Tag Archives: Secret Penguin

Weird Is Good

July 14, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit christophervaughncouse.com for more information.

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

Christopher Couse

Believe the Omahype

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha resident Will Simons has worn many hats. As the managing editor of the now defunct Omaha City Weekly, he flexed his journalistic prowess while balancing a music career in the local band Thunder Power and jumpstarting his own business venture, Omahype. The curated online events calendar aims to provide locals with all of their entertainment needs. It solves the problem of having to sift through several different websites and papers just to find out what’s going on, plus it’s optimized for mobile operating systems. Simons had a little help coming up with the concept.

“I can’t say it was my idea initially. It was definitely a team effort. I used to interview local musicians at a previous job. One of those interviews was with Laura Burhenn, who, at the time, was a recent Omaha transplant from D.C. She was about to release the debut album for her group, The Mynabirds,” Simons explains. “She mentioned that she was in the early stages putting together an online youth culture-oriented events calendar and blog for the Omaha area and asked if I’d liked to help out. Of course, I said yes. With a background in arts and entertainment journalism, I knew Omaha sorely needed a one-stop website that listed all the best events in town for a younger, more culture-savvy audience. What sealed the deal was when Laura told me that two of the most talented web designers in town, Dave Nelson and Cody Peterson [of Secret Penguin], were already on board to help build it.”

Getting it off the ground hasn’t exactly been simple. To run Omahype successfully, obtaining multiple advertisers is key for Simons and the rest of the team. People are slowing coming around, but with all four founders having time-consuming day jobs (and rock careers), it’s difficult to juggle it all. However, Simons is working on a solution.

“The biggest challenge is generating enough money from advertising to justify someone working for Omahype full-time. I am transitioning into a part-time situation at my job so I can direct most of my energy toward Omahype,” he says.

Will Simons

Will Simons

“Aside from advertising, we’re seeking sponsorships from companies with employees and customers in sync with the readers of Omahype. We also plan on throwing more events. Our goal at Omahype is to support, nurture, and expand the cultural landscape of the city.”

Peterson is currently working on Omahype’s redesign and once that’s done, Simons assures visiting Omahype will be a “beautiful and intuitive experience.” In addition, browsers will discover the most relevant listings for concerts, art galleries, comedy shows, and independent films. Also, local restaurant reviews and concert photographs are popping up more regularly. Simons is optimistic.

“With the new redesign, we hope to realize our goal of having an online calendar that is the one go-to source for all of the Omaha area’s best events and major cultural happenings,” he concludes. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll be able to expand to [other] cities at some point. Oh, and an office space would be nice, too [laughs].”

In the meantime, Simons and crew have executed a handful of fundraising events to help generate funds. They are planning on throwing more music events to keep up the momentum. Most recently, Omahype sponsored its third annual Rock-n-Shop event at The Slowdown on December 14. It featured a slew of prominent Omaha bands such as All Young Girls Are Machine Guns, Noah’s Ark Was a Spaceship, Laura Burhenn of The Mynabirds and, of course, Thunder Power. Several local vendors were also on hand to showcase their goods. If Simons keeps this up, Omahype could very well be the go-to calendar for all of Omaha’s “cool kids.”

Secret Penguin’s Dave Nelson

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Seven years of touring full-time as a sponsored skateboarder leaves you with A) a lot of skateboarding product from your sponsors and B) a definite magnetism for skater kids looking to channel their energy.

“Skateboarders have an addictive personality,” confesses Dave Nelson, a former skateboarder for Untitled Skateboards and the owner of Downtown Omaha brand strategy and design firm Secret Penguin. “That’s all they think about…skating. They’re consuming, passionate people.” So when fellow skateboarder Mike Smith asked if he’d like to be on the board of a new nonprofit called Skate For Change, “I was like, yes, instantly. Completely excited about it.”

In his TEDxOmaha presentation last October, Smith explained that a closing skate park had offered him its ramps while he was working with homeless teenagers in Lincoln (TEDxOmaha is a local conference inspired by world-renowned TED events, dedicated to spreading world-changing ideas). Taking the opportunity and running with it, Smith started Bay 198, an indoor skate park in a Lincoln mall. “It answered a missing point,” Nelson says. “The kids needed a place that was genuine and safe.”

In the meantime, Smith had been skating through Lincoln on his lunch break, handing out socks and bottled water to the downtown homeless. Friends started joining him, then kids, then energy-drink maker Red Bull even stepped in with a launch party for the park and effort. “I’m just watching all of these skate kids pour their lives and their hearts and their souls into helping people,” Smith said at TEDxOmaha. “Feeding people.”

“He said when I gave him that board and took time to talk and skate with him, it made him realize that there are good people out there that do care about others.”

Secret Penguin handled the branding of the new incarnation of the skate park (now simply called The Bay) at 20th and Y streets in Lincoln. The Bay’s new park is made out of cement and bricks, “so it would feel more like the street,” Nelson explains. Most indoor skate parks are made of wood.

An indoor skate park for Omaha similar to Lincoln’s The Bay isn’t far from Nelson’s thoughts, but for now his typical haunt is Roberts Skate Park at 78th and Cass streets. He’s there about three times a week, meeting new people and trying new tricks.

“A few months ago,” he recalls, “I ran into this kid that I’d met at Roberts maybe 10 years ago.” The young man told Nelson that on that day, his parents were gone on yet another bender. His friends knew no one was home, so they broke into his house and stole all his stuff. The boy decided he was going to kill himself but first, one last skate at Roberts Park. He met Nelson there, who gave him one of the boards from his sponsors and talked with him. “He said when I gave him that board and took time to talk and skate with him, it made him realize that there are good people out there that do care about others,” Nelson remembers. “He said that was the first time he can remember feeling like someone cared. And that skateboard was a representation of hope to him throughout the years.”

On Saturdays, Nelson meets interested skaters at either the Mastercraft building, 13th & Nicholas, or in front of The Slowdown for Omaha’s own version of Skate For Change. “We’ll go hand the stuff out to whomever,” he says, referring to the donations of bottled water or socks received at the Secret Penguin office or purchased with donations forwarded from Smith. “Kids just get behind something like this.”

“We don’t need money,” he says, “just supplies.” Anyone wanting to donate water, socks, canned tuna, or hygiene kits can drop them off at the Secret Penguin office in the Mastercraft building.