Tag Archives: painting

Painting New Worlds

September 26, 2018 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Can you get to know an artist through their Instagram posts? Scroll through Keegan Baker’s portfolio, and you will flip past years’ worth of fantasy portraits, life drawing sketches, and miniature paintings, eventually coming across side-by-side self-portraits of the current artist versus himself five years ago. 

The man in each portrait peers stoically at the viewer, painter’s apron hung around his neck. But the Keegan on the right looks strikingly realistic, as if he could be sitting across from you discussing his progress in craft and future creative plans. Keegan’s catalog of work is full of surprises spanning a variety of mediums. Upon meeting him in person, he reveals that his most intriguing work has yet to be seen.

Keegan’s current obsession is a created place called Tarmia. This is where he lets his new work live and breathe within a true fantasy world. Keegan says, “It has a really grand story of corruption. I built this mythology around gods and deities. Tarmia is this made-up fictional world where I want real, everyday things to transgress—with a crazy overarching theme going on.” The paintings for this series are based on ordinary things and people that Keegan uses for reference. Then they are immersed in a dark, Hidetaka Miyazaki-inspired world. 

Keegan has been hashing out Tarmia’s storyline—by means of classical architecture research, costuming, symbolism placement, and character studies—for the past year. The logistics behind the art are mapped out in an extensive Google Doc. “Now everything I make is in reference to Tarmia,” Keegan says.

He began his journey on the road to Tarmia while receiving his degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studied art. “I was looking at friends and people to use as reference material for bigger compositions,” he says. “I was trying to think about narrative and telling my own story.” 

These depictions of friends riding animals, with added embellishments such as swords and mink furs, show how Keegan got to the imaginary world of Tarmia. “I like the creative challenge of using what’s around.” Family members or friends placed in this fantasy world create a juxtaposition of reality against fiction. The result showcases the artist’s otherworldly homage to manga but also displays his tact for planning and craft.

Recently, Keegan has shown a series of horror-inspired miniature portraits at the 402 Arts Collective in Benson, where he works as a teacher. These dark creatures and faces are presented on tiny canvases between the size of a quarter and a packet of hot sauce. While small, the figures could easily work themselves into the larger scenes of what Tarmia may look like. 

Keegan is interested in utilizing oil paints as well as digital media to create his new world. “It’s hard for me to stick to one thing. I like the broad spectrum of art,” Keegan says. 

Regardless of the style, he pushes himself to continually sharpen his skills, whether in more labor-intensive oil painting or through the “immediate gratification” of rendering a digital sketch. This toil can be seen in Keegan’s blend of polished portraits and character sketches. Through his work as a teacher, he has been inspired to revisit anatomy drawing and perspective study. He says, “It has been the most refreshing thing since college, for just actually vibing ideas off of someone.”

Despite his self-proclaimed “nerdy background” and early obsession with Neon Genesis Evangelion, Keegan reveals a love of classic material. He says he is drawing from classic works such as “Romans during the Decadence” and the portrait paintings of Hans Holbein for a succession of Tarmia paintings. Where these two styles meet is an intriguing, necessary place for Keegan to be. “Telling a story with a single piece is what I’ve been really chasing,” Keegan says. In melding these influences, he hopes to finally capture his quarry.


For more information, visit instagram.com/keeganbakerart.

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Encounter. 

Omaha’s Own Da Vinci

September 22, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It is hard to squeeze through the doorway; enormous canvases painted with human beings block the entryway of the cozy home near Memorial Park. The art forces one to stop and realign, and not just because of its placement in the hallway. 

A draft of a painting, “The Narcissist’s Sister,” aims to depict a culture of self obsession, even before the invention of the selfie. And, leaning against the narrow hallway, it makes it impossible for everyone to fit.

Upon entering the home, a small crowd has formed: There’s Omaha’s Leonardo da Vinci (or Stephen Cornelius Roberts, as he is more commonly known), his wife, Anne—and the naked woman on the wall.

Moving into the living room, stacks of books detailing the lives of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and other masters act as vertebrae to the home veiled in classic art. Beside the fireplace is a landscape painting by Roberts himself, and a pristine bust of the Greek god Mercury. Roberts’ artwork also covers the walls of adjoining hallways and rooms. His estate is half-home, half-studio, and it smells just like the Joslyn Museum.

Roberts says he needs to paint his large-scale portraits horizontally so everything fits in and out of his home. But in his ornate wooden chair, he remains vertical, his lean physique acting to balance the lines of the books towering behind him.

“Every individual is worthy of portraiture,” Roberts says. “The Greeks had a focus on idealism, but no human is a Greek sculpture.”

He’s not interested in that. 

“What I paint is a likeness of someone,” he says. “If they have a mark on their cheek in a photo, they will have a mark on their cheek in the painting. The most valuable thing is that they’re real and alive, they have spirit.”

Roberts is best known in Nebraska for his murals in the State Capitol Building. The eight massive paintings reside in the Memorial Chamber and depict the heroism of Nebraska’s public servants. The murals feature more than 100 individual portraits of real Nebraskan people—none figments of Roberts’ imagination—installed at the capitol in 1996.

“The Nebraska Capitol was my most rewarding project because it is a show that goes up and never comes down,” Roberts says. “It will be there when I am long gone.”

Other notable paintings signed and sealed with Roberts’ name can be found all across the state. Some include portraits of important donors and chancellors whose headshots adorn buildings at the UNO, UNMC, and UNL campuses. Two landscapes hang in Methodist Health West, and other commissioned pieces reside in Norfolk Veterans Home, Lakeside Hospital, The Buffett Cancer Center, and even a local YMCA. 

While the figures in Roberts’ capitol murals are dressed in appropriate attire—firemen, townspeople, doctors, and more—he also endeavors to celebrate human beings through nude figure painting. Many of his non-commissioned works are executed in a way that, in his words, displays the “purest form of the human being,” although he will admit that the concept requires a deep maturity. 

“We need to get people out of the secular view and into the idea that this is simple humanity,” Roberts says. “It is the beauty of a form, the beauty of imperfection. People who can’t appreciate that have an eighth-grade attitude. It’s not lewd or crude, just nude.” 

Roberts also goes on to say that those who pose for nude figure paintings are conscious of what they’re doing. “It’s not a keyhole nude,” he says. “They know you are looking at them, and they are well aware that you are in front of them. It’s about what people reveal.”

The Roberts kids, Adam (27) and Meredith (24), are also well aware of their surroundings, raised in a home filled with nude oil paintings created by their dad. To many kids, that might have been embarrassing. But for Adam and Meredith, the exposure was inspirational.

“Growing up with my dad as an artist has put me in a place where I am always looking at art,” Adam says. “I don’t really think of the nudes as anything because it’s just classic art. I got a partial art history degree because of my dad, and I know that I’m able to do what I want to do because he did what he wanted to do.” 

Continuing to be driven by a familial zeal for creativity, Adam and Meredith produce artwork and music, the latter a close second on Roberts’ list of passions. In fact, he pursued a music career before venturing into art, but now finds himself playing drums or guitar with friends only two or three times a week.

Still, Anne says he could pick up drumsticks to back Paul McCartney tomorrow.

“Music is a very important part of my craft,” Roberts says. “I was as much interested in being a musician as I was an artist. I still write and record music for myself.”

His fondness and savvy for appealing to the senses has taken Roberts across the country with his art. A partnership with the Allan Stone Gallery in New York gave him an East Coast presence and allowed for extended shows in cities like Miami and San Francisco. With his name on the tongues of big city elites and other esteemed artists, it leaves one to wonder: Why Omaha? Why Nebraska, of all places?

Roberts says: “I like the lifestyle here. People are more important to me than anything else, so my family and friends were really in front of career. If you want to get the biggest thing and have the most connections, you live in New York.”

He wasn’t willing to do that.

“And I like it in this house,” he says. “I tell people I’d like to be carried out feet first.” 

Roberts’ current project is a reflection of his local affection, as he has been a visiting artist for the past few years at UNO. 

The project—a portrait of a woman sitting on the floor, directly staring into the eyes of the viewer—is his first foray into lithography. 

While Roberts works on creating the lithograph by freehand, students often drop in to watch his process. He says it has become a forum for them to observe a professional and discuss the art industry in general.  

A culminating gallery exhibition of the printed work is scheduled for this fall at UNO, and Roberts says student participation and attendance will be a component of the show. 

A former Benson Bunny and UNO Maverick, Roberts is proud of his roots—and proud of the family tree he’s grown. Anne takes half the credit, though, as she has worked as his public relations agent and life partner for 38 years.

“I love being along for the ride,” Anne says. “I love him. He’s everything in my life. I just want to support him in what he does best, and I think we make a pretty good team.”

“Yes,” Roberts says. “And if we don’t sell [the artwork], I’d have to get a desk job. And I don’t want to get another job. I like to sleep until noon.”

They smile at each other, a small laugh rippling through the room. The couple is aglow in the life they’ve built together, and it seems, in that moment, in some corner of the world, all the people behind the paintings are smiling, too. 


Visit stephencorneliusroberts.com for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Ugly Yellow and Violet Vividity

August 8, 2018 by
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. 

Alexandria 
Smith

July 24, 2018 by
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.

Fresh Paint

March 18, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

From a very young age, Omaha artist Stephen Kavanaugh had a raw talent for art, as well as a wise-beyond-his-years understanding of what it takes to be a professional artist. 

“The first drawing I did was of me and my grandpa fishing, and I was like 4 years old, but I was able to draw all this detail, and ever since then my mom pushed me to keep doing art. She saw something in me, so she even paid for outside art classes,” says Kavanaugh, now 29. “But even at that age, I remember having the thought that it wasn’t easy to do art as a career. Looking back now, that seems like a weird realization to have at age 5, but even then I couldn’t imagine not doing art. There’s something about it that gives me a stability that I don’t get from anything else. So, I’ve always kept with it because it feels wrong to leave it.”    

Kavanaugh’s penchant for drawing ultimately blossomed into an interest in everything from painting to sculpture to graphic design. At age 19 he discovered street art.

“The day I saw Exit Through the Gift Shop I went to Blick, bought all the stencil work to make my first street art piece, and did it that night at 3 a.m. Ever since then I was hooked, and I did that for a year,” Kavanaugh says.

A decade later, now a father of two, Kavanaugh says doing street art isn’t as feasible, but it’s a passion that continues to shine through in his work. His current focus is on painting, particularly mural work and live painting, where an artist creates a painting in front of an audience, often in tandem with live music.

“The live art is something that replaces that rush I would get from being out doing street art. I still feel like a street artist, just not on the streets,” he says with a laugh.

Kavanaugh’s vibrant style is characterized by intensely bright, rich colors and, typically, rounded outer borders. There’s a geometrical feel to his work. An array of shapes, symbols, and characters—in both senses of the word—come together in an animated flash mob of sorts, jumping off the canvas like an unruly, moving mosaic.     

artwork by Stephen Kavanaugh

In addition to street art, murals, and painting, Kavanaugh hasn’t been shy when it comes to exploring niche art forms. He illustrated a children’s book called Number Mountain and also self-published two original art coloring books, Bloom and Roon Toon. From city streets to college classroom seats, and everywhere in between, art has always been Kavanaugh’s driving force. The Omaha native earned his BFA in painting and graphic design from UNO.   

“Graphic design was me trying to take art seriously, but after realizing what graphic design really was, it just didn’t satisfy me enough as an artist,” Kavanaugh says.

But he has no regrets, noting that he got to work on some “cool projects, dream projects, really,” including branding work for Borgata (later Brickway) Brewery & Distillery, creating a key to the city, and design duties for a production of The Wizard of Oz at the Omaha Community Playhouse. Kavanaugh’s also done logo and design work for local bands like Ragged Company and Domestic Blend, not to mention uber-talented musician Aly Peeler, who is also Kavanaugh’s wife and mother to their children, 3-year-old Asher and 18-month-old Otto.   

“She’s an amazing singer,” Kavanaugh says of Peeler. “I really enjoy being married to somebody who works in a different spectrum of art. There’s a great balance there.”

In 2017, after three years supporting himself as a working artist, Kavanaugh took a position at AngelWorks, an arts nonprofit which fortuitously allows him to make a steady living while still doing what he loves.

“AngelWorks is the only art studio in Omaha that works with adults with disabilities, provides them a place to create and display work, and really tries to get them involved in the local artistic community,” says Kavanaugh, who leads classes and outings to various local studios and galleries, and helps create personal portfolios and set up shows allowing AngelWorks clients to showcase and sell their art. He’s also done some stunning collaborative pieces with individuals he works with there.   

“It’s a really awesome program and it’s uncovered a new skill [of mine]. I love those guys, and it’s really cool to see how excited they get when they finish or sell pieces,” says Kavanaugh, who calls his job “challenging and very fulfilling.”

As for his personal artistic pursuits, Kavanaugh hopes to do more live paintings and shows, starting with a January 2018 exhibition at The B Side of Benson Theatre with Maggie Heusinkvelt. Another chief focus for him is doing more mural work.

“Murals bring so much vibrancy and I think Omaha is starting to accept that as a different way of showing off our buildings or as a way for places to show off [what] they are,” Kavanaugh says.

Much as his artistic pursuits have been a patchwork of various endeavors, his mural work graces various, diverse corners of the city—from the Down Under Lounge to UNMC to a local
orthodontics office.    

“For a while I was all over the place, doing live paintings, coloring books, illustration…but it’s nice to have a center and to grow as an artist,” Kavanaugh says. “I always want to evolve instead of being stagnant. Lately, I’ve been coming up with work that’s more quality over quantity, work that I feel proud about.”

This article appears in the March/April 2018 edition of Encounter.

Lenore Benolken

November 19, 2017 by
Photography by Durham Museum (provided)

“The first one-man show to be exhibited at Joslyn Memorial by a woman is that of Lenore Benolhen, who paints more like a man than a woman,” wrote one local reporter.

The backhanded praise for the first solo exhibition by a woman at the venue (now known as Joslyn Art Museum) seems sexist by contemporary standards. Such gendered phrasing has faded from popular discourse—just like the artist herself.

Not much is known these days about the artist acclaimed for her “vigor, physical energy, and force” in the same Omaha World-Herald article published on Oct. 10, 1937.

Lenore (Ethel Williams) Benolken was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1896. She moved to Omaha with her parents at age 3, when her father, the Rev. Arthur Llewellyn Williams, became coadjutor-bishop of the Omaha Episcopal Diocese. She attended Brownell Hall (now Brownell-Talbot School) and studied under the famous Irish-born Omaha painter J. Laurie Wallace.

In 1918, Lenore married Irving W. Benolken (who had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, served overseas in the military during World War I, and taught at the American University in France). Settling into married life in Omaha, they both became notable influencers in the local arts scene.

After Lenore painted an 18-by-4-foot mural showcasing modes of modern transportation for the walls of the Milwaukee Road train ticketing office in Omaha, a patronizing 1929 World-Herald article mentions that the mural was a Christmas surprise for her husband “to earn her own Christmas money that year.” The reporter goes on to write that Lenore credited her husband as her “unconscious” instructor and her inspiration as she juggled “duties of being wife to an artist, and mother to an energetic and not very artistic 8-year-old boy.” (That boy, Arthur Benolken, would grow up to be a priest like Lenore’s bishop father.)

Both spouses kept studios in their home at 5415 Western Ave. The two-bedroom, one-bathroom house built in 1826 still stands today. Her obituary eventually described the home as a “center of interest for art lovers.” Her husband worked for 33 years at the Klopp Printing and Lithograph Company, ending his career as the company’s vice president. Irving also served as an elected trustee of the Society of Liberal Arts, which controlled the Joslyn Memorial.

On multiple occasions, Lenore was chosen by the Joslyn Memorial committee to be among the artists representing Nebraska at Rockefeller Center’s All-American exhibit of paintings in New York City. She had received the honor twice by 1937, when she became the first artist to have her work exhibited as a one-woman show at Joslyn Memorial.

Besides being a portrait and landscape painter, Lenore was a noted art teacher. She taught at the Bellevue vocational school, offered classes to soldiers at Joslyn, and lectured at Omaha University. She also organized the Brush and Pencil Club, a sort of salon for art students and professionals.

Lenore often painted portraits of friends and well-known Omahans. Unfortunately, many of these historically important portraits have vanished.

Her depiction of Dr. William H. Betz, after whom Betz Elementary School and Betz Road are named, once hung in a Bellevue public building. Another of Lenore’s popular paintings was “Devce [maiden] of Czechoslovakia.” It’s a portrait of Omaha pianist Miss Elsie M. Ptak, who became a music teacher at Omaha University.

Lenore completed a portrait of Mrs. Jane Sullivan in 1941, and it hung in the Joslyn Memorial before being sent to her son and daughter, Dr. M. M. Sullivan and Miss Hannah Sullivan, in Spalding, Nebraska. Painted with the aid of tintypes and authentic costumes of the period, the portrait supposedly shows Mrs. Sullivan as a young woman in her Sunday best. Phone calls to Spalding (a town of 487 people) did not yield any leads on the whereabouts of the Sullivans or the painting.

Lenore’s father, Bishop Williams, worked closely with Monsignor Bernard Sinne (pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Church from 1904 to 1961). Lenore painted the monsignor’s portrait, another of her notable portrayals of famous Omahans. It once hung in the Joslyn Memorial. But like these others, it has since disappeared.

The location of one important portrait is known. Lenore’s painting of Omaha businessman John Sullivan now hangs in the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney. This was a gift to the museum by Mary Ellen Mulcahy, who serves on MONA’s board of directors.

The more we learn about Lenore, the more we realize that so many of her portraits and paintings have been forgotten. A catalog of her known works and their location would help in restoring her place in Omaha’s art history.

Lenore’s work also traveled through Nebraska. The Nebraska State Journal on Oct. 30, 1939, mentions two of her paintings displayed at Morrill Hall on the campus of the University of Nebraska- Lincoln. Their titles were Deserted Quarry (Near Louisville) and River Scows (A Flat-Bottomed Boat). The next year, she had a show of 21 paintings in the Treasure House at Coryell Park in Lincoln. And her painting Interior of a Nebraska Kitchen was displayed at the 51st annual show of the Nebraska Arts Association in Lincoln (mentioned in a review by the Lincoln Sunday Journal and Star on March, 2, 1941).

Lenore died from pneumonia around the age of 47. Six months after her death, a memorial featuring 33 of her paintings went on display at the Joslyn Memorial. The whereabouts of the show’s paintings—as well as those displayed in the Coryvell Park show—remain a mystery.

A World-Herald article from April 9, 1944, about her final Joslyn exhibition explains that the show consisted of canvases left in her studio when she stopped painting, “and her last finished picture is among them, a portrait called My Husband.”

In a twist of artistic irony, Lenore’s husband remarried in the year following her death. Nancy
Powel Hulst became Nancy Benolken in 1944. A prominent figure in the Omaha arts scene, Nancy remained involved in planning concerts, musicals, and working on committees at the Joslyn from the 1940s through the 1980s.

After Irving Benolken died in 1954, a fund at the Joslyn Memorial purchased artworks in his memory. Paintings included Robert Henri’s Portrait of Fi in 1957 (Henri was the famous creator of the Ashcan School of painting, and his father founded the Nebraska town of Cozad).

Today, many of the purchased tributes to Irving still hang in the Joslyn; however, the museum does not display a single painting by Lenore. Joslyn staff informed Omaha Magazine that the only artwork of hers in their collection is an undated oil painting titled Indian Princess.

In a letter to the World-Herald’s “Public Pulse” soon after her death, the Nebraska artist Walter Buckingham Swan wrote: “Mrs. Benolken, an artist of rare ability, will always be remembered by her legion of friends and many pupils… We have suffered an irreparable loss. Omaha needed her. She had scarcely reached middle life when the hand of death took her from us. How to find a competent successor to carry on her work we do not know.”

At the turn of the 21st century, references to the artist gradually fade into oblivion. The last mention of her name in the public record seems to have been in 2011—an obituary for Pauline Lenore Buckley; she had lived in Council Bluffs, attended the “Lenore Benolken Art School” before the University of Omaha, and died in Walla Walla, Washington.

We know something of what Lenore looked like from photographs of her in the Omaha World-Herald. Like all newspaper photographs of the time, they are black-and-white and grainy. Unfortunately, the woman who painted so many portraits of others does not have any known portrait remaining to memorialize her for the ages.

A self-portrait of the artist appears to have been included among the works shown in her posthumous Joslyn exhibition (printed in the newspaper’s full-page coverage of the tribute in 1944), but its whereabouts are unknown. It very well may be lost.

If readers have knowledge of any long-lost paintings by Lenore Benolken, please contact Omaha Magazine at editor@omahamagazine.com or reach us on social media (@OmahaMagazine) at Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

This article was printed in the November/December 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

John Sullivan’s portrait by Lenore Benolken, courtesy of the Museum of Nebraska Art.

Art Farm

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Artist Cassia Kite has lived on the Gulf Coast of the Sunshine State for more than a decade, but her work remains rooted in the family farm near Auburn, Nebraska.

“I’m just so thankful of my upbringing. I love Nebraska,” Kite says. “I love the farm life. That’s probably the one reason why I’m constantly creating about it. I’m just homesick. I miss home.”

Her latest project, “Soundstitches,” captures the vibrant colors of her family farm in what Kite describes as an interdisciplinary, multimedia installation, and performance piece. Inspired by folk art, Kite created embroidered farm scenes. She then translated those images to music by assigning a musical note to each color, mapping out the music from left-to-right and top-to-bottom. The work leaves vast room for interpretation for the artists who engage with it.

This summer, Kite’s project will be featured at KANEKO as part of the fourth annual Under the Radar Festival (July 5-8). Her embroidery will be on display while the corresponding music is performed by professional musicians and a dancer. Festival director Amanda DeBoer Bartlett is excited to bring artists together to interpret Kite’s work, and she explains the piece will be presented in a way that is immersive so “the audience can walk around and experience the performance.”

“Since her piece is so open and improvisation-based, there won’t be a huge rehearsal process,” Bartlett says.

On its face, this project might seem a little outside Kite’s wheelhouse. She studied painting and sculpting in college and isn’t comfortable calling herself a folk artist, even though she loves folk art traditions. She took piano lessons for a short time as a child, and she played percussion instruments in a middle school band, but she doesn’t consider herself a musician. When it comes to “Soundstitches,” she says she’s more of a “translator” than a composer, converting colors into sound.

“It makes me feel very vulnerable in a way, too, and I think that’s good for growth,” Kite says. “This is about as honest a form as I’ll ever get.”

The project may be out of her comfort zone, but it’s also built on what she knows best—the rich hues and homespun imagery of Nebraska.

“Everything I create is a personal narrative,” she says.

Kite is an arts educator who teaches at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, but she returns to Nebraska during the summer months. Her work is on display at Anderson O’Brien Fine Art, and she’ll have a solo exhibition at the Schoolhouse Art Gallery in Brownville, Nebraska, starting in June. For Under the Radar, she’ll be one of several Nebraska-connected artists participating in the festival this summer. Bartlett explains that out of 30 to 40 acts each year, they try to reserve at least half of those spots for artists with ties to the state.

Kite is excited to have her work presented at KANEKO, especially in collaboration with Under the Radar. “I could not think of a better platform for this to happen,” she says, “because it really unifies the whole subject of the work.”

Visit cassiakite.com for more information.

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

Kim Darling

December 27, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha-based artist Kim Darling (also known as Kim Reid Kuhn) is relishing a moment of “when one door closes, another opens.”

Darling, a prominent Benson First Friday contributor known for curating provocative exhibitions and performances at Sweatshop Gallery—and arguably one of the reasons why Benson’s aura is what it is today—is now applying her passion for community arts advocacy in new ways.

“Sweatshop Gallery was always a launching point for larger social ideas,” she says.

Since the gallery’s closing in October 2015, Darling has accepted four artist residencies at four different Omaha schools. She has collaborated on two projects, Swale and Wetland, with former Bemis Center artist Mary Mattingly. Those “socially engaged projects” were both featured in The New York Times, Art Forum, and ART 21.

Darling is many things to many people: community activist, curator, mother, teacher, advocate, tastemaker, and artist. It is within their nexus that she has found new momentum—namely, public and socially engaged projects that define and build community through art with artists.

Recent iterations include exhibitions and subsequent public programming at both The Union for Contemporary Art and the Michael Phipps Gallery at the Omaha Public Library. Darling presented her paintings and photographs in a gallery setting that later set the backdrop for public conversations around topics of police brutality, definitions of “public-ness,” and how race, gender, and socio-economic realities frame perceptions of place.

Yet despite a very public persona, her zeal for her own private painting practice is on fire.

Darling’s iconography is distinct. With a distilled color palette of coal black, turquoise, dirty white, and cotton candy pink, her canvases are peppered with oddly familiar shapes and punk references.

Her aptly named “Rat’s Nest Studio” is nearly at capacity with in-progress paintings and sketches of future projects—each influencing the other. It is in her studio where the visible traces of a focused artist are on display. In the duality of social engagement and private studio making, inspiration is constant. For Darling, “these different perspectives feed me, helping keep my marks and ideas raw.”

There is no mistaking Darling’s passion. Navigating a newly trodden path of community building through arts advocacy can be complicated, but for Darling, “there is a simple power in art making and storytelling.” This is where her art and life meet—an intersection of public discourse and art with an emphasis on communal and social concerns.

With Darling’s ongoing efforts, this new chapter will continue to be a revolving door for opportunity, inspiration, and evolution.

Visit kimdarling.net for more information.

kimdarling1

Sandy’s Makeover

December 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Let’s be honest. We all have our dirty secrets—sometimes that secret is a collection of things. Some people may keep those collections confined to a drawer or a closet, but if you are like me, the clutter just expands into other places, sometimes into an entire room.

That is where my vision of “killing two birds with one stone” came to mind.

We have just one lonely room left in our whole house that has not been renovated, and in it sits all my clutter and to-do DIY projects.

Rather than feel overwhelmed with trying to tackle too much at one time for my renovation project, why not spread it out all year long? Then you can see how the steps of the renovation come together for one functional room—a dressing room!

We are not talking about a room that has been turned into a closet. While there will be a closet in it, the room needs to serve multiple functions and become a pretty extension of our house.

Normally I like to renovate a room and then decorate it, but in this instance, I want to create each project individually and show you what functions each project plans to serve.  We will start with the March/April issue, and end with the grand reveal in January/February 2018.

Along the way I will work on the room itself, painting walls and trim, and reconfiguring the closet to maximize the space.

I hope you look forward to my first piece in the next issue, and I look forward to any feedback. Don’t forget to follow us on social media.

If you miss one issue, back issues are online at readonlinenow.com, and you can always go there and check it out.

Visit readonlinenow.com for more information.

OmahaHome

year-long-project

Canoe Companions

August 17, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in August 2015 Her Family.

There’s no way another boater is going to pick up the wrong paddles after you do this treatment. When not in the water, these handsomely rustic works of art will look great displayed in your home.

Materials:
Canoe paddles
Sandpaper
Rags
Wood stain
Masking tape
Spray paint
Waterproof sealer

Directions:
Use sandpaper to remove the paddle’s varnish.
Wipe down each paddle with a wet rag. The water will both remove any sawdust and help the wood
absorb the stain.
Stain with an old rag that you never want to see again and wait for the stain to completely dry.
Have fun and be creative in your design choices.
Tape off any areas that you do not want the paint to touch. Use plastic bags to mask off larger areas.
Spray paint away! For the best results, cover the areas in multiple, light layers of paint.
Be sure to let the paint dry completely before doing any additional taping.
Peel off the tape to reveal your masterpiece!
Apply waterproof clear coat.
Let’s get paddling!
QUICK TIP: If you want to find stain or paint for free, visit Under the Sink, a household hazardous waste collection facility on 120th and “I” Street. They will hook you up. And always remember to spray paint outdoors.

DIY-Kristen

Canoe Paddles