Tag Archives: sculpture

Wolves at the Door

August 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

How can someone armed with an unwieldy and imprecise piece of modern technology, such as a 20-inch electric chainsaw, create woodcarvings so meticulous in detail they look real? It takes a person with the eye of an artist and a deep well of physical stamina and self-discipline. Omaha business owner Todd Lavigne exemplifies those qualities. 

Just inside the garage of his ranch-style home overlooking the Elkhorn River Valley stands the apex, thus far, of Lavigne’s 20-year chainsaw career: a life-size carving of two wolves standing on their hind haunches, snarling and grappling for supremacy. 

The symbolism of the powerful image doesn’t take long to sink in. 

“The light-haired wolf represents good. I named him Francisco, after the patron saint of all living creatures,” explains Lavigne, 51. “The dark wolf is Diablo. If you look closely, you can see the evil wolf is getting pushed back a little.”

The struggle between good and evil took 13 months to complete. Lavigne says bringing definition to the sculpture “was insane because I’m trying to get two animals to twist around one another.”

Lavigne’s fascination with wolves began with a phone call 15 years ago. Yellowstone National Park commissioned his business, American Fence Company, to design and engineer the pens used to reintroduce wolves into the park.  

He came away from that project with an emotional reaction to these “mystical creatures” of ancient lore, inspiring a work of art so stunning most people who view it can’t believe the sculpture comes from a single stump of white pine. 

The skeletal and muscular systems are anatomically accurate, the teeth and fangs spaced precisely inside the mouth. The hooded eyes have a gleam and the thick fur lies in natural patterns, as if Lavigne poured coats of lacquer over the animals’ embalmed bodies.

The detailing separates Lavigne from his chainsaw-carving contemporaries. 

“After I rough it out with the chainsaw, I use a second and third level of smaller hand tools for grinding and cutting,” he explains. “Some mimic a dentist’s drill.”

While the wolves remain in the garage due to past difficulties moving the sculpture, other wood-carved animals greet visitors inside the home. A walk along the living room hallway reveals a mountain lion stealthily descending a tree trunk.

Behind it, an image of Lavigne’s yellow Lab, Lilly, leaping in midair, her mouth ready to catch a Frisbee. 

A black Lab with a highly polished coat rests peacefully on the floor of the living room. “That’s Jazmine,” says Lavigne, clearly emotional talking about his late dog.  “She suffered from seizures her whole life but she really kept me grounded. She died midway through the carving.”

Lavigne’s ability to capture the essence of his subjects relates to the life he led before taking over his father’s fence company almost 20 years ago. 

He grew up near Q and 204th streets when the land held nothing but farms. As a country kid, drawing and motocross occupied his time until he entered the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a psychology major, eventually earning a master’s degree. 

His professional life may have taken a U-turn, but Lavigne’s artistic side has kept the stress of running a company with 330 employees, eight branches, and an online fence product store at bay. 

“Being a psychology major, I’m big on meditation,” he says. “I do this woodcarving for my own sanity because it’s as close to meditation as you can get.”

The chainsaw carvings remain a labor of love. He doesn’t sell or display them, but he has given many of his bear sculptures away. As for the wolves, they’ll always stay close to Lavigne, a daily reminder to fight the good fight. 


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

Giving Shape to Standing Bear’s Enduring Voice

May 7, 2018 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

In creating the larger-than-life likeness of Chief Standing Bear for the Nebraska state capitol’s Centennial Mall, sculptor Benjamin Victor felt communion with the late Native American icon. Victor was “captivated” by the principled ways of the Ponca leader, whose eloquent advocacy for his people led to a historic federal court ruling at Fort Omaha that declared the nation’s indigenous peoples to be legally “human” for the first time on May 12, 1879.

“He was a true servant-leader,” Victor says of his subject. “The things he wanted were very basic, inalienable human rights everyone should be afforded. He carried himself with dignity even through demeaning treatment. He had a higher moral code of ethics during a time when the laws were not moral. He had the courage to stand up for right through many injustices.”

Based in Idaho, the Boise State University professor and resident artist felt connected to Standing Bear through every stage of his artistic process—from preparatory research into the famous Nebraskan, through molding his clay form, to casting the Ponca leader in bronze.

“His story and spirit definitely were speaking to me,” Victor says. “As an artist, you try to get that voice through your artwork to speak to viewers who see it. I felt humbled to be working on it. In the sculpture itself, I tried to keep the spirit of Standing Bear alive as much as I tried for an accurate portrait. An accurate portrait is important, but to me a spiritual portrait is just as important. I hope it really inspires other people to study his life. If my work does that, then it’s a success.”

The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and Donald Miller Campbell Family Foundation commissioned the 11-foot-tall sculpture, unveiled Oct. 15, 2017. Then, over the winter, a pair of Nebraska state senators (including Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha) introduced a bill to replace the state’s two sculptures—of J. Sterling Morton and William Jennings Bryan—in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall with those of Willa Cather and Standing Bear. A donor, Donald Miller Campbell, pledged funds for a copy to be made of Victor’s Standing Bear work.

“To have him as a towering icon in the U.S. Capitol would be important. His story should be on the national scale. He should be known in every school,” Victor says.

The artist already has two works in the Hall. One is of Northern Paiute activist Sarah Winnemucca on behalf of the state of Nevada. Anything Native holds profound meaning for Victor, as his late step-grandfather was a member of the Juaneño—a coastal California tribe engulfed by Spanish missions. “It’s always a big deal to me whenever I do a Native American piece that it’s done right and with purpose. I always think of my grandpa when I do them. He liked the images I created of Native Americans with a strong stance and with dignity. That really meant a lot to him. If he’s looking down, he’s really proud of this one.”

Victor’s second sculpture in the U.S. Capitol represents Iowa—Norman Borlaug, the father of modern agriculture’s “Green Revolution.”

Working from photos, Victor “modified” Standing Bear’s pose “to capture a hint of motion,” as if the chief were moving forward slightly. In an attempt to “capture every detail,” he created folds and the look of heaviness in the blanket draped about his subject. Ornamental details included intricate beadwork, a bear claw necklace, and peace medals. Victor symbolized the chief’s dual roles as warrior and ambassador by having him holding an ax-peace pipe.

The bronze is positioned in front of a wall carved with the eloquent words of Standing Bear on trial (as translated by Omaha Native Susette “Bright Eyes” LaFlesche): “That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”

The project selection committee for the state capitol’s Centennial Mall learned about Victor from George Neubert (director of the Flatwater Folk Art Museum in Brownville, Nebraska), who befriended the artist when he did a commission for Peru State College, where his bronze of a hulking football player adorns the Oak Bowl.

Although Victor originally hails from California, he developed deep roots in the Great Plains while attending Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he discovered his love of sculpture.

“When I picked up clay the first time in college, the medium just clicked for me,” he says. “I felt like the concepts I was trying to get across were very readily expressed in sculpture. I really like the physicality of sculpture, how you move the clay with your hands and manipulate it. I like everything about it. I also work in marble—so I do the subtractive process of carving, the additive process of clay work, and the replacement process of bronze.”

He was still in school when he landed his first big commission—for the Aberdeen airport.

“I had a family to support,” he says. “I worked at the YMCA part-time, took odd jobs, and went to school full time. I was on food stamps and rental assistance. We had nothing. To get the commission was really amazing because you can struggle your whole life as an artist and never get a commission like that.”

Soon thereafter came the Winnemucca project. Demand for his work has never ceased.

“I never thought I’d get the opportunity to make it on my own in my dream field and career,” he says. “It’s a true American success story. I still don’t take it for granted. Every day I get to do this, I feel very blessed. And then to do something inspiring like Standing Bear. What a dream commission to commemorate him and everything he stood for.”

Upon graduating, Victor was a Northern State teacher and resident artist before Boise State courted him.

“They gave me a beautiful studio space and gallery. It’s been a great home,” he says, adding that he maintains close ties with his former colleagues in South Dakota. “I’ve got so many friends there that are just like family.”

Back at his Boise studio, his studio life intersects with students, patrons, and his three children. Meanwhile, he continues to always keep his ears open to the spirits of his subjects.


Visit benjaminvictor.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Sculpting Her Own Destiny

January 6, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Glittery gold nail polish shimmers. Angie Seykora’s hands move animatedly as she talks about a sculpture made out of smooth flagging tape. Beat-up and worn-out, Seykora’s hands are her most important tool.

These same hands twist, weave, and roll everyday material into works of art.

In one photo, a roll of black plastic static intercept sheeting wraps around her like a glossy snake. Seykora, dressed in the same color, blends in with her soon-to-be-creation. Wearing black gloves, she molds and shapes it. She cuts the sheeting into hundreds of strips, constructing it with zip ties and metal chains. The final piece, which is for a solo exhibition at the Union for Contemporary Art, suspends from the ceiling all the way to the floor like a cascade of midnight.

“I don’t need elaborate facilities, just my hands and scissors,” Seykora says. “And space and time. Time is invaluable.”

Seykora felt the art itch as a child growing up in Minnesota and later South Dakota. Her mother sewed dresses for her. She watched her father saw, hammer, and drill in his woodworking shop. It was a mag- ical place. Four-year-old Seykora would draw circles with different faces and scrawl phrases, like “All people are important,” across the paper. “Making” offered a safety net during high school, and she spent any extra time in the art room, where she dis- covered like-minded individuals.

It was a hobby, a way to express herself, and Seykora didn’t think of it as a career when she attended Creighton University. One fatal drive would shift Seykora’s priorities. A drunk driver passed out, flew over the median, and hit Seykora’s vehicle in a head-on collision.

A broken left wrist. Torn ligaments. Aching bruises.

Conscious, Seykora was aware of the pain. She doesn’t dwell on it now. It was just something that happened. Yet, it was life-affirming. The accident made Seykora realize she could no longer suppress her talents and deepest desires because of societal expectations.

“I trusted my intuition, which is still a part of my studio practice,” Seykora says.

Seykora switched majors several times before settling on a Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis in sculpture and a minor in business.

Sculpture, a once male-dominated art form, inspired Seykora in ways she never knew existed. She woke up to a world of creative possibilities. Space, light, and senses merged into making something out of nothing. Littleton Alston, a Creighton art professor, saw grittiness and greatness from the young artist who stepped up to any challenge he threw at her.

“She was a once-in-a-lifetime student,” Alston recalls. “Art is a deeper search for meaning of what it is to be human. Angie did that.”

She continued on to graduate school at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a Master of Fine Arts. The International Sculpture Center bestowed a rare Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture award, which earned Seykora a residency in St. Urban, Switzerland, for two months during the summer of 2014. She returned in 2015. It allowed Seykora to experiment with material not readily available in the United States.

Seykora, now 30, is an adjunct instructor at Creighton University, teaching 3D foundations and sculpture. Plus, Seykora mentors at Kent Bellows art program at Joslyn, and she has a part-time job in retail.

But the bulk of her time is spent in her studio practice, dropping by each day in order to “exist in the same world” as her material. She is constantly on the lookout for various items. Discarded “trash” from friends, salvage yards, and second-hand stores become her artistic treasure. Electrical tape, plastic wrap, and vinyl have been transformed into stunning displays of talent.

“She is one of the most exciting contemporary artists in Nebraska,” says Launa Bacon, director of Darger HQ. The gallery hosted Seykora’ work, along with artist Ying Zhu, in an exhibition titled Lines Forming (on display through Jan. 7).

Seykora found a pink artificial Christmas tree in a dumpster. She is in the process of cutting needles off the branches and stems. The remaining wire is wrapped around a metal grid. Although a sculptural object, it is a gray area between contemporary sculpture and “painting.”

“This is a timely and meditatively engaged way of making,” Seykora says.

Much of her work is a time-consuming, sophisticated process. One conceptual sculpture, Flesh, took almost a year to finish. But it is Seykora’s way of creating her own world.

“Art is something I always have control over,” she says playing with her gold cage-like grid earrings. “My work is a direct reflection of my life.”

Transformation is the most powerful thing about art. Seykora hopes when someone sees her work that the conversation will not end. Don’t dismiss. Engage. Look closer.

Visit angieseykora.com for more information.

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Art Rage

February 23, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Editor’s note: Cassils is a gender non-conforming trans-masculine visual artist. Cassils uses plural gender-neutral pronouns (they, them, their) and asks that journalists do likewise when referring to them. This plurality reflects through language the position Cassils occupies as an artist. For more about gender non-conforming issues, go to: glad.org/reference/transgender 

Powerful art does not need to be explained, though for the uninitiated, sometimes it helps.

Canadian-born, Los Angeles-based multimedia artist Cassils thrives on the power of art. The artist (who prefers to be referred to in plural, gender-neutral pronouns) launched their latest exhibit, Cassils: The Phantom Revenant—now on display at the Bemis Center— Feb. 2 with a thrilling live performance called Becoming An Image.

Cassils’ performance involved the transgender, body-building artist attacking a 2,000-pound block of clay using only their body, in complete darkness, with the occasional flash of a camera that illuminated both artist and object, burning the images into viewers retinas.

It was a blend of performance, photography, and sculpture. “I use all parts of my body—my fists, my knees, my elbows,” Cassils says. “I beat this clay to the best of my ability, blind, until I’m basically compromising my ability to hit it properly.”

At the performance, the only sounds were those of Cassils’ labored breathing, as the artist kicked, punched, and even jumped on the earthy clay, accompanied by the click of the camera as the photographer blindly tried to capture the “full-blown attack.”

Becoming An Image was originally conceived of and executed for ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, the oldest existing LGBT organization in the United States, which also happens to house one of the largest repositories of LGBT materials in the world.

“I was asked to make a piece in relationship to the missing gender-queer and trans representation in that archive, because like many archives in museums, it’s filled with the work of, in this case, dead, gay white guys. So rather than making an artwork that spoke to the one or two subjectivities that perhaps matched this description in the archives, I decided to make a piece about the troubling mechanisms of what makes it into the historical canon and what doesn’t.”

Cassils’ Powers That Be installation—on display through April 29—presents a six-channel video that is a simulation of violence, a staged fight that could be taking place between two, three, four, or five people. But in this fight, Cassils plays the role of both victim and perpetrator. “If you have two people doing stage combat, it looks really realistic, but if you take one person out, and the other person’s doing it well, it really looks as if they’re fighting a ghost, or a force.”

Cassils says “Any work is about responding to the socio-political circumstances that we’re living in …  Art doesn’t change things like laws do, but it generates discussion.”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

Kirk Vaughn-Robinson

December 18, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

After a lifetime in the performing arts that culminated in 12 years on the road with the blockbuster Broadway touring production of The Phantom of the Opera in the roles of Lefevre and the Fire Chief, Kirk Vaughn-Robinson had come to learn more than a little bit about stagecraft.

But few scenes were as amateurishly staged as the one that played out in his hotel room almost every night in the latter years of his musical theatre career.

“I had this wobbly collapsible table I bought for $20 at Walgreens, a rickety foldable chair, a simple clamp light, and a lazy susan,” says the Muncie, Ind., native who later grew up on a horse farm in Florida. “It was just all so totally absurd.”

Outside of his Broadway gig, the triple threat singer-actor-dancer had performed with the Cincinnati Opera, Dayton Opera, Sorg & Whitewater Opera companies, and the Cincinnati Pops, all after attending the famed American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria.

But Kirk Vaughn-Robinson was now learning a new artform. Carting his curious ensemble of new “props” from town to town, he was teaching himself to become a sculptor.

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“It’s only fitting that I have established my first studio here in Council Bluffs,” Vaughn-Robinson says from the surprisingly spacious 1,100-square-foot space in the Harvester Artspace Lofts that has been his live/work home for over a year, “because my sculpting career began when Phantom was here in 2008. I executed my first work here.”

Things moved fast, he says, once he mustered the courage to show his work and the owner of the very first gallery he visited signed the novice sculptor on the spot.

Now venturing increasingly into abstract castings, Vaughn-Robinson is perhaps best known for his exquisitely crafted figurative bronzes of men, horses, mermen and, yes, even dorsal fin-sporting “merhorses.”

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Exhibiting a visual language of sensual romanticism, he renders classic ideals of beauty in timeless archetypes that speak to themes that are at once natural and organic, theatrical, and dramatic.

Vaughn-Robinson continues performing in a more localized, scaled-down slate of opera and musical appearances. He recently played the role of Pish-Tush in the Opera Omaha production of The Mikado and was nominated for an Omaha Entertainment and Arts Award for his work in The Sound of Music at The Rose.

Vaughn-Robinson won’t rule out the idea of returning to a big touring production, but for now is happy to sculpt away in Council Bluffs as his gallery representation and commission business grows.

His two worlds—the stage and the studio—offer a stark contrast in workplace experiences.

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“Just as being a part of a huge touring company is a decidedly social affair,” he explains, “sculpting is instead very solitary. It is a meditative time for me. My most common experience in all those hotel rooms over the years was that I would be lost in my work and, thinking that maybe a half hour had gone by, I’d suddenly realize that dawn was breaking. It is a spiritual experience for me, and I like to think that this is reflected in my bronzes.”

Magic From the Mundane

December 10, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Having one’s work shown internationally is a milestone for any artist. Jamie Burmeister has scattered over 5,000 “Vermin” in over 1,000 separate installations across six continents (sorry, Antarctica).

The tiny, 4-inch ceramic figures, now found in 42 countries and 46 states, are dispersed through a social media experiment he began in 2008. The only requirement for participation is that Burmeister requests that in situ photographs showing the vermin’s new natural habitat be sent to him so that he may document the effort.

The vermin appellation was inspired by an infestation of starlings in the eaves of the pre-fab building adjacent to his home in Gretna that acts as his studio.

“Part of me thought ‘I need to get rid of these birds,’” muses the artist. “Then I had a moment of empathy. I realized that they’re just trying to take care of their families like the rest of us. So I decided to call my little creations vermin.”

The miniature proportions of the otherwise human works evoke mice and other…well, vermin. Whether found in the shadows of the Eiffel Tower or acting as Lilliputian statuary at the Acropolis, the idea is to interrupt the landscape with little surprises, with an emphasis squarely on the word little.

“A woman once found one in Australia before I had even sent any there,” Burmeister says, “I have no idea how it got there.” Another, he explains, went up in flames when an effigy was set ablaze at Burning Man. “A friend in Minneapolis had requested one for the festival and another friend—totally unrelated—happened to find it in the ashes afterward during the cleanup process. He recognized it and took it back to his art venue in Los Angeles. Weird, huh?”

But you don’t need a visa or even a plane ticket to see the artist’s work. There’s plenty of it right here in Omaha, including his Omaha Song sculpture that greets visitors to the Omaha Childrens’ Museum. Part of 2007’s public art “O!” project, the interactive sound sculpture chimes whenever a child sits in the assemblage’s built-in seat. South Omaha Sound Field (2008), situated at the South Omaha Public Library, uses sensors to detect visitors and plays music in homage to the rich tapestry of cultures that have inhabited the city’s historic meatpacking district.

Many other works also employ motion activation and other electronica. A pair of men’s wing tip shoes spring to life in a staccato tap dance when approached. Vermin atop a record player embedded in a retro suitcase—this time aided by a strobe light—boogie to the disco beat of “Do the Hustle” as the vinyl spins. In Funky Junk (2007), the contents of a metal garbage can bump and grind while the container’s lid is struck in a way that mirrors the tinny vibes of a Caribbean steel drum.

His decidedly (and intentionally) crude vermin once took a mere 30 minutes for the artist to craft from clay. Now Burmeister is using a 3D printer for this and other projects.

“Now my vermin can be actual, recognizable people,” he says, “which takes it to a different level because I can cast anyone into my work.”

Burmeister’s gallery and museum pieces have been exhibited in such spaces as the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln and the Des Moines Art Center. And he has been a frequent contributor to shows at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

“A lot of my work speaks to the mundane,” the artist explains, “because that’s the world I live in, the world that most of us live in, I think. There’s nothing mundane about, say, climbing Long’s Peak in Colorado. When I got to the top it was certainly exhilarating, but I couldn’t answer the ‘why’ of it all. It doesn’t make any sense to climb a mountain and it doesn’t make any sense to build sculptures…but I still do.”

Visit jamieburmeister.com for more on the artist.

Jeremy Caniglia

February 25, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

He walks into the comic shop, and he looks like he belongs. Internationally recognized Omaha artist Jeremy Caniglia is wearing a hoodie, jeans, and sneakers. He’s buried under an armload of books. The one thing all the titles have in common is original artwork by Caniglia.

“This is being optioned for a film…the director loved this concept,” he says of one book cover. “They wanted something bleak, simple. That’s one of my earlier works.”

His Wikipedia page is a Who’s Who of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror authors. Max Brooks (World War Z), Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Ray Bradbury (The Devil’s Wine), William Peter Blatty (40th editions of The Exorcist and Legion), and most recently, Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol, 170th anniversary edition) have all produced books that now proudly carry a Caniglia illustration. Anne Rice’s 38th anniversary edition of Interview with a Vampire will also be getting one of his custom covers.

“I guess people labeled me early on. Oh, he’s a horror artist,” Caniglia says. Well, he is nominated for a Hugo award this year. “I mean, my work’s about the human condition, so that’s everything. That’s love and death. I love the idea of redemption. Life throws everything it can at you. That perseverance that individuals have, I’ve just fallen in love with it.”

To convey the multiple facets of humanity, Caniglia exercises multiple facets of artistry. He works in oils, screen-printing, sculpture, and bronze, to name a few. The self-portrait he painted for this cover of Omaha Magazine, however, is something relatively new to his
body of work.

“I never do self-portraits!” he says with a laugh.

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His projects extend to film concept art (season one of Showtime’s Masters of Horror, 2005) to theater (Benson Theatre’s stage adaptation this March of Stephen King’s The Shining), and of course, over 100 book covers. “I try to be a renaissance man in a way.”

By the way, he owns a bakery, La Charlotte, with his wife, Jacqui, an accomplished pastry chef. And he gardens and cooks with their two children, Caravaggio, 16, and Vivian, 14. He writes poetry no one will ever read. And he codes. While still earning his master’s in fine art at Maryland Institute College, he built his first website in ’94, complete with rotating skulls. That’s how author Doug Clegg found him to ask Caniglia to paint his first cover.

“One thing leads to another to another,” Caniglia says. Inquiries came in on his site early on, largely from Europe. “I have this Old World sense that the United States wasn’t really into.”

“I love his dedication to the Old Masters,” says Brigitte McQueen, director of The Union for Contemporary Art. “The way he works is so unlike how any other artist in Omaha is working. The palette, the processes. I remember seeing it and knowing it was different than anything else I was ever going to see.”

Caniglia’s ability to capture light, McQueen says, is itself captivating. “There’s like a luminescence that comes off the canvas,” she says. “The pieces just seem to glow.” Caniglia tips his hat to Caravaggio as his biggest influence in painting light. If you’re   paying attention, yes, he named his son after the Italian artist. Caravaggio popularized the high-contrast light technique chiaroscuro; it’s mimicked in every artistic media today. “You see The Godfather, you see chiaroscuro,” Caniglia says.

The technique highly impacted religious art, which is what Caniglia saw as a child growing up in the Catholic Church. To this day, he says it’s important that even his darkest works have an element of reverence. The artist who produces exhibits like “I Before E Except After Death” is equally passionate about creating the Stations of the Cross for the Omaha parish of Saint Gerald. Perhaps being surrounded by such sacred art from a young age was what drew him to artists like Käthe Kollwitz who tackled the subject of human suffering.

“Best line work, best drawing,” Caniglia says of the painter who ran the Berlin Art Institute. “Actually, I think she’s the best artist of all time.” Kollwitz turned to printmaking in order to produce anti-Nazi art quickly and discreetly. “You could pull like 100 and put them all over Berlin. Her line work…it looks like Mike Mignola.” That’s Hellboy’s artist, to you. “Or Frank Frazetta.” Conan the Barbarian, King Kong, Tarzan, et cetera.

“Understanding form, motion, human condition all in one—wow. If she didn’t have these harsh conditions, I think she would have been the greatest artist.”

That investment in humanity, that passion for the work, is what Caniglia hopes to instill in the young artists he teaches in Omaha. He’s a mentor with Kent Bellows Program and occasionally adjunct teaches painting and drawing at Creighton Prep, where he’s a board member.

“For people to write you off as a high-school student, thinking your art isn’t important…” He shakes his head. “They’re wrong. If you care about something, and you want to develop it, develop it! If I can influence that—if you have passion, and you care, you can do it. Don’t let anybody get in the way of that. And if they do, go around it.”

“A lot of our teenage artists have some self-confidence issues,” says Weston Thomson, community outreach manager at the Joslyn Art Museum Kent Bellows Mentoring Program. “They devalue their work a lot. I remember Jeremy had a student, and he was describing that their work as an artist will be the most important work for their life. And he meant it.”

“I get so excited when I talk art,” Caniglia says. It’s true that enthusiasm is never far removed from a Caniglia conversation. “It is life. I’m excited that I’m doing my work because that’s all I want to do, is my work. I have to do stuff,” he says. “I have to get in the way.”

Phil Hawkins’ Geometric Prisms

August 27, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Phil Hawkins’ unique worldview is on display in the flowing lines and organic contours of his art. It’s a philosophy that even comes through in the simple choice of materials he uses to bring his ideas to life.

The 30-year-old artist’s subtly colored drawings and paintings are filled with intersecting lines and two- and three-dimensional shapes that leap off the page. His sculptures and installations, crafted from PVC, wood, and cardboard, are patterns of geometric prisms meticulously built from pieces Hawkins cuts. He either hand-paints or covers the pieces with reflective and holographic foils that seem to burst off of each form.

The majority of Hawkins’ sculptures and installations currently use rough materials, like corrugated cardboard, as a primary medium. While most people would throw similar pieces of cardboard away without a second thought, Hawkins chooses to give these materials new life. Even within his downtown basement studio, he exhibits his symbiotic relationship with the resources around him, with the creation of several functional dividing screens he handmade from old doors, carpet remnants, poles, and Velcro.

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“The way I feel about my surroundings and life in general and the environment—how everything is connected in the world—I feel like that shows through some of my work,” Hawkins says.

Consider his 18-x-7-foot installation wall of shimmering diamonds pieced together from small triangles he cut from cardboard and painted. This is a reflection of personal space and environment. And his paintings—incorporating intersecting lines, contours, and layered two- and three-dimensional shapes—are influenced by the world he sees. “I feel like it all has a circulation. It all functions together. It all has a relationship that means something a little deeper than what it looks. Looking between the lines and trying to see what’s really going on, past all the complicated structures and lines of symmetry: It might be geometric and might be a style, but there’s a little bit more of a life form to it,” Hawkins says.

Hawkins, an Omaha native, earned an associate’s degree in graphic arts from Metropolitan Community College and a bachelor’s degree in arts management from Bellevue University. He went on to complete an internship under artist and co-founder of Hot Shops Art Center, Leslie Bruning. His method, however, is self-discovered and self-taught.

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His unique style of art was cultivated from his exploration of the contemporary art world and his personal need to satiate his own curiosity. “When it comes to where ideas start for me, a geometric approach is very natural. I just see all of that. It comes out of me as something I’m interested in seeing more of on a scale that I have not seen elsewhere.”

Over the past three years, Hawkins has honed in on his particular brand of art, and since then, he says, his life has changed greatly. “I’ve found my own style, which I think makes sense to me and is very pure.”

Those that know Hawkins closely agree that his energy exudes from his work, including his mentor of three years, Bruning. “I’d say Phil takes a humble approach to his art, and it works well with his personality,” Bruning says. “When a person works within their personality, they’re so much more progressive in what they do. If you are true to your nature, you can be an artist forever.”

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Hawkins says he doesn’t see himself doing anything else and plans on being in Omaha for a long time. “I’m learning how art can apply to the people in the community, and I couldn’t be happier with how that’s turned out.” He mentions his excitement over an upcoming project with the Creighton Lied Center with their center for children who are deaf and hard of hearing.

“I want my art to have a message people can take away or inspire them, or it can even be a conversation and alter or change their mood. A successful piece of art can have a conversation when the artist isn’t there. I think when someone talks about your work, that’s success in itself.”

Public Art Primer

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Chris Wolfgang

One thing never in short supply in this city of ours is public art. Downtown Omaha in particular has a vast collection of pieces—some you’ve surely seen and some that are tucked away. Keep your eyes open this summer for these few pieces in particular and impress your friends with how much you know about public art downtown.

Pioneer Courage Park and Spirit of Nebraska’s Wilderness Park
14th & Capitol and all four corners of the 16th & Dodge intersection

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Both owned by First National Bank, these installations span the width of several blocks. Follow Blair Buswell’s and Edward Fraughton’s pioneers, covered wagons, oxen, horses, and mules through Pioneer Courage Park, watch as they scare off bison who run along 14th all the way to Kent Ullberg’s Spirit of Nebraska’s Wilderness at 16th where Canada geese (each weighing approximately 200 pounds) seem to fly around the intersection, through walls, buildings, even traffic light poles.

The Garden of the Zodiac
Old Market Passageway, 10th & Howard

On the second floor of the Old Market Passageway (itself a unique artistic and architectural element of Downtown Omaha) are several bronze heads mounted on stone bases. This Garden of the Zodiac was sculpted by Evas Aeppli and represents the 12 signs of the Zodiac. Aeppli also created the Fountain of Erinnyesdiac in the lower level of the Passageway across from the V. Mertz restaurant. These three abstract metal heads, which each spew water, represent the Furies: Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone, all vengeful demi-goddesses of Greek mythology.

Nebraska Centennial Glass Mosaic
The outside of the Woodman building, 18th & Douglas

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Tom Bartek completed this work in 1967. The mosaic scenes depict Native Americans, pioneers, and Omaha being settled. In 2012, at the age of 80, Bartek released Retrospective, a collection of his works, in three galleries. You can learn more about the mural’s creation at omahamuralproject.org.

Fertile Ground
Eastern wall of the Energy Systems, Inc. building, 13th & Webster

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If you’ve been in the North Downtown area since 2009, you’ve seen Fertile Ground. This 70-foot-tall mural spans 328 feet wide—the length of a city block. It is the largest piece of public art ever installed in Omaha. It’s also the largest mural in the nation to have a single financial backer, the Peter Kiewit Foundation, which funded the piece as a gift to the people of Nebraska and the city of Omaha.

The Omaha Mural Project: Fertile Ground was coordinated by the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, which selected Meg Saligman as the artist. Saligman compiled Omaha’s story—past, present, future—in a unique back-to-front approach. Instead of a typical left-to-right treatment, the chronology pushes past events to the background and brings more recent events into the foreground. The painting took a year to complete—June 2008 to June 2009.

The Road to Omaha
TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, 1200 Mike Fahey St.

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You may have seen this piece recently, either in person or on television. This bronze sculpture by artist John Lajba is often a focal point during the NCAA Men’s College World Series every June. The sculpture of baseball players was given to the city by local organizing committee College World Series of Omaha, Inc. The Road to Omaha was completed in 1999 and made the move from Rosenblatt Stadium to TD Ameritrade Park Omaha in 2011.

For more information about public art in Omaha, visit publicartomaha.org.

Two Perspectives

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nancy Lepo and Corey Broman are expert draftsmen. Both use the tools of their medium to create precise markings which address color, the movement of light, a sense of direction and shape, and the nuance of mystery, depth, and genesis. She carries her tools in a canvas lunch sack; his require a studio. Lepo uses traditional pen and ink on paper; Broman draws with a diamond wheel on glass.

Both artists’ work will be on view in a dual exhibition at the Nebraska Arts Council’s Fred Simon Gallery this summer. NAC staff, who determine the exhibition schedule, found the work of both applicants compelling and promising interplay.

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Broman has been blowing glass for about 15 years, following a spark lit when he was a child on vacation, “watching an old man crafting a glowing ball of molten glass.” That spark was reignited by an exhibition of Chihuly glass at Joslyn Art Museum. Finding a glass studio in the phone book, he went immediately to Crystal Forge (hotshopsartcenter.com/crystal) and knew with certainty that “that’s what I want to do.” For months he watched, took classes, and assisted. Owner Ed Fennell encouraged him. “He referred me to Hastings College,” says Broman. “He gave me hope.”

Today, Broman is a full-time glassblower with a growing online business, Corey Broman Glass. In contrast to most studios, where a master works with a team of specialized assistants, he works solo, adapting and improvising his unique system of handling glass heated to 2,000°F. Molten glass is a thick, viscous material, constantly changing temperature and plasticity. This calls for a calculated choreography of gathering, blowing, rolling, and swinging a blob of hot glass on a 7- to 10-pound rod. He also does all his own cold work—the design and finishing of cooled glass—switching the emphasis from the physicality of sculpture to the precision of surface detail.

Lepo’s attention seems always to be on a small scale, but one can find infinity in her intimate landscapes. There is the expanse of a Southwest sky, opening over the canyon to our view just as surprisingly as it did to hers. Or sensing in the density of a spinning planet the cold vacuum of the surrounding void. “Drawing,” she says, “is a means of looking at something again for the first time.” And how better to really see than to map a landscape with tiny dots of ink, to define a tree branch or the trace of wind across sand by the proximity of one dot to another?

Lepo’s unconscious apprenticeship as a pen and ink artist began with her exposure to a variety of cultures during her childhood, her curiosity, her wondering. Later, as an engineering technology student, she understood the power of a drawing to convey information. “Looking again” is her impetus to move such utilitarian drawing to a deeper level of engagement. With the simplest of equipment—sketchbook, India ink, pens (the nibs rattling around in a small tea tin), water dish, pencils, an eraser—the self-described “nature-centric” artist can create a sketch whenever her wandering says “pay attention.”20130507_bs_4431-Copy_web

Finishing, then inking the drawing in her studio, Lepo employs pointillist techniques to describe form, light, and movement in detail, using only black ink and the white of the paper. The tonal gradation she achieves via stippling, hatching and cross-hatching, and layering is extraordinary—a picture may take up to 100 hours to complete. Working in her spacious north-facing studio at Hot Shops, her attention articulates the relationship betweenherself and a particular moment and place (whether real or imaginary). Surrounding that focal point, the world expands in scale and scope: Wind and falcon’s cry become the voice of the North Rim, the persona of the Grand Canyon, the panorama of the Southwest. Lepo’s anchor is a tree silhouetted by sunset.

Broman’s studio is an efficiently organized cubicle in a busy industrial plant. In just a few steps, he can reach his three furnaces (furnace, for melting glass; glory hole, for reheating; annealer, for controlled cooling to room temperature), his workstation/bench, a cupboard of supplies, and wall of notes, sketches, and recipes. There’s also a sandblaster, which he can use to create surface effects of layered color or a frosted appearance. Glassblowing is a sequential process, and running three furnaces is expensive, so time in the studio is carefully planned.20130507_bs_4464-Copy_Web

Vista embodies several techniques. Three blown glass pieces are assembled in a custom-welded stand. The diamond wheel was used to make thousands of light-reflecting cuts in the stem, and to engrave the disc with its delicate scene. The graceful leaf was treated with an acid bath for a matte finish.

Like Lepo, Broman appreciates the outdoors. He finds peace in moments of stillness and challenge in the variability of light. Both artists use the language of art to express a unique response that, in turn, informs and enriches viewers and bids us to pay attention. Finding the affinities and distinctions between their work, we learn to see again for the first time.

Nancy Lepo, Drawings/Corey Broman, Glass will be on display at the Fred Simon Gallery, Nebraska Arts Council in the Burlington Building (1004 Farnam St.) from June 24 – July 26, 2013. For more information, visit nebraskaartscouncil.org.