern waterways.

As we glide into the mouth of the Little Sioux River, Porter revs the boat’s outboard motor. It’s as if he flipped a switch, sending an electrical current through the water. The noise startles hundreds of silver carp, suddenly airborne in an explosion of shimmering scales and bulging eyes.

“Shoot them, shoot them!” Porter yells, laughing as he shields his face from floppy carp-missiles leaping in every direction. Carp launch themselves into the boat, crashing into our bodies, flip-flopping across our gear, bouncing over the steering wheel.

Omaha Magazine creative director, Bill Sitzmann, lets a barb-tipped arrow fly from a specialized “lever” bow (rigged with fishing reel and 200-pound test line). But the wriggling wall of flying fish proves to be a more difficult target than isolated underwater carp, which we have been stealthily approaching all day along the riverbanks.

Silver carp, grass carp, and bighead carp are three varieties of Asian carp that infiltrated the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries. All three species are firmly established in Nebraska waters. They are different species than common carp, but they are all bad news.

Rich Porter displays a grass carp caught by bow.

Why are they bad? Silver carp, in particular, are notorious for jumping when scared. Most weigh between 10 and 25 pounds (and grow upwards of 50 pounds) and have been known to jump eight feet. Boats traveling at moderate speeds can suffer broken windows from collisions with the fish. Passengers on boats have reported cuts from fins, black eyes, broken bones, back injuries, and concussions.

Bigheads don’t jump, and grass carp seldom jump, Porter says. Both grow much larger than silver carp (Nebraska’s state bowfishing records for bighead and grass carp each weighed about 80 pounds). But all carp varieties have proven themselves disastrous for the North American ecosystem.

They are prolific breeders; a single carp is capable of laying millions of eggs each year, and they disrupt food chains by crowding out native fish. “The biggest problem with silver and bighead carp is that they are filter-feeders. They eat the plankton and zooplankton that all other fish fry [i.e., baby fish] rely on,” Porter says. Grass carp, on the other hand, feed on aquatic plants.

Common carp—also known as German carp—were introduced to North America in the 1800s. They are also considered a pest (and a target for bowfishers nationwide). Their bottom-sucking omnivorous feeding disrupts aquatic habitat, increases water siltation, and contributes to algal blooms.

Silver and bighead carp arrived in the United States around the 1960s. Aquaculture farmers in Arkansas introduced them into catfish ponds. After floodwaters breached the fish farms, Asian carp escaped and proliferated in the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers.

“The first bighead and silver carp that I remember being shot was at Gavins Point Dam in 1993,” Porter says, adding that fisheries management officials worldwide have introduced grass carp in lakes to control aquatic vegetation. But he says grass carp have become a nuisance in rivers, too.

Major Mississippi River floods during the 1990s helped Asian carp migrate upstream to Nebraska. When they arrived, Porter was ready. “I’ve been shooting carp for 30 years. Invasive carp are a national problem, really,” he says, noting that he got started with common carp.

Porter makes a weighty contribution with his bow and arrow. “Last year I probably shot 20,000 pounds of fish, and my very best year was pushing close to 30,000 pounds,” Porter says. “Bowfishing is a great method for selective harvest of non-game fish. We removed close to 15 tons of invasive species fish during Nebraska tournaments in 2016, and that was just five tournaments.”

On May 13, the Bowfishers of Nebraska will host the 30th annual Carp-o-Rama. The tournament is open to the entire Missouri River Valley system (which includes the Missouri River itself and nearby lakes). Weigh-in takes place at Cottonwood Cove Marina in Blair at 5 p.m.

“Last year we had more than 60 teams, and this year we’re expecting 75-100 teams,” he says.

The months of May and June, Porter says, are the best time of the year for bowfishing carp, when warming water temperatures drive carp to spawn and feed. But we set out late in the season, on an overcast day in mid-August.

We meet Porter at a gas station in Tekamah, Nebraska (roughly an hour north of Omaha). Following him to the nearest Missouri River access ramp, we board his flat-bottom boat and embark on our mission to save the environment (and slaughter as many Asian carp as we can manage).

Porter’s camouflage-painted boat is the perfect seek-and-destroy attack vehicle in the war against invasive carp. It’s a 20-footer outfitted with an elevated platform for bowfishing anglers to scan the water for invasive prey.

The Missouri River’s water looks like chocolate milk. Recent rains have disrupted visibility, making it difficult to identify carp hovering underwater. Polarized sunglasses help cut glare from the sky’s reflection. Luckily, the river’s surface remains relatively calm. Porter says conditions are not optimal, but he is confident we will have plenty of action.

We start with some instructional target practice. The first carp we come across is a silver. Scared by the approaching boat, it jumps onboard with us. We don’t have a chance to shoot.

Porter offers a quick tutorial. “Look for shadows or backs sticking out of the water, or fish jumping,” he says. Upon identifying a shadowy form, Porter shows how it’s done. He draws fast and releases. He pulls in a large silver carp. Then, he effortlessly snipes a few more.

I miss over and over again. But, soon enough, we are all landing fish.

Turning off of the Missouri River, Porter steers his boat into an intersecting canal lined with homes and docks.

A local resident waves from her canal-facing porch. From her deck chair, she yells a greeting: “Shooting Asian carp?” Porter responds in a friendly drawl, “Yup.” She shouts back, “Great! Shoot ’em all!” as we float down the canal.

Ripples have begun forming about six feet ahead of the boat, like the wake of a hidden submarine. “Can you tell where the carp are?” Porter asks. We are herding them like a fish stampede. At the end of the canal, the carp scatter in all directions. We retrace our route, hunting back to the canal’s entrance.

Over the course of the day, the three of us fill the boat’s cooler with silver carp, grass carp, and gar. Gar are another species of rough fish popular with bowfishing anglers. Although native to Nebraska (not invasive), they are fun to catch with bow and arrow. But their armor-plated exterior makes their meat difficult to access.

In Nebraska, there is no particular season for bowfishing carp or other unprotected “rough fish” (any fish that is not game fish, such as carp or gar), though there are some practical limitations. First and foremost, a valid fishing license is required to bowfish in Nebraska waters.

In shallow bays during the spring, spawning common carp boil to the surface in massive piles that bowfishers target from shore or boat (this can be found statewide in waters). The most popular destination for shooting Asian carp, however, is Gavins Point Dam on Nebraska’s border with South Dakota (about three hours north of Omaha, where the Missouri River curves west).

Nebraska regulations prohibit bowfishing of game fish (e.g., trout, panfish, bass, pike, etc.) until after July 1, when bowfishing gear can be used to target both rough and sport fish. Using a bow and arrow makes catch-and-release impossible, so bowfishermen are responsible for being able to identify the fish species they target.

An often-discussed threat of environmental and economic catastrophe involves Asian carp reaching the Great Lakes via Chicago canals that connect Lake Michigan to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been sunk already into research, electrical gates, and various safeguards protecting the Great Lakes’ $7 billion commercial and sport fisheries.

It has been said: “If you can’t beat it, eat it.” Asian carp demonstrate the axiom with mouth-watering results. Unfortunately, carp have a bad reputation with many American diners due to the large quantity of bones in their flesh.

Porter has a secret recipe (and, no, it doesn’t involve baking carp on a wood shingle for 10 hours, then discarding the fish, and eating the shingle, as the jocular folk recipe suggests). He uses a dishwashing machine to poach fillets:

“Take a fillet of Asian carp, wrap it in aluminum foil with your favorite seasonings and butter, place it on the top rack of an empty dishwasher—believe it or not, I’ve told people this recipe, and they’ve tried it while doing dishes—run a full cycle, and when you remove it, the meat flakes off the bone and can be used in fish tacos, fried for fish sandwiches, or used in crab cakes. Once you poach it, you can use the meat for any recipe that calls for fish. Blackened fish tacos are my favorite.”

On a successful early summer day of bowfishing on the Missouri, Porter says he might take home 500-1,000 pounds of carp. Since he usually has more than enough at home, he donates the meat to the community.

Whenever he finds himself with a literal boatload of carp, he makes a call to a friend in the North Omaha neighborhood where he grew up. He pulls up to the house, and a crowd gathers around his boat trailer. Porter climbs up and hauls carp from the cooler until everyone is satisfied or the cooler is empty—whichever comes first.

“The guys I’m giving fish to know, but the general population does not realize how good these Asian carp taste,” Porter says. “It’s the association with the common carp. People don’t realize they are two different species.”

One of the best known Omaha establishments to serve carp is Joe Tess Place (5424 S. 24th St.), famous for its deep-fried carp, where the fish is cooked at such a high temperature that the bones dissolve. The carp is harvested fresh from lakes in Iowa.

“In Illinois, the government has started up a fish processing center for Asian carp, and on a national level, there is already one state that is trying to utilize a surplus of edible fish,” Porter says. “My understanding is that fishermen will bring them in, and they are selling them back to Asia or to the Asian markets.”

Aside from winning taste buds, Porter says hooking youths on the sport of bowfishing is the next best means of controlling the invasive species.

Carp-o-Rama’s family festival atmosphere offers one method of attracting future carp-hunters. The Nebraska Bow Fishing Mentor Program, established by volunteer organizer Nick Tramp, is another lure.

The mentorship program is entering its fourth year. In 2017, Tramp (based out of Allen, Nebraska) will take students of all ages to Ponca State Park and Gavins Point in July. Meanwhile, Zac Hickle of Elkhorn will focus on Omaha youths with trips to DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in May and June.

“We’re just doing it to get kids off the couch and away from video games and teach them some life skills,” Tramp says, adding the program starts with a bow tutorial. All the gear will be provided, and Bowfishers of Nebraska volunteer as instructors. Youths under the age of 16 do not need a fishing license in Nebraska.

Carp is not considered a “sport” fish, but the fight is comparable to many larger game fish in faraway locations expensive to reach from Omaha.

“If you stick an arrow in a 20-pound-plus river carp, you better sit down and hold on, because it’s going to strip your reel; you’re going to have a strong fish that has grown up fighting the current,” Tramp says. “They are going to pull you right around the river.”

Porter demonstrates the fight when he lands the biggest catch of Omaha Magazine’s bowfishing trip. He sinks an arrow into a massive carp. The fish runs. Ten minutes later, Porter lands the 25-pound grass carp.

By the end of the day, my arms are sore from shooting fish and hauling carp into the boat. I head back to Omaha content, with a pile of Asian carp fillets ready to deep-fry at home (or poach in my dishwasher, if I’m brave enough to follow Porter’s advice).

Visit carp-o-rama.com for more information about Carp-o-Rama. More information about the Nebraska Bow Fishing Mentor Program is available on the group’s Facebook page.

Dishwasher-Poached Fish — Rich Porter’s Favorite Recipe for Asian Carp

  1. Take a fillet of Asian carp.
  2. Wrap it in aluminum foil with preferred seasonings and butter.
  3. Place it on the top rack of an empty dishwashing machine.
  4. Run a full cycle (without any dirty dishes).
  5. When the dishwasher turns off, the fish is poached in the aluminum foil packet.
  6. The poached meat flakes off the bone and can be used any recipe that calls for fish.
  7. Rich Porter’s favorite: blackened Asian carp tacos.

This article appeared in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Gone Girls

March 7, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It only took a couple weeks to transform a naive young woman from a suburban Omahan into a crack-smoking L.A. prostitute.

It all began in late September of 1998, the day Melissa Conover’s car broke down near 30th and Dodge streets. She was 21 years old at the time and going through a rebellious phase. She headed for the nearest pay telephone booth, to call for help from a gas station.

An unfamiliar man was sipping a beer nearby on the street corner. The friendly stranger struck up a conversation. He even offered to fix her car. Melissa was thrilled. She wouldn’t need to beg mom and dad for repairs.

They drove to a nearby house and parked. The man went inside, claiming he was going to grab his tools. Melissa waited in the car. When he returned, the man asked if she “smoked.”

“Weed?” she asked.

“Crack,” he said.

“No, absolutely not,” she remembers saying.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” he replied.

Suddenly, Melissa says, the once-friendly stranger scrambled to pin her body. He climbed on top of her. He forced her to inhale fumes from his crack pipe.

Thus began a three-month-long blur. She vaguely recalls passing Lincoln on I-80. She woke in Wyoming the next day. The West rolled by in scattershot visions. She was on the road to becoming another victim of human trafficking in the United States.

Worldwide, some 20.9 million human trafficking victims are trapped in modern-day slavery, according to the International Labour Organization. Their horrific experiences generate billions of dollars in profit for abductors and criminal syndicates.

But the scourge is not just a foreign phenomenon. In the United States, the anti-trafficking Polaris Project estimates “the total number of victims nationally reaches into the hundreds of thousands” when estimates of sex trafficking and labor trafficking for adults and minors are aggregated. A 2015 study by University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors Ron Hampton and Dwayne Ball reported that an average of nearly 50 young Nebraska women are known to fall victim to sex trafficking every year, while the actual number is “certainly much higher.”

Victims like Melissa are increasingly speaking out. The Polaris Project reported that more than 1,600 survivors of human trafficking had reached out for help in 2015—a 24 percent increase from the previous year—based on statistics from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline and Polaris BeFree Textline.

For Melissa, the path to redemption—to becoming a survivor—has been an arduous journey.

From Wyoming, Melissa and her abductor traveled onward to California. He was “grooming” her, using drugs and violence to instill obedience. He threatened to harm her family if she fled. “I wasn’t allowed to be looking in any direction at another man; that was a violation,” she says. “I was not allowed to speak. He spoke for me. There were the beatings, the threats, the brainwashing.”

Her abductor morphed into her pimp at a truck stop in Oakland, California.

After going to the bathroom, she returned to the car. Her abductor introduced another man—a customer. Her abductor commanded her to go with the man, told her what she must do with the man, and told her how much the man needed to pay for her services.

Melissa says she refused. He threatened in response: “Either you’re going to do it, or you’re going to die.” She reassessed her situation. “Well, this is looking like a better option now,” she thought to herself.

She laughs nervously as she recalls the traumatic experience. Her bitter chuckle fades into a sigh of regret. “So I did, and I’ll say, that’s where the crack cocaine came into play for me as a lifesaving thing, because I was violating every moral fiber of the way I was raised.”

That was 17 years ago. In all, she spent three months working as a prostitute on the streets of California.

Melissa, now 38 years old, is telling her story to a reporter at a McDonalds on the edge of Bellevue. She hopes that sharing her experience will help other women and raise awareness about sex trafficking.

She is still grappling with the emotional and psychological trauma of prostitution. She credits her recovery to joining a support group with a local organization, Rejuvenating Women. According to Rejuvenating Women’s website, the non-denominational, non-profit organization is “a community of people dedicated to breaking down barriers of shame and guilt.”

Group meetings are steeped in evangelical faith, bible study, and sharing of experiences. Rejuvenating Women seeks to help women with issues ranging from trafficking to sexual abuse, molestation, teen pregnancy, and abortion. Melissa says the support group is “developed around God because he put us here, and he’s the one who can heal us.”

Although normally shy, Melissa says she has no problem opening up to the group, which averages about 10 women each meeting. “I finally felt like I had a group of sisters that understood,” she says.

Melissa has also begun volunteering with Bound No More, an Omaha area safe house for trafficking victims that is affiliated with Rejuvenating Women.

Melissa says she grew up in a deeply religious family. Their entire social life revolved around church. She attended Trinity Church Interdenominational (which later evolved into Lifegate Church in 2010). Her family went to Sunday service, Wednesday service, Thursday bible study, and her parents volunteered with one of the church’s youth groups.

During her abduction, Melissa’s parents knew she was in California. She says the trafficker forced her to call home, told her what to say, controlled her in every way imaginable. He took her to South Central Los Angeles after staying in Oakland a few weeks.

“In South Central, I was the only white person who was not in a police officer’s uniform that I saw,” she says. “He had me stand on the streets from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. Then, from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., I was panhandling. Every penny I brought in was to support that habit (for crack cocaine), and obviously it was more supporting his habit than it was mine, because I was, you know, not as important. I got the scraps, and he got the whatever.”

Once, a female police officer approached Melissa to ask if she really wanted to be working the streets. She glanced over at her pimp and thought, “My odds of getting extremely injured by the time she gets over here are very high.” So she responded, “Yup, I wanna be here.”

The trafficker eventually telephoned her parents directly to scam extra money, no longer using Melissa as the intermediary. “He said he was sick of me, wanted to send me home.” They sent a bus ticket and a $25 money order so she could return. That was his plan. “He shredded the ticket, threw it in the sewer and cashed in the money order,” she says.

“That was my ticket to freedom,” she says. In despair, she dug in the gutter for ticket scraps. They fought. He tried dragging her away. Then a police officer approached. The officer instructed them to leave the bus station because they were causing a disturbance.

Her nightmare continued until a chance encounter with an unlikely savior. A woman claiming to be a lesbian and high-ranking gang member expressed interest in Melissa. She paid for an hour with a $50 rock of crack cocaine. Melissa says she knew something was strange when the woman, disregarding their prior arrangement, rented the hourly motel room for two hours instead of one.

Melissa says she was pumped full of drugs. Amid the haze, she found herself telling the woman her life story. Outside, Melissa’s pimp grew impatient. He began honking the car horn. As the blaring intensified, her trick became an angel. The woman wanted her to escape. They slipped from the room without her pimp noticing. Then, client and victim walked some 70 blocks across town to Inglewood.

After stopping at a pay phone, Melissa says, the woman told her, “Well, hon, this is where our paths part. I highly suggest you call mommy and daddy and tell them to come get you.”

The woman, walked away and, for the first time in three months, Melissa was alone. She called home. Her parents arranged for a detective to deliver her to the nearest police precinct.

Grime coated her skin. She hadn’t bathed for a month or more. Her father flew immediately to Los Angeles to retrieve his distraught daughter. The following day, she flew back to Omaha. She had lost 75 pounds.

Then, yet another shock. Two weeks after her return, she found out she was pregnant. Her abductor was the baby’s father.

Considering her shattered health, doctors considered the pregnancy high risk. “I was devastated,” she says. “I was like, ‘God, what are you doing?’ I really felt like he was saying, ‘This isn’t punishment; this is a gift. This is what’s going to give you a reason to move on.’”

Her daughter, her Joy, is now 16 years old.

Melissa tried to press charges against the trafficker, but she quickly found herself in a jurisdictional quagmire. The Sarpy County Sheriff’s Department redirected her to Douglas County, which told her to contact the State of California, which told her to contact Nebraska, and so on. “They should have told me immediately to call the FBI because it was an interstate, inter-county issue, but they didn’t,” she says. Over and over she heard, “We can’t help you.”

She lived in fear. She also researched her abductor. When first they met at the Omaha pay phone, he had just arrived in town from Texas. At that time, he was on probation for kidnapping.

Melissa eventually learned that justice found the man in South Dakota, where he is now serving a life sentence stemming from a rape conviction.

Her own trials, though, were far from over. As with most victims of human trafficking, life didn’t magically right itself after rescue from life on the street.

Melissa floundered after returning home. Her parents would eventually take guardianship of their granddaughter, and Melissa began a 15-year-long, off-and-on relationship with a man whose own life soon spiraled into drug addiction. He would eventually persuade Melissa to return to the streets to finance his addiction.

“Once you get into prostitution, it’s very difficult to get out because you know if you really need some money, there is always that,” she says.

By 2008, a decade had passed since she was first forced into prostitution. The trade had moved into the Internet age. No more standing on corners. Her boyfriend would use social media to arrange her meetings with clients.

She picked up two charges during three years of local prostitution: one in Douglas County, another in Pottawattamie County. The 2008 Iowa bust was part of an undercover sting. The pimp-boyfriend was never implicated.

Her boyfriend would shame her for prostituting herself. At the same time, he wanted detailed breakdowns of sexual exchanges. “I love you, but you’re doing this,” he would say, admonishing her and then taking her money. She walked away from the toxic relationship only after a judge issued a protection order on her behalf.

Although the ex-boyfriend is currently in jail for assaulting another woman, Melissa says she fears for her safety when he is free. His release keeps moving forward, she says, and is scheduled for the coming August.

She has been to therapists for years. But she found the sessions unfulfilling. Then, a childhood friend invited her to a Christmas party for Rejuvenating Women. It was a meet and greet. Nothing serious.

“When I finally started to go (to support group meetings), it really started to give me purpose,” she says. “Everything that I had spent the past 17 years looking for fell into place as a survivor working on the side of survivors.”

You never know what you are capable of doing until you’re in a desperate situation,” says Julie Shrader, the founder of Rejuvenating Women, host of Melissa’s support group. Shrader also conducts community outreach, and she collaborates with anti-trafficking groups in Omaha and nationwide.

“They say the life expectancy of a prostitute is seven years, because they either O.D. on drugs, commit suicide, or they are murdered,” Shrader says, speaking from Rejuvenating Women’s office in a counseling facility beside Christ Community Church. A dry-erase board on her cubicle desk wall quotes the Bible (Ezekiel 34:16): “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed….”

While some trafficking victims are forced into prostitution, others may find themselves “choosing” to sell sexual services because of desperate circumstances. Shrader says that older prostitutes are usually “the girl who was 13 years old, and she’s just aged out of the system.”

“A lot of the girls who we have found who have ‘chosen’ [to be prostitutes] have parents who have tried to sell them; they have mom smoking a crack pipe on the couch and dad is in prison,” she says. “They do it out of desperation as well. So, they will run away from home because they are being molested. Maybe their mom’s boyfriend is molesting them. That’s what gets them out of the home. They end up on the streets, desperate, hungry. They’re tired, they need a place to sleep.”

While some sex trafficking victims come from troubled families, others come from ostensibly stable households (as with Melissa). The process of coercion to sell sex, however, is often more subtle than what Melissa endured.

“It usually starts by a guy who comes off as her boyfriend, who starts doting on her, buying her things, telling her she’s beautiful,” Shrader says. The girl hears, “You have beautiful hair, beautiful eyes, whatever,” and then she’s sucked under the control of the “Romeo pimp,” a term Shrader uses for a pimp who methodically targets victims through emotional manipulation.

“We have a girl who took a year [to prostitute herself]; a man was her friend for a year, and his whole intention was to get her out of the state to sell her for sex,” Shrader says, noting that the victims often believe they are in relationships without realizing the pimp has a “stable” of four other girls working for him, too.

Shrader says she began Rejuvenating Women in 2012, compelled by her own experience dropping out of high school, enduring homelessness and working as a stripper. She would later earn her GED, graduate from college, and marry. “When my life got better, when I became happy, I wanted other women to feel the same thing, and I wanted to figure out a way on how to help them,” she says.

Since 2015, Rejuvenating Women began partnering with the Omaha safe house Bound No More. Shrader says Bound No More is the only local safe house working exclusively with victims of trafficking.

Shrader has received threatening calls, texts, and e-mails from pimps seeking to recapture or simply terrorize former victims. Yet she remains resolute in her mission and even participates in community outreach. She explains that sex trafficking is modern day slavery.

“We go speak at different events and teach the public and hopefully change their mindset that these girls didn’t just wake up and decide to be a prostitute,” she says. “Nobody wants to be a prostitute.”

Rejuvenating Women is part of a growing anti-trafficking network in Omaha. Shrader says Omaha has become a lynchpin in human trafficking networks stretching from east to west coast on I-80. Mexican gangs have established a foothold in the city, too, funneling sex and labor trafficking victims back and forth on I-29 from Texas and across the border. Meanwhile, Omaha’s major events—such as the College World Series, Olympic Swim Trials, and Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholder meeting—draw an influx of tourists with a corresponding spike in demand for prostitutes both local and imported.

Local and federal momentum against human trafficking has been building since the turn of the millennium, when Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000.

Following the TVPA, lawmakers nationwide have begun to shift punitive focus away from prostitutes—the victims—to increase consequences for the traffickers, the pimps, and those soliciting sex.

Major anti-trafficking milestones for Nebraska followed in 2012 when Nebraska adopted two statutes to address human trafficking. Last May, the Unicameral added LR186 to “create a comprehensive approach to serving these victims” of human trafficking. Also, the addition of LB294 further revised statutes and strengthen penalties for human trafficking.

According to the TVPA, a human trafficking victim is anyone “induced to perform labor or a commercial sex act through force, fraud, or coercion.”

“I don’t think that either culturally or legally we are to the point yet that we can say that all individuals engaged in prostitution are victims of sex trafficking,” says Stephen Patrick O’Meara, coordinator of the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force.

Drawing on his previous work experience as the main prosecutor for the Omaha Child Exploitation Task Force, O’Meara observed that, “I have yet to see the situation where a person engaged in prostitution is not a victim, and when I say victim, I mean that they give full legal consent to engaging in commercial sex acts for another person; for a pimp.”

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson appointed O’Meara to lead the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force last May. Five years earlier, he was involved in the FBI’s establishment of the Omaha Child Exploitation Task Force in conjunction with regional law enforcement offices and the U.S. Department of Justice.

O’Meara’s former colleagues made headlines in mid-October with Operation Cross Country IX, a weeklong nationwide bust that arrested 153 pimps and rescued 149 underage victims (including three male and three transgender victims). The youngest victim was 12 years old. Locally, the Omaha Child Exploitation Task Force arrested 21, including three pimps, and rescued two victims, the FBI announced on Oct. 13.

The following week, O’Meara unveiled the Attorney General’s Strategic Plan for combatting human trafficking. The plan featured a 69-page “Report and Recommendations Regarding Establishment of the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force (NHTTF).”

A U.S. Department of Justice grant worth $1.5 million funded establishment of the task force; $600,000 went to the Attorney General for coordination with law enforcement and prosecution; $900,000 went to the Salvation Army for victim/survivor services. Omaha-based Alicia Webber is the Salvation Army’s Human Trafficking Task Force Coordinator, the trafficking survivor flipside to O’Meara’s role with enforcement and prosecution.

Some 50 agencies participated in producing the initial NHTTF report, O’Meara says. Now, many more—ranging from law enforcement departments, to social welfare organizations, to tribal governments, to hospitals—are actively engaged with the task force.

O’Meara, Webber, and other key stakeholders have been frequently traveling across Nebraska. They speak with city governments. They speak with hotel and hospitality services to explain the clues that trafficking could be occurring in their workplace. They speak with hospital staff and health care workers about the warning signs that a patient could be a victim of sex trafficking.

Aside from “trying to help victims of human trafficking” and “to investigate and prosecute the human traffickers,” O’Meara says the task force’s third emphasis is “to reduce demand, and the demand is 100 percent encapsulated in the buyer.”

“No buyers. No sex trafficking. That’s just the bottom line,” he says.

Melissa, the sex trafficking survivor with Rejuvenating Women, hopes Nebraska’s investment in combatting sex trafficking will prevent others from suffering what she endured. She also hopes that progressive-thinking lawmakers realize that adult victims deserve a chance to expunge prostitution offenses from criminal records.

O’Meara has heard the argument discussed. He says minors won’t be charged because they lack the ability to consent. When it comes to adults, he hopes that better trained officers will stop arresting trafficking victims confused for prostitutes.

In March of 2016, O’Meara says the task force will roll out formal training for law enforcement agencies across Nebraska. “The default position should be that we presume with a strong likelihood that persons engaged in prostitution are in fact victims,” he says.

Our society, he says, should stop blaming the victims.


Chris Cook

March 3, 2016 by
Photography by Scott Drickey

This is an open letter to the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art’s new executive director.

Mr. Cook,

Welcome to The Cornhusker State and The Big ‘O.’ And welcome to beef country, tornado alley, and the heartland. All packaged, of course, in the warm embrace that is “The Good Life.”


If you didn’t catch my Morse-coded pen clicks when I interviewed you last October, your first month in town, that’s my only advice to you as a fellow transplant: Run. Run back to Florida, back to Miami and Cannonball and all the great things you did there in innovative forms of cultural production and education to advance critical discourse and understanding of contemporary art.

Look, I get it. The Bemis Center’s executive director position is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You’re 40, ready to make your mark at an internationally renowned artist-in-residence program. But believe me when I tell you this: Omaha will husk your heart and butter it and consume every last morsel of it, and then you’ll never be able to feel whole outside of this town again.

The ice age of January will be underway when this article is printed. And you’ll also have one of the organization’s fabled annual art auctions under your belt. By then you’ll have a manic sense of community and belonging…

That’s just the prairie fever kicking in. It has something to do with the wind and isolation.You’ll soon find out. Then again, you seemed to already have at least a Wikipedia’s grasp of our climate:

“I’m certainly looking forward to four true seasons and rotating the wardrobe and dusting off my winter driving skills for sure,” you joked with me on that false autumn day.

It was all I could do to keep from laughing. “Four seasons.” Good one. You’re going to need that sense of humor to survive our dry (as in wry) climate. As for the seasons, there are only two: too hot and too cold.

But you knew that. You’ve dabbled in Midwestern affairs curating at the Sioux City Art Center, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, and the Salina Art Center in Salina, Kansas.

“Returning to this part of the country is returning to an old friend,” you confessed. “I seem not to be able to get away from the Missouri River.”

But you’re not here to rekindle old relationships, are you? You’re here to make new ones.

“I’m trying to download as much information as possible in terms of the history of the organization [the Bemis Center], so I can try to better understand the context here,” you said. “And it’s also a period of establishing relationships and asking relevant and sometimes critical questions to better understand where we are and where we need to go as
an organization.”

Well, at least you have your job. Because the way I see it, if you’re reading this and you’re still in Omaha, it’s already too late. You’re now one of us. Go ahead, try and run.

“It’s not just about the Bemis, and it’s not just about the history and legacy that the organization has,” you said. “It’s about a certain quality of life one can have in Omaha. I’ve finally seen the light.”

Visit bemiscenter.org to learn more.


Living Small to Live Large

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sometimes to live large, you’ve got to live small—very small.

This, at least, is the working mantra of Kevin and Amanda Kohler, who occupy a 620 square-foot condo off of 16th and Farnam streets.

The Kohlers happily insist they have all the room they need.

“With a smaller space, you invest in the quality rather than the quantity of things,” Amanda says. “Everything in here, I like.”


When questioned why they downsized from a living place originally twice as large, the Kohlers explain their two main incentives—running a business and traveling comfortably. They own and operate the technology company KOVUS.

The couple traveled to 16 countries during the last five years, journeying throughout Africa, Europe, Asia, and South America. The logic is simple—
by spending less on a mortgage, the Kohlers save their income for a budget to travel at will.

Although the two admit they first thought downsizing would be temporary and challenging, they wound up hooked on traveling, which easily balanced out the predicaments of living on a small scale.

“I would rather live here and travel the world than live in a big city and be hamstrung,” Kevin says.

Despite travels to such exotic locales as India, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, Omaha remains the Kohlers’ consistent home base, especially since they enjoy owning a business here.


“There are so many people I can connect with here that have been beyond helpful in building our business,” Amanda says. “Every single person I reach out to or ask for advice is willing to help—it’s a very collaborative environment.”

Living in the heart of downtown, according to Kevin and Amanda, can be both inexpensive and accessible. The two share a car, but walk to dozens of restaurants or stores. Their building even offers an in-house coffee shop called Culprit.

The small space they inhabit is more than just a footnote to this convenience, however.

“[Living small] forces you into a more minimalistic lifestyle,” Amanda says. “Now that we have a 2-by-2 closet to store stuff, it forces you to be disciplined about the things you need. You have to be creative about how you purpose things.”

The cabinet in their living room doubles as a covert litterbox for Archie, their 20-pound cat, while the couple joke that an old clothes stool now dually serves as the communal scratching-post. The small closets divide into basins to stow shoes, clothes, camera equipment, and other items. The couple purchase good food, good wine, and experiences as opposed to mere “stuff.” Amanda enjoys buying books, but has forsaken paper in favor of eReader files.

The condo, despite the confined space, still manages to feel roomy and open. Using lots of natural light from big windows and keeping an abundance of home-grown plants creates an earthy ambiance against an urban backdrop. Small tokens from their travels, including “several wine bottles,” they joke, decorate surfaces. The condo’s main space includes a cedar chest that belonged to Amanda’s grandmother as well as a custom-made coffee table that easily seats four. The Kohlers give interior decorating credit to Jessica McKay at Birdhouse Interiors, although the pictures that adorn the walls are due to Amanda’s love of photographing their travels. In India, Amanda’s personal favorite travel-spot, she even took photographs from a hot-air balloon.

“I feel like you get better at traveling as you go, and we were able to really immerse ourselves in the culture,” Amanda says. “The people there couldn’t be more hospitable and generous.”

So what’s next on the Kohlers’ agenda? For starters, the couple plan to travel to Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda for three weeks during the holidays. Since a close friend who often traveled with them recently passed away, Kevin and Amanda explain they want to experience all they can while they’re young.

This means their home, for now, remains a small downtown condo.


Video Vacation

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Django Greenblatt-Seay has made 133 music videos, but never for any of his own bands.

That changed in mid-December when his quartet, Gramps, released a self-titled debut recording, a four-song EP that coincided with the creation of a video produced through his side project, Love Drunk.

Launched in 2011, Love Drunk is a collection of one-take music videos of various local bands created with sound recording equipment backed by from four to six camera operators. They are shot in the most unlikely of places—amid the mishmash clutter of a thrift store, on a desolate rooftop, in his own bedroom. The videos of such notables as Cursive, Icky Blossoms, and See Through Dresses are hosted on the Love Drunk website and premiere simultaneously on the Hear Nebraska site (see related story on page 48). Both organizations exist to support local bands and their fans.

“This isn’t meant to be art,” says the former member of Midwest Dilemma. “It’s about connecting. It’s about being able to get an idea who you might want to see this weekend if you’re not already familiar with the bands we shoot.”

And as for the claim of not setting out to make art? We’ll let that slide, but the videos belie what one would expect from a one-take, all-or-nothing approach to an art form that too often is given to overly glitzy productions where the music itself can seem almost an afterthought. There is nothing herky-jerky or amateurish about a Love Drunk video. The works are eminently watchable and engaging—a juxtaposition of the raw and the refined, the simple and the sublime.

Greenblatt-Seay, who by day works in video project management at Union Pacific, has slowed a pace that once had his team shooting a video nearly every week. That’s because he partnered with JJ Dreier in 2013 to create Tree Speed, a time-lapse video project that has the pair traveling to wide-open spaces all across the western states in capturing dramatic footage of night skies in some of America’s most iconic settings, including Utah’s Arches National Park and South Dakota’s Badlands National Park (where the photography accompanying this story was shot).

While Love Drunk is a decidedly social—and loud—affair, Tree Speed sessions are a serene, contemplative, Thoreau-esque communal with nature.

“I’m really bad at taking vacations,” Greenblatt-Seay says. “And when I do fit one in, it always seems that I’m trying to turn it into a video project. Instead of just enjoying myself, I’m always looking for what I’m going to film next on the trip and how I’m going to do it just right.”

This doesn’t mean that Tree Speed’s journeys are all rest and relaxation. He and Dreier may drive for as many as 18 hours straight through to a destination only to scramble to unpack, set up, and carefully calibrate their array of gear in a race against sundown and the canopy of stars (fingers crossed for a clear, cloudless night) that will follow.

“Once we’re set and the conditions are as optimal as we think they’ll get, we hit that button…and then there’s nothing…nothing to do for two hours” while the camera does its thing, Greenblatt-Seay explains.

“You feel so very small” under the vastness of the heavens, he says. “It helps me understand my place. It’s beautiful.

“And I finally get to relax,” he adds, “even if it is only a two-hour vacation.”

Visit lovedrunkstudios.com and treespeedphoto.com to see the videos.


Peter Cales

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.”


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.”


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.


So Far to Go

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

At a mere 22 years old, he’s already one of Omaha’s most accomplished theatre talents, but Noah Diaz doesn’t have his sights set on a bigger stage.

“Broadway or something else would be cool,” Diaz says, “but it’s been important to me over the years to try to keep my head down and focused on what I’m doing now.

“If I don’t do that, I won’t be focused on the right things.”

With the fast start he’s had in his young life, no one would blame Diaz for looking beyond Omaha for his future.

After getting started in theatre as a fourth-grader in a Council Bluffs school production, Diaz has acted in more than 90 shows in the Omaha area and has also tried his hand at directing and writing—his personal favorite.

“I don’t think I was ever meant to be in theatre,” Diaz says. “I think I was meant to be a writer.”

Diaz’s prolific acting vitae, and anyone who has seen him on a local stage, might beg
to differ.

While filling up a trophy case with Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards and Theatre Arts Guild nods, Diaz has turned such notable performances as The Cat in the Hat at the Rose Theater, the Scarecrow in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s Wizard of Oz, and a high-school misfit in SNAP’s production of Speech and Debate into a career fit for someone much farther along in life.

Even as a student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Diaz has kept up a blistering pace—acting in five to eight shows every year. Some local aficionados see him as “the next big thing” in Omaha theater.

“Acting is fun and challenging, but I think the thing I like most about the theater is the self-discovery,” says Diaz, who is on track to graduate from UNO in 2017 with a degree in special education and communication disorders. “Every production, I learn new things about myself—how my mind works and how I think.”

Diaz has done plenty of thinking about combining his passion for theater with his desire to serve the deaf community. He is focusing on American Sign Language at UNO and someday wants to work as an interpreter.

He performed in Chicago in a special adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in which Romeo’s family is deaf and Diaz’s character interprets for the audience. In one of his most challenging roles, Tribes at the Omaha Playhouse, Diaz portrayed a deaf person, but not without struggling over whether to even take the part.

“Eighty percent of the audience the first night was deaf, and I about had an aneurysm I was so nervous,” he says. “But it was very well received, and a deaf friend of mine said afterwards he was glad someone with a heart for the deaf community did the part.”

Diaz isn’t slowing down any time soon. He completed a run in Beertown at the Omaha Playhouse in November. A play he wrote, The Motherhood Almanac, recently was staged as a workshop reading at The Shelterbelt Theatre, where Diaz serves on the board. And he will be directing The Feast at the Sheltebelt, which opens April 15.

“I feel as if I have so far to go—not in terms of success, but in terms of finding out who I am supposed to be,” he says. “So I want to keep pushing myself and bringing more to the work.”