Tag Archives: studio

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April 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A boozy brunch between girlfriends, a meeting of coworkers over coffee, a couple splitting a glass   of wine—conversations captured around the city, all serve as fodder and inspiration for Brion Poloncic’s work. In the quiet corners of Omaha’s local coffee shops and wine bars, Poloncic puts pen to paper, his ear tuned into the surrounding babble, creating art that he feels represents those around him and the experiences they discuss.

But don’t expect a still life of women gossiping between sips of their Venti mochas. As a visual artist, author, and former musician, Poloncic is a man of many hats but always remains a creator of thought-provoking and idiosyncratic work that paints middle America in a psychedelic wash.

“I’ve always fancied myself an artist,” Poloncic says. “My art is an affirmation of my peculiar skill set, and it just so happens to make me happy. It’s my own blend of therapy.”

It was through chance that Poloncic was first bitten by the creative bug. After he didn’t make the baseball team, he traded mitts for guitars and started writing music. A fan of everyone from Pink Floyd to Johnny Cash, he parlayed his early love for listening to his parent’s records into seven albums, all released under the moniker “A Tomato A Day (helps keep the tornado away).” A prolific songwriter, his discography is filled with character and colorful song titles, including ditties like “You Little Shit” and “Weirdo Park.”

For Poloncic, music wasn’t enough. He needed to sink his teeth into his next artistic outlet. So when a friend needed help setting up an Iowa art studio, he asked Polonic to draw pieces that illustrated his career. With no formal training or experience, unless coloring backpacks with magic markers counts, he dove in.

Two years later, Poloncic sold his first piece at a gallery in Lincoln. He has also shown work in Omaha and Kansas City and has a collection represented at Gallery 72, all those diploma-yielding pros be damned.

“My art isn’t constrained by my knowledge or training, and I think this makes me naturally less critical of my work,” Poloncic says.

Filled with abstract shapes, haunting faces, and stark use of color, his off-kilter yet original drawings mirror the tone of his written work. Through The Journal of Experimental Fiction, he published his first book Xanthous Mermaid Mechanics in 2012, following this up in 2014 with his second printed work On the Shoulders of Madmen. Both explored concepts of the subconscious mind, and the novel he is currently working on will follow suit.

“I’ll be surprised if anyone can read it,” Poloncic says. “It’s got no characters, no story arc, and isn’t about anything in particular.”

And he admits this is his niche, comparing his art to improvisational jazz or free-style rap where “things just happen.” For whatever he’s working on, he says the hardest part is just getting started. Once that happens, everything else just falls into place, and if he can’t get over a block, he always has another craft to turn to.

“If I stumble off the creative wagon with drawing, I get back on with writing and vice versa,” Poloncic says. “As you work on one, the other comes right along with it.”

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

On the Cutting Edge

June 17, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Helga doesn’t drink. Please keep beverages away.” That sign is a gentle reminder for people not to go remotely close to Helga with anything potable.

Helga, however, isn’t a woman strangely averse to hydration; instead, she is a highly sophisticated Trotec SP 1500 flatbed laser machine from Austria, one that can cut and engrave with breathtaking precision and accuracy down to 1,000th of an inch.

The affectionately nicknamed machine is what MTRL Design (pronounced like “material”), located in downtown’s Mastercraft Building, uses to create its distinctive custom chairs, tables, frames, boxes, cutting boards, coasters, signage, touch tablet stands, cell phone holders, puzzles, games and, honestly, just about any other object you might imagine. Helga’s laser can cut through almost anything from wood to acrylic but is also delicate enough to engrave glass, leather, and even paper.

Founded by partners Josh Powell and Nick Mauer in 2012, MTRL Design does more than create products with Helga. The design studio also handles design and creative services, which include brand identity and graphic design. But it’s the partners’ unique creations that frequently generate buzz. That’s because aside from being aesthetically appealing, Powell and Mauer’s custom objects are made from sustainable materials, an approach markedly different from the majority of the manufacturing industry, which uses wood treated with formaldehyde and other chemicals.

Their sustainable material is bamboo from a fair-trade-certified company in China. The bamboo arrives in flat sheets similar to plywood. Bamboo, though, is nothing like plywood. Not only is it an organically sustainable and readily renewable material, it also has a tensile rate stronger than steel and has both anti-fungal and anti-microbial properties. The duo also uses almost no glue and minimal hardware. Rather, the clean cuts make assembly quick and easy by creating interlocking pieces, which are then shipped flat to diminish the carbon footprint even further. “It’s a really holistic approach,” notes Powell.

The design studio has a strong client base that includes a wide variety of businesses such as architectural firms, restaurants, breweries, and bars. For example, the firm created Masonite tree shapes for the Mellow Mushroom restaurant in Lincoln as well as coasters for Plank Seafood Provisions, Secret Penguin, and Cunningham’s Bar in Omaha. MTRL Design additionally creates orders commissioned by individual clients that have included items such as a remote-control airplane and keepsake boxes. Recently an archeological team in Jerusalem even contacted the studio about creating a model of a city dating to 500 B.C.

While it might seem ironic that a cutting-edge contemporary machine is rebuilding an ancient city, it’s indicative of how far-reaching MTRL Design has become. “Everyday someone walks in the door and asks us to come up with something unique,” says Powell. “It’s hard to keep up, and we need to bring on someone else. We’re at a stage now where we need to.”

To make Helga rise to her fullest potential, that’s probably a very good idea.

Perpetual Motion

March 2, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jorge Ambriz has been moving his whole life—as a dancer, that is. The 36-year-old HR Manager of Omaha Steel Castings trained as a child in Mexican folkloric dance. No matter where he has lived, he always found a dance company so he could keep in motion. For the past seven years it’s been with University of Nebraska-Omaha’s The Moving Company, perhaps the area’s leading practitioners of 20th-century and contemporary dance.

But Ambriz isn’t affiliated with the university. A common misperception is that The Moving Company is for students only. The troupe, which was established in 1935 and is one of the oldest university dance companies in continuous existence in the world, draws people of all ages from all walks of life. “People usually think it’s for UNO,” remarks Ambriz. “That’s not the case. Out of 30-plus members, less than 10 are probably students.”

The company’s director, Josie Metal-Corbin, elaborates, “We are not a student organization. UNL has a dance major, UNK a dance minor. But what we have is a dance company. We are under the auspices of the College of Education and the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation. We’re very grateful that the College values what we do. We’ve been in existence off the blood, sweat, and tears of a lot of people.”

Dancers range in age from 18-50, and all members audition for a limited number of spaces. While some dancers are professional and maintain their own studios, others have included an ornithologist from the Henry Doorly Zoo and a CEO of a cement company. “The Moving Company welcomes all backgrounds of dance,” Ambriz explains. “It’s very diverse and has all ethnicities, all ages, and all levels of dance.”

Even though the company is dedicated to modern dance, choreographers incorporate other styles, such as swing and salsa. “One of the beautiful things about The Moving Company,” Ambriz says, “is that it opens the door to different dance.”

Performances take place at UNO, but the troupe also does site-specific choreography through its community outreach and partners with numerous area organizations. Over the years, performances have taken place at such venues as the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Durham Museum, Harrah’s Casino, area high schools, St. Cecilia’s Cathedral, and even in the Joslyn Art Museum’s fountain court. “We love to collaborate and do partnerships,” remarks Metal-Corbin. “It’s very fulfilling. Dancers move out into the world and
people interact.”

This spring The Moving Company will notably take to the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge to celebrate National Water Dance Day. “The movements deal with water,” says Metal-Corbin. “Our theme is drought, and we will move across 3,000 feet [of the bridge] with musicians and dancers.”

For Ambriz, these kinds of experiences are enriching. “The Moving Company,” he says, “allows us to use our full potential.”

Curatorial Precision

March 1, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The hot trend of one-room living is often driven by necessity and the need to make the most of smallish spaces. The phenomenon is especially prominent in such sky-high housing markets as New York, L.A., and San Francisco. John Prouty had no such constraints when planning his sprawling 4,000 square foot space, but he still employed a keen touch when it came to curatorial precision.“My new rule for the year is that for every one new thing I bring in,” says Prouty, “two old things need to go.” It’s a doubly vital part of his thinking, considering that his home features thousands of works of art, books, and other elements of décor, yet  it bears no hint of appearing in any way cluttered.

One of the keys to Prouty’s sleight-of-hand feat is that each area of his one-room dwelling is set up to define its own distinct space within a space. The home is delineated into about a dozen distinct zones with identities and functions of their own. The result is a pronounced sense of “roomness”. It is the opposite of what might be expected of an otherwise wide-open expanse beneath 19-foot ceilings. The floor plan is interrupted only by a slightly elevated but still open bedroom nook.

“I use every square inch of my space every single day,” he adds. “Not a lot of people can say that about their homes.”

Prouty and his brother, Jim, own the three contiguous buildings that they merged into one along South 25th Street in the heart of historic South Omaha. Now dubbed Prouty Place, the structures—one of them 120 years old—are almost entirely a family affair. Jim’s daughters, Jami and Juli, own the Salon at Prouty Place. Next door is home to the family’s 110-year-old business, Wessco Graphics. Prouty lives on the second floor, and the basement is rented to a Pentecostal Church whose congregation is largely Guatemalan.

20140108_bs_9974Prouty is also a sculptor, photographer, and mixed media artist who maintains his studio as part of the site’s street-level art venue called The Gallery at Prouty Place.

The project began seven years ago when hundreds of dumpsters were filled with the flotsam and jetsam of the former occupant, a uniform business. One year of what Prouty calls “deconstruction” yielded to a full year of construction before he moved in five years ago.

No detail was too small to escape Prouty’s systematic method when it came to the art and science of one-room living. The design process for the floating kitchen islands, for example, was governed by what the homeowner calls a “double-butted” approach. And he’s not talking here about how the kitchen’s plumbing was joined.

“My brother and I stood in while kitchen measurements were done,” he says, “and the idea was that people had to be able to easily pass between us as we stood back to back at the opposing counters preparing food or mixing drinks. Our butts were a bit smaller back then,” he quips, “but it still works just fine.”

Another striking feature of the home is the very intentional use of black paint on the walls. “People think I’m crazy,” Prouty says, “but I’ve done this in each of my last five homes. That dark background creates the illusion that the art literally floats” in a field of nothingness. The effect is particularly pronounced at night when the man who describes himself as a compulsive entertainer hosts everything from intimate soirées to fundraising events attended by a cast of thousands—make that more like 200-plus.

His global village art and artifact collection—including a staggering 93 of his own works—has been accumulated during world travels that have had him flashing a visa in 83 different countries. Acquisitions have been made everywhere from the mountaintops of Peru to the sidewalks of Paris. Also included are a number of works by local artists, perhaps most notably Terry Rosenberg. One of his six Rosenbergs was executed on an M’s Pub napkin. Prouty himself was the subject in another.

The artist’s collecting philosophy is a simple one. “Do I like it? Yes or no. Can I afford it? Yes or no,” he says. “That’s all there is to it. I never regret buying anything, and I never go back to look at something a second time. Never.”

Community involvement has always been a part of Prouty family life, says the man who serves on the City of Omaha Public Art Commission and also volunteers at Omaha South High School. His counseling role at the school has included several group art projects, and the Westside High School graduate is now proud to count himself as an honorary South High student.

“Integrating into the neighborhood is important to us,” says Prouty, who is also a member of the South Omaha Business Association. Brother Jim, who is learning Spanish, works with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“Downtown was more of a café society vibe,” Prouty says of his previous home, “but South Omaha is much more natural and organic. This is still a very urban, colorful, and bustling neighborhood— just like Downtown—but it is much more family oriented here. And much, much quieter.”

That prevailing mood of serenity sets the tone for Prouty’s contemplative, almost Zen-like approach to making his space work.

“It’s all in the editing process,” he adds. “Hey, you magazine guys must know that better than I do. It’s all about the editing.”

Open Studios,
 Open Minds

February 2, 2014 by

 “I’ve had all of these ideas swirling around in my head for the past two months,” explains Shanti Grumbine. The New Platz, New York-based artist was greeting visitors into her space during a recent Open Studios event at the acclaimed Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Today her ideas would be manifested in new ways; they would exist for the first time in the minds of others.

Grumbine had been working on a new series of wall sculptures made from the blue plastic sleeves used in the delivery of her New York Times, like the one shown in the accompanying photo.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about sacred geometry,” Grumbine explains to Dick Cook, who was visiting from Creston, IA. “Different religions, especially Islam, use geometric shapes in both art and text. It is a language all its own, and I’ve been abstracting these ideas into mosaics to create a sacred vocabulary using these throw-away plastic casings that protected the ephemeral words inside.”

The act of creating art can be a solitary, even lonely endeavor, but Grumbine was among the slate of 10 resident artists, including two from Brazil and one each from Ireland and Canada, who were engaged in the most social of art interactions. “Something magical happens when I see people react to my work,” continues Grumbine. “And it’s even more magical when I can talk to them about it while in the process of making it.”

Grumbine has since completed her three-month residency at the Bemis Center, but you can meet a new roster of artists at the next quarterly Open Studios event, which is free and open to the public.

“I know an artist like Shanti is creating 24 hours a day, even in her sleep state,” adds Cook while nodding to the neatly made bed in the corner of the live/work space. “I enjoy learning about artists, and this is a rare opportunity to do it on their terms, right here in the studio.”

Visit bemiscenter.org for a full list of upcoming Bemis Center events.

Two Perspectives

June 20, 2013 by
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.

OnTrack, Inc.

May 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If you’ve ever found yourself singing “Pepper, Pepper, Pepperjax Grill,” or “You’ll like it…Kelly’s Carpet,” or “It pays to cross the bridge…Lake Manawa Kia,” Johnny Ray Gomez IV is the man largely responsible. He created these jingles, along with dozens and dozens of others, and it’s only a facet of what he does as the owner, president, and creative director of OnTrack.

Gomez rattles off a long list of OnTrack’s offerings: “We’re an audio post-production facility. We do original music jingles for radio, television, web, and multimedia. I do demos for singers and musicians. I do audio for video. We do ADR [Additional or Automated Dialogue Recording for TV and movies]. We do sound design, sound effects, a lot of voiceover work.”

Gomez manages all of this from his 3,200-square foot facility near 118th and Harrison streets in Omaha. “We have a main studio, one smaller studio, and what I call the composing suite. We have the latest computers with music software, industry standard. And we also have the capability to link up to studios worldwide, which basically brings anybody to your doorstep with the touch of a button,” he adds proudly.

This technical capability means Gomez works with clients from all over the country.

“Just last October, [actor and Saturday Night Live alum] Will Forte was in town working on the new Nebraska movie with Alexander Payne. He was in Norfolk filming for a month and doing a sequel to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, so we actually recorded all of his voice animation parts here,” he says. “For three years, we did work for Teen Mom with Farrah Abraham. Instead of MTV flying her to New York, they just brought her here to OnTrack.” He adds that even YouTube sensation and Columbus, Neb., native Lucas Cruikshank recorded dialog as Fred Figglehorn for Nickelodeon’s Fred: The Movie.

“When I first started I did spec work, where you just pick a client and write a jingle [without] having it sold. I just kept going and started networking with ad agencies.” – Johnny Ray Gomez IV, owner

If Gomez seems rather casual about these brushes with fame, it’s because he’s met and worked with lots of well-known names in the music industry over the years, from Marvin Hamlisch and Bo Diddley to Peter Noone and Reba McEntire. A third-generation musician and master of multiple instruments, Gomez actually cut his teeth on the other side of the business. His father was a prolific regional performer who first brought his namesake onstage at age 3 as part of a family revue and later, to sometimes collaborate with nationally known singers and musicians.

“Back in the ’70s, my dad and brother and I had publicity shots with the ruffles and tuxes,” Gomez says, grinning at the memory. “We also had one where we kind of had the Elvis look…the jumpsuits.”

Gomez left home after high school at 17 and traveled the world for four years as the music director and pianist for The Platters, one of the most successful vocal groups of the ’60s.

“I got tired of being on the road. I literally lived out of a suitcase for five years. I knew I wanted to be in music, but I didn’t want to travel,” he says, explaining his impetus for starting a recording studio in his hometown and getting into the jingle business.

“When I first started I did spec work, where you just pick a client and write a jingle [without] having it sold,” he recalls. He sold his very first jingle to Camelot Cleaners and landed his second for Idelman Telemarketing. One of his early works, for Garden Café, ran for 12 years. “I just kept going and started networking with ad agencies.”

OnTrack is a one-man show, but Gomez says the connections and partnerships he’s developed over the years make it possible to offer a wide spectrum of services to his clients. “Even with the workflow I have, I’ve been able to do everything by using all of the resources I have.”

What lessons has Gomez learned in his decades in the biz? “Have a good quality product and do what you do well. And surround myself with people who also do what they do well.”

Q&A: Andy Colley

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A creative from a very young age, Andy Colley tells us how he found his calling in woodworking early and what he most enjoys about about being a craftsman.

Q: How did you first discover your interest in woodworking? When did you decide to pursue it as a career?

A: Originally from Connecticut, I spent my childhood at Air Force bases in Japan, Hawaii, and the upper East Coast. I settled in Omaha about the time I entered high school. Throughout my youth, creativity in many forms had been an outlet, but never woodwork. Unsure of my future path after graduating, I started an entry-level position at a production cabinet shop. Within a few weeks, I was operating a production saw and then moved on to a bench, becoming a custom builder. After working at a couple shops in town, I started my own company. Ironically, a year later, I talked with an uncle who I hadn’t contacted in years and was told woodworking ran deep in my Connecticut roots.20 November 2012- Andy Colley is photographed at his studio for Omaha Magazine.

Q: How has your craft and your studio progressed over the years?

A: Colley Furniture has been through many changes in 12 years. As I develop and hone my skills, my work evolves…an endless pursuit for a craftsman. With this growth have come increasing budgets as well as complexity of projects. I’ve been involved with projects from coast to coast and collaborated with many great artists, architects, and designers constantly trying to push our expectations of furniture. Located in Benson for 10 years, I moved downtown last summer. For the first time, the shop now has a showroom and a storefront.20 November 2012- Andy Colley is photographed at his studio for Omaha Magazine.

Q: Describe your approach to furniture design. What sets your furniture apart from other work out there?

A:  Typically, materials dictate the design of my work. I am fortunate as an artist to work in a medium that presents me with a great base to start. Every single piece of wood in my shop is unique in color, grain characteristics, and mechanical properties, from large slabs of walnut to slivers of highly figured maple. All of these attributes guide the way in which that particular piece is utilized. A certain piece [of wood] might look better, but it might not have the characteristics you need for that component. Humility and respect are rewarded. Use of hand tools and joinery in construction intensify the relationship to wood and provide otherwise unobtainable strength and longevity to [pieces]. Many times the most complicated, most time-consuming parts are hidden from view. Some bakers rely on fancy, over-the-top frosting; others devote their attention to a more refined use of ingredients and methods. My intention is always to reveal and share the beauty of the wood without interference from design.20 November 2012- Andy Colley is photographed at his studio for Omaha Magazine.

Q: What do you most enjoy about your work? What message do you hope your pieces convey?

A: One of my goals is to show people that furniture can be so much more than disposable, uninspired places to sit or set things on. It can be something so much more—from Grandma’s favorite rocking chair to your parents’ dining set that has been a gathering place for so many occasions and emotions—[furniture] can be very personal. It can have a positive effect on our lives, and when we respect the resources we use, we have a positive effect in this world. Inspiration surrounds us. The more aware we become of the world, the more we can understand and appreciate every aspect of life.

Q: What are your professional plans moving forward?

A: [The studio] is planning to show artists of all mediums here, with a focus on process…bridging the gap between an artist’s conception of a work and an art patron’s purchase of a finished piece. Face-to-face events, such as workshops, presentations, and even small dinner parties are in the works to help achieve this. Retirement is not a part of my plans, as creating is essential to my being. Art is life, life is art.

Silver of Oz

August 16, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Welcome to Silver of Oz, a handcrafted silver jewelry shop owned and operated by jewelry designer Levent Oz. (At the time of this interview, the store was located in Benson. It has since relocated to Montclair  on Center in West Omaha).

Oz’s personal story is dramatic and intricate, much like the antique silver cigarette cases, pill boxes, decorative rings, and dangling necklaces and earrings on display. Oz, who was born in Istanbul, Turkey, and lived in Vienna, Austria, before moving to the United States in 1998, has been influenced by a combination of Ottoman court jewelry and European modern style.

The son of a Turkish museum supervisor, who cared for the royal jewelry collection in the Topkapi Palace Museum, Oz had the chance to study the impressive court jewelry collection not accessible to most visitors. His awareness of and contact with classic silver pieces—such as Irish and Spanish swords designed with Nioello silver patterning and with Armenian black metal (which is tricky to work with and can shatter easily)—helped influence Oz’s silver-crafting style, fusing old and new, east and west.

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Oz’s own jewelry designs play with the surface of the metal. He creates unique pieces which embrace precious and semi-precious stones. His creations are made in a rectangular workshop at the back of the Maple Street store where he also teaches silversmith classes.

From a small burner in the studio space, Oz stirs the dark, thick Turkish coffee, Nuri Toplar; and just when the bubbles pop, he pours the sugary mixture into two demitasse cups with bright Turkish designs and tiny spoons.

After one sip, Oz excuses himself during a recent Saturday to greet customers Beth and Leon Wassenaar from Orange City, Iowa, who drove into Benson specifically to meet him. “Our friend owns this building, and we really like the wedding rings he made for them,” explains Beth.

An hour later, the Wassenaars left Silver of Oz with big smiles after buying a lovely pair of silver tassel earrings and a stunning silver and coral necklace Beth promptly wore out the door.

“The main point,” Oz said, smiling, “is not really selling. I love to interact with my customers.”

Not only does Oz enjoy talking with and getting to know his customers, he also likes to share a specialty from his homeland—coffee. With his mother still in Istanbul and a sister in London, Oz tries to visit Europe and the Middle East, but his teaching and designing schedule is hectic.

Doug Kuony took Oz’s beginner’s silversmith class a year ago when he found he had extra time on his hands after his father’s death. Oz teaches three levels of classes, two hours a week each in four-week sessions. Kuony, who lives close to the shop in Benson, said his experience with Oz “has been great.” He learned how to use the jeweler’s saw and the fusing torch, and now Kuony routinely makes his own silver designs.

For Oz, the journey to owning his own business has been a long one.

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While in college in Turkey studying English Literature, Oz worked at an antique store where he was introduced to the European art. After immigrating to Vienna in 1992, he learned how to produce the jewelry he designed since he no longer had the support of the workshops that finished his pieces.

In 1998, he decided to move to the United States and become a citizen. After landing in New Orleans where he worked as a waiter, Oz and his wife, Yeshim, a child, adolescent, and family therapist, were on their way to the west coast when they “got stuck in Omaha.” Oz ran a silver jewelry kiosk in the Oak View Mall for three months until he closed that operation.

Instead, he went to work at First Data in 2001. Oz ran a machine that inserted credit card statements into envelopes. He stayed in that position for 10 years, all the while knowing in his heart that he was an artist.

He finally got up the courage in 2008 to open his tiny shop in Benson. The following year, he moved Silver of Oz one block west into a much bigger space, adding a workshop and small art gallery. This April, Oz relocated his store once again to Montclair Shopping Center at 13013 West Center Road under the clock tower.

Perhaps the framed dollar bill he keeps superstitiously in an office drawer, signifying the first dollar he made in America, has brought him good fortune after all.

Silver of Oz
13013 W Center Rd
402-558-1307
www.silverofoz.com