Tag Archives: Polish

Mural Man

June 2, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Visual artist Mike Giron’s creative life spans studio practice, teaching, and working with A Midsummer’s Mural and South Omaha Mural Project teams.

“In my studio work, I have no idea what’s going to happen—I just go. I’m not forcing or insisting on anything. The work creates itself in some crazy way,” Giron says. “When it comes to murals, it’s a lot more deliberate. You have to propose a design before you begin. So, I live in these two different worlds, and I think it’s keeping me balanced.”

The New Orleans native came to Omaha in the early 1990s by way of Colorado, where he met his ex-wife, an Omaha native. After her father died, the couple moved here with the intent of restoring her family home, selling it, and returning to Colorado. But Omaha proved a good place to raise their two children, so they stayed.

Giron, 45, taught art at Bellevue University and ran the campus gallery. Today, he’s a Metropolitan Community College adjunct instructor.

Without knowing it, he prepared to be a muralist through his experience painting Mardi Gras floats in New Orleans. Walls are not so different from float structures—they’re big and imperfect. And just as he used cut-out panels on floats, he does the same with murals.

“The Polish mural is the clearest example,” he says. “There was a downspout, a chimney, and a fence around an air conditioning unit, and we used cut-outs to hide those things. It gave a 3D pop-up look effect. It also breaks the frame to extend beyond the box of the building.”

Patience is a virtue for a muralist.

“Murals take a long time—maybe two months,” he says. “Unless you really practice your Zen, you’ve got to make it enjoyable to keep on doing it every day.”

The social contract of public art and the collaborative nature of murals means you’d better like people. He does. You’d better like working big, too.

“Once you experience large-scale production, it’s hard to go back to small paintings,” he says. “Although I still consider myself a studio painter, there’s also something about doing large work. You can’t help but see a wall and go, ‘Oh, that would be perfect for this statement.’ And then the physicality of the work feels good. You’re carrying stuff all the time; you’re up and down ladders. The brush strokes are not just a flick of the wrist.”

But Giron says the real reason he and his fellow muralists do it is because “we’re channeling the voices of people who can’t do this, and we take pride in that.” He says, “We feel good about delivering something that people feel does express them.”

The process for the South Omaha murals involves deep community immersion.

“The more you immerse and personally connect with the people on a street level, the more you’re going to be trusted by that community, and the more they’ll open up and allow you in,” he says.

The South O murals feature diverse looks.

“Some fall into naturalism, and others go into some other place,” he says, “That’s interesting to me because it’s not the same. Rather than a signature style, I would prefer they look like they were done by different people.”

They are. Giron works with Richard Harrison, Rebecca Van Orman, and Hugo Zamorano. Neighbors contribute stories and ideas at community meetings. Residents and students participate in paint days and attend unveiling celebrations.

The works are an extension of the new South Omaha Museum, whose director, historian Gary Kastrick, conceived the murals project. Giron serves on the museum board. He enjoys digging through Kastrick’s artifact collection and preparing exhibits, including a replica of an Omaha Stockyards pen.

The idea is for the museum, the murals, and Kastrick’s history tours to spark a South O renaissance keying off the district’s rich heritage and culture. Muralists like Giron share a bigger goal to “make Omaha a destination for public art.” He says murals are a great way to enhance the city’s visual aesthetic and to engage the community. Besides, he says, murals “demonstrate to the public there is an arts community here” in a visible way galleries cannot.

Giron is impressed by the Omaha arts explosion. “There’s so much going on and so many young artists hitting the scene making a big impact,” he says.

Meanwhile, he continues to create studio art. His series On the Brighter Side of Post-Apocalyptic Minimalism employed fire-singed materials to make their satirical marks.

“With the process-oriented stuff I’m doing now, there’s a huge amount of variety, even though I’m just using grids,” he says, explaining that his personal artworks have moved away from rules of perspective and representational dictates of realism.

“When you don’t use any of that, all you have is the process and the visual reality of things—line, shape, value, color, texture, and space,” he says. “When you start playing in that area, where there’s no limits in terms of defining what things should be or should look like, you find it’s actually inexhaustible.”

He intends to follow “the course of my curiosity,” adding, “If you are really free as an artist, then you just follow whatever’s interesting to you.”

New murals keep beckoning, though. “I get pulled into all this work. You set yourself up for a fall, but the fall is where all the good stuff happens,” he says.

Having completed Czech, Lithuanian, Polish, Mexican, Metropolitan Community College, and Magic City murals for the South O project, Giron and company are now working on a Croatian mural. Irish, Italian, African-American, and Stockyards murals are still to come.

Visit amidsummersmural.com for more information.

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

Sheelytown

August 10, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ever since the days of pioneer trails, immigrants from all over the world have managed to make their way to Omaha—smack-dab in the middle of the U.S.—to forge a new start for themselves and their families.

Today, the descendants of earlier generations of Omaha immigrants continue to build on the roots planted by their forebears.

Areas of town where many locals’ ancestors once lived and worked have been restructured within the city’s changing landscape, leaving behind unique traces of history and communities determined to maintain a connection to their heritage. One such local area is Sheelytown.

The City of Omaha annexed Sheelytown in 1887. Interstate construction in the 1960s cut through the neighborhood’s main street, flattening storefronts and homes. Much of the old Sheelytown is now buried under an endless stream of interstate traffic zipping past.

Sheelytown was once an important center of opportunity for Polish Americans. In the 1860s, the Stockyards thrived, and many in need of work headed here to be a part of that growth. The neighborhood—from Edward Creighton Boulevard to Vinton Street, and from 24th to 35th streets—was already occupied by Irish immigrants, but quickly expanded, promising steady income to the many arriving families.

Joseph Sheely, the area’s namesake, owned one of the meatpacking plants near Hanscom Park. Families there were hardworking, but low-income, and therefore generally looked down upon by the wealthier residents of Omaha. Still, they made their own fun, and even developed a reputation for throwing rambunctious parties and dance events.

John Szalewski, a second-generation Polish American and member of a local polka band named Sheelytown, says this kind of energy is representative of Polish culture. In his mind, Polish people are “hardworking, and enjoy their time away from work. They enjoy getting together.” In other words, Polish people work hard and play hard.

For Szalewski, this is a part of what he loves about polka: “People feed off the energy from the band. We grew up with it, and the Polish tradition brings us together.”

On the south side of Dinker's Bar & Grill, artists began work on the Polish Mural Project during the summer.

On the south side of Dinker’s Bar & Grill, artists began work on the Polish portion of the South Omaha Mural Project during the summer. Mike Girón was the lead artist with Quin Slovek as an assistant. Rhianna Girón, Richard Harrison, and Hugo Zamorano also assisted with the mural. 

Polka music, however, is not the only part of his family lineage that remains with him. “It’s very heartwarming when you walk into a South O establishment and they know your dad.” Other members of the Sheelytown band also have family ties to the neighborhood, including violinist Patrick Novak. Patrick is the son of accordion player Leonard Novak, a local musician who used to perform with The Polonairs.

These days, most of what remains of Sheelytown is the memory of what it once was. Szalewski continues, “I think most of the people that talk about the area talk about its history.” Still, he hasn’t lost the feeling of belonging, and says, “I don’t ever feel ill-at-ease going into that area.”

For younger generations, the memories are present, but not quite as clear.

Ryan Dudzinski, Omaha resident and third-generation Polish-American, is able to recall more general aspects of his heritage through stories and recollections of Polish family members. His great-grandparents came to Sheelytown as a young family with small children in the early 1900s.

“They couldn’t speak English. My grandfather (Edward) Dudzinski spoke fluent Polish, as could all of his brothers, but my dad (James) never learned it.” He says they all settled in South Omaha and remained there, with most of their descendants still in the area today.

Like so many immigrants, some level of assimilation was a necessary part of survival, and many traditions were ultimately lost. Dudzinski says grandpa Edward insisted that his father speak English only. While this meant that Ryan Dudzinski never learned the language, he understands why.

When asked to describe how he experienced Polish culture, Dudzinski echoes Szalewski’s sentiments, “There’s lots of drinking, singing, and dancing. They are fun people.” Regarding the cuisine, he’s not as much of a fan: “There’s lots of meat in tube form.”

Today, one of Sheelytown’s biggest draws is Dinker’s Bar & Grill, a family-owned establishment at 2368 S 29th St. The current owners are great-grandchildren of a Polish immigrant by the name of Synowiecki. The most popular fare at Dinker’s is quintessentially American—hamburgers—but Polish sausages with kraut are also on the menu.

Just as it occurs within families, much of what originally united the immigrants in South Omaha has given way to time. The melting pot of ethnic groups present here allows disparate backgrounds to commingle and adapt to an evolving cultural climate.

Still, the essence of what the Polish community brought to Sheelytown has not been lost entirely. It continues to be passed along by many who were raised here, and those who want to see future generations maintain an association with their history.

Though it may be hard to spot, Sheelytown holds onto a sense of pride in its Polish traditions and continues to celebrate them today. If you look for it, you can see the community’s impact on our diverse city, and you may even be able to catch the Sheelytown polka band warming up for a night of traditional Polish mayhem. 

Visit sheelytown.net for more information about the band, Sheelytown. 

Visit amidsummersmural.com/for-communities/south-omaha-mural-project/ for more information about the South Omaha Mural Project.

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