Tag Archives: Norway

Art is Life

September 4, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

 

This article appears in the Sept./Oct. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine.

When Laura Vranes and John McIntyre celebrated their first wedding anniversary in October 2008, they wanted to do something special. Not only was it a year since they exchanged vows, they also both had birthdays that month. They didn’t go out to dinner. Nor did they exchange gifts. Instead, they bought one piece of art. It was something they saw as the beginning of an annual tradition: they would buy one piece of art for every year spent together.

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Except it didn’t pan out that way. The next day, they purchased another artwork. Yet another quickly followed after that. Seven years later, their collection numbers over 300 pieces, and there are no signs the couple will quit acquiring anytime soon. Collecting art—street art in particular—has become more than a hobby. It’s their passion.

Vranes has always been attracted to street art, which, loosely described, is a blend of graffiti and pop culture. “When I was six my family went to New York City, where I saw graffiti,” she recalls. “It just stayed with me. I thought it was beautiful. People are intimidated by it and don’t give it a chance, but lots of stories can be told through street art.”

McIntyre was more than willing to give street art a chance. “My interest began with Laura,” he says. “We like the same things. I had no problem jumping on board. I had liked street art for years but was too busy to look into it. Laura pushed us in that direction.”

Pushed she did. Their collection includes mostly emerging artists as well as some of the genre’s most famous names, including Banksy, Mr. Brainwash, and Shepard Fairey, who created President Obama’s iconic “Hope” campaign poster.

But for the couple, collecting big names isn’t what their passion is about. Through their collecting, Vranes and McIntyre have gotten to know artists all over the world in countries as far afield as China, Russia, Norway, and Ireland. “I’ve communicated with just about each of them,” remarks Vranes. “I’ve had conversations. I’ve emailed, I’ve phoned.”

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While most people might be intimidated at the thought of contacting artists out of the blue—particularly ones with such names as Zombie, Zeus, and Polar Bear—Vranes is unperturbed. “I just say, ‘I love your work.’” she explains. “I’m interested in collecting your work. I’d like to inquire about a piece.”

“She just goes after it,” McIntyre laughs. “It’s quite interesting to see!”

This is what makes their collection so much more than the works that comprise it. It’s the people behind each and every acquisition. “We’ve made so many friends,” comments Vranes. “For almost all of the pieces, there is a personal relationship.”

When the couple purchased a work by Kansas City artist Ryan Haralson, for example, they did so on a payment plan. McIntyre communicated with him over seven months, and the two established a rapport, so much so that the artist visited the couple. While in Omaha, he created a painting of Alice in Wonderland, a character Vranes loves, and presented it to her. “We didn’t know it was going to be a gift,” recounts McIntyre. “Not only did we get a fabulous piece of art, we got a friendship.”

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Still, if one were to choose any of the 300-plus works that best sum up the couple’s often quirky passion, it would perhaps be one by Paris-based street artist Polar Bear. It features a little girl in pigtails scrawling graffiti on a wall.

And what is it that she is writing? “Art is life.”

For Vranes and McIntyre, nothing could be closer to the truth.

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Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student

September 24, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Never say never,” says Brenda Christensen when asked if she’ll ever host foreign exchange students again in her family’s home in Elkhorn.

Christensen and husband Mike Morris have hosted three students since 2009, all from Tonsberg, Norway. “We talked about it extensively as a family,” she says. “Everyone had to be in, or we weren’t going to do it.” That “everyone” included Christensen and Morris’ three kids: Wells, 20, Greta, 18, and Tatum, 13.

Marthe Gjelstad was their first student, staying with them from August 2009 through June 2010. “The kids found her in an online [foreign exchange] student profile,” explains Christensen. “We were so in love with this girl. It couldn’t have been more perfect. [And] we were so heartbroken when she left.”

During Marthe’s stay, Christensen says she claimed the school’s Prom Queen title because everyone—both students and teachers—loved her. “She was so funny, loving, and oh my gosh, we just adored this girl. Just beautiful inside and out.”

That was the first time Christensen believed her family would never host a foreign exchange student again “because everyone would be measured up against Marthe, and that really wasn’t fair to anyone else.”

But remember—never say never. Eventually, the Christensen-Morris family took in Marthe’s neighbor and friend back in Norway, Kristin Lien. She stayed with them for only four months. “That was a good experience, too,” Christensen says. “Kristin wanted to embrace, see, and learn everything American. She just wanted to do it all, and she was very social and outgoing.” Like Marthe, Kristin grew very close with the family, especially the Morris kids.

When Kristin left, Christensen once again said that they would never host a foreign exchange student again. But then from August 2012 through June 2013, they took in Marthe’s brother, Markus.

“Markus was more introverted,” she says. “He was more interested in academics, and he wanted to live a year as an American teenager. But he wasn’t nearly as brave or outgoing as the girls.”

The Christensen-Morris family remains close with the Gjelstad and Lien kids and their families. Photo taken in Norway, August 2011.

The Christensen-Morris family remains close with the Gjelstad and Lien kids and their families (Photo taken in Norway, August 2011). Back: Markus Gjelstad, Wells Morris, Vegard Lien, Asbjorn Lien, Vidar Gjelstad, Kristin Gjelstad. Middle: Mike Morris, Kristin Lien, Marthe Gjelstad, Greta Morris, Rebecca Gjelstad. Front: Brenda Christensen, Berit Lien, Tatum Morris, Hakon Lien.

For the most part, Christensen says that they were home-free of difficulties with the students. “We had to occasionally force Markus out of his comfort zone to get him to experience things. [Otherwise], all three had great English skills,” she says.

After seeing some of the other foreign exchange students secondhand, Christensen is very glad that she and her family hosted three very good kids. “Sometimes, [foreign exchange students] aren’t well-behaved. They’ll get into drinking or drugs or break curfew. Other times, the families didn’t think about the commitment, and it’s a huge commitment.”

Clearly, the experience has been wonderful for the Christensen-Morris family, as they’ve even seen their students since. “We have seen Marthe every year. Last year, we traveled to Italy, and she met us there. Kristin came back over last year, and we met her parents in Chicago. We established a beautiful relationship with both families.”

Like the Christensen-Morris family, Trisha Powell of Bennington loves hosting foreign exchange students. She and husband Michael and their two kids, Olivia, 10, and Jace, 3 mos., have hosted six foreign exchange students from Germany, Sweden, Finland, The Netherlands, and Slovenia.

But Trisha and Michael aren’t just host parents; they’re also very active in Ayusa International, a nonprofit organization that promotes cultural exchange programs for high school students around the world.

“We work with several families who choose to host year after year,” explains Powell. “We also ask our families to help refer other families who may be interested, [as] we are always looking for host families willing to open their homes and hearts to an Ayusa student.”

When a family is ready to host a student, a local Ayusa representative takes them through the application process to find and choose a good student match. The steps are:

  • View information online (at ayusa.org) about Ayusa’s program and types of students who are interested in living with a host family and spending a year in the United States.
  • Complete the Ayusa online hosting application. Ayusa provides a list of questions, requests five references, and asks that families sign a program agreement.
  • Once the application is submitted, an Ayusa representative assists with completion of the additional hosting requirements: a criminal background check and in-home interview. When a host family is approved, they may login to select a student.

Throughout the Ayusa exchange program, a local representative works with the family, student, and school to make certain the stay is mutually beneficial. “Students come from all over the world, [and] all of them come to experience the American way of life and a year in an American high school,” Powell says.

“American culture is often very different from what they are used to,” she adds. “Different food, different schools, a different way of life with a different family—[that] can sometimes be stressful for the first bit of time here.” But Powell says most foreign exchange students get used to everything after a while.

Powell highly recommends hosting a foreign exchange student. “Many times, a lifelong connection is made with students and their families,” she says. “We have several American host families who will visit the student in their home country, attend graduations, and even weddings! Many students come back to visit their host families, too. It’s a wonderful way to bring other cultures to your home and to share your cultures and traditions.”

Christensen also has great advice for families looking to host:

  • “Research the experience and the student thoroughly. Ask lots of questions of families who have hosted and select a student who will be compatible with your family.”
  • “Make sure all family members are completely engaged and committed.”
  • “Be flexible and compassionate. Remember, these kids are away from their countries, homes, schools, and families for 10 months.”
  • “Be realistic. This is not always going to be fun and easy. Don’t host a student during a year that you know will be busy or hard.”
  • “Be open to learning more and loving more than you can imagine!”

Although Christensen says her family doesn’t have any plans to host another exchange student, never say never.

For more information about foreign exchange programs and Ayusa International, visit ayusa.org or call 888-552-9872.