Tag Archives: The Encounter

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

Encounter Destinations

July 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

AKSARBEN VILLAGE

Like music? Of course you do—you’re cool. That’s why you’ll want to boogie woogie to Aksarben Village (67th and Center streets) for the Saturdays @ Stinson Concert Series that began in May and runs on most Saturdays into August. The lineup includes the Confidentials (July 8), Hi-Fi Hangover (July 22), The ’70s Band (July 29), Jimmy Buffett Tribute (Aug. 5), and the Personics (Aug. 12).

aksarbenvillage.com/event

BENSON

The Waiting Room Lounge is takin’ it to the streets—and hometown favorite Conor Oberst will be among those helping the Benson rock club hit the pavement as it marks 10 years offering all sorts of jammage. The Waiting Room (6212 Maple St.) earlier this spring announced the launch of a new outdoor concert series on nearly an entire city block that can host up to 3K music lovers. Oberst takes the stage July 13 with Big Thief (just four days after another native son, Matthew Sweet, hosts the second of two shows inside the Waiting Room). Also playing street music are Blue October (June 24) and Fleet Foxes (Sept. 29).

waitingroomlounge.com

BLACKSTONE DISTRICT

Finally, something for those of us who love running—and beer. Scriptown Brewing Company (3922 Farnam St.) hosts the Scriptown Running Club every Thursday. Runners meet in the tasting room at 6 p.m. then toodle their way to the nearby Field Club Trail for a stretch of the legs. Then it’s back to Scriptown for a discounted pint. Oh, and those who get hungry can run down the street to Noli’s Pizzeria (4001 Farnam St.)—it has moved into new digs (with a new oven) at the corner of 40th and Farnam streets.

scriptownbrewing.com

nolispizzeria.com

CAPITOL DISTRICT

Imagine that you and a special someone meet at DJ’s Dugout (1003 Capitol Ave.). Imagine you hit it off and book a second date at Local Beer, Patio and Kitchen (902 Dodge St.). Now imagine things get serious, and the two of you start having a regular date night at Nosh Restaurant and Wine Lounge (1006 Dodge St.) where, one day, the two of you get engaged. Imagine you host your wedding at One Thousand Dodge (1002 Dodge St.). No imagination is needed, though, to know all this can happen right in the ever-emerging Capitol District.

capitoldistrictomaha.com

DUNDEE

Dundee denizens have something to get giddy about with a new project from the Giddings Group of Augusta, Georgia. A real estate development firm, Giddings has started construction on a 283-multi-family-unit apartment building rising along 46th Street between Dodge and California streets. The project is named “The Duke” similar to other apartment complexes Giddings has built in Nashville, Tennessee, and Victoria, Texas. The Dundee Duke is expected to open in 2018.

MIDTOWN CROSSING

There’s proof that Midtown Crossing is better than ever. Namely, Proof, a new upscale lounge specializing in a generous whiskey selection and craft cocktails. Proof opened in May in the former Grane space (120 S. 31st Ave., Suite 5105) They weren’t the new kids on the block very long, though. In June, Ray’s Original Buffalo Wings also opened in the Grane space (Suite 5103). In addition to their signature fare, the family owned business offers a specialty sandwich popular in Western New York—“Beef on Weck” sandwiches—thinly sliced roast beef steeped in au jus and served on a kummelweck roll.

midtowncrossing.com

NODO

Omaha Fashion Week celebrates 10 years Aug. 21-26 at the Omaha Design Center (1502 Cuming St.). Thirty-three designers will showcase their work on the runways. SAC Federal Credit Union will award nightly prizes of $500 to the designer with top scores for the evening. As part of the anniversary celebration Friday, Aug. 25, previous designers have been invited back for a special show that features curated collections representing each year of Omaha Fashion Week’s history highlighting the most iconic looks to hit the catwalk as well as some fan favorites.

omahafashionweek.com

Yes, there are good things in Lincoln, Nebraska. But one of those—Zipline Brewing—is now in Omaha, too, with a newly opened taproom (721 N. 14th St.).

ziplinebrewing.com

OLD MARKET

Finally, delivery is in sight for a new venture in the former postal building at 10th and Pierce streets. Work is slated to begin this summer on Tenth Street Market, positioning itself as a year-round indoor market offering fresh food and goods from all-local vendors, plus places to shop, eat, drink, learn, and meet. The market is expected to open by fall 2018.

tenthstreetmarket.org

SOUTH OMAHA/
VINTON STREET

How did they roll back when the Vinton Street Historic District was becoming—historic?  With bowling balls, of course. And they still do at Chop’s Bowling (13th and Vinton streets) and ICC Bowlatorium (24th and Bancroft streets). The former starts a 26-week Thursday night league Sept. 21. But if you want a spot, get signed up now. The latter is enjoying a retro renovation that gives the Catholic church-owned alley a look much like it had in the 1950s—when things really were rolling.

chopsbowl.com
bowlatorium.com

NORTH OMAHA/
24TH & LAKE DISTRICT

Just as there was no better place to catch early jazz than in Omaha’s 24th and Lake District, there’s no better place to catch the evolution of jazz—with hip-hop and soul—than at Love’s Jazz and Art Center (2510 N. 24th St.). The center offers live music July 15 with Sidewalk Chalk, a Chicago group offering “powerful vocals over dope electric horns and beats.” Time to jump in the Lake.

ljac.org

Stranger Things

July 6, 2017 by
Photography by Justin Barnes

Jennifer Pool is doing her part to keep Omaha odd.

“I do weird things with my costumes,” says Pool of her costume designs. “I definitely like to make them strange.”

This affinity for the atypical is why Omaha Under the Radar co-founder Amanda DeBoer Bartlett approached Pool about doing costumes and design for the annual experimental performance festival’s production of Eight Songs for a Mad King (July 5-8).

No, Game of Thrones fans, Eight Songs for a Mad King does not depict Daenerys Targaryen. Nor does it have anything to do with The Donald. The 30-minute Sir Peter Maxwell Davies monodrama portrays the “tragic madness” of King George III as he toils to train his beloved caged bullfinches to sing.

Pool is excited to collaborate again with DeBoer Bartlett, whom she first met through her fashion design work.

“We originally connected around the avant-garde fashion/costume stuff I do,” Pool says. “So, when this show came up and they needed something kind of strange but rooted in some historical accuracy, she called me—because quasi-historical and really weird at the same time is my wheelhouse.”

According to Omaha Under the Radar, Eight Songs for a Mad King implements a “multitude of complex extended vocal techniques covering more than five octaves” for which they’ve crowned Kansas City baritone John J. Pearse to play the royal role. Pearse will be accompanied by an ensemble of Omaha chamber musicians.

When we spoke, Pool was still formulating design ideas for Eight Songs for a Mad King while also creating costumes for the Bluebarn Theatre’s spring production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and finishing the capstone for her MPA in nonprofit management at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She graduated before going into tech rehearsals for Priscilla.

As for the aesthetic of Eight Songs for a Mad King, audiences can expect designs to follow the production’s essence—unhinged, strange, and erratic—reflecting the cacophonous score that careens alongside the protagonist’s mental discord and delusion.

“What drew me to this project is the opportunity to take a well-known historical figure and visually deconstruct that in a way that mimics his mental deterioration. To play with that in terms of design and see if there’s any sort of commentary to be made,” Pool says. “I love anachronisms, like the idea of an 18th-century British monarch wearing a Sex Pistols T-shirt—that’s not necessarily what I’ll do here, but just an example of that kind of anachronistic setup. I’m more interested in historical reference than historical accuracy because I think that’s more intriguing.”

As with all her theatrical work, Pool emphasizes the importance of making design choices that propel the story, serve the audience, and create the intended experience.

“I really look at the story and try to figure out what compelling visual cues I can give the audience to offer insight into the action and help them fully experience what’s happening in front of them—while also moving the story along,” Pool says. “That’s especially important [with this production] because it’s operatic and experimental, and that’s weird for some people. So my job is providing a point of entry into the piece through costumes and other visuals.”

Pool, who earned her bachelor’s in theater from UNO and her MFA in theatrical design with emphasis in costume design from the University of Georgia, is a lifelong theater devotee. She has clear childhood memories of being “utterly obsessed” with Annie and attending various local productions with her musical-loving parents. Interestingly, the former Bluebarn Witching Hour artistic director has actually been doing experimental theater from a young age.

“In third grade, I staged an immersive production of Sleeping Beauty in my backyard, where it was staged everywhere and people had to walk around to see the different scenes,” Pool says.

She credits her undergraduate studies at UNO for making her theatrically well-rounded.

“I performed, directed, did costumes, stage management, worked the box office—everything,” she says. “I find that really helpful now, because when people are like, ‘Um, we don’t have a set designer,’ I can jump in and make something work. I got a really broad-based theater education at UNO and had lots of opportunities to get involved.”

After the hectic schedule of Priscilla and grad-school-part-two subside, Pool will take some much-deserved me-time this summer to “sit by the pool and read Star Wars or something.” But first, she’s got another crazy train to catch with the Mad King.

“What’s awesome about Omaha Under the Radar is it sets the expectation that you’ll be interacting with stuff you don’t necessarily know,” Pool says. “Like, you haven’t seen 14 productions of this or you haven’t seen the movie version. It’s literally under the radar, or even totally off the radar sometimes, and this festival trusts that Omaha audiences will not only be receptive to that but excited about it. It’s awesome to be part of something that’s really asking Omaha arts audiences to just go there with us.”

Visit undertheradaromaha.com for more information.

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

Jennifer Pool

Punk You

June 21, 2017 by
Photography by Keith Binder

You can call Brothers Lounge a “punk bar” and not get too much grief from so-called “punk purists.” However, calling Brothers a “punk bar” is like calling The Clash a “punk band.” Technically, it may be true, but both are so much more than that definition.

But to truly understand Brothers (located at 3821 Farnam St.), you must go back to its beginnings.

More than a decade before 1977 (or “The Year That Punk Broke”), three brothers—Joseph Jr., Ernest, and Robert “Bobby” Firmature—opened The Brothers Firmature. The Firmature brothers had already established themselves in the Omaha dining and bar community with establishments like the Gas Lamp and the Ticker Tape Lounge. For the first 20 years, The Brothers Firmature—located next to the Colonial Hotel at 38th and Farnam streets—was a cozy bar, complete with drapes on the windows and a tiny dance floor (where two dartboards reside today).

The Brothers Firmature’s patrons included insurance reps from nearby Mutual of Omaha, reporters for the Omaha World-Herald, and the occasional long-stay occupant of the Colonial. It also became a respite for a young Omaha couple—Trey and Lallaya Lalley.

Not yet married, the Lalleys operated the Capitol Bar, which was located downtown near 10th and Capitol streets. In its heyday under the Lalleys, the Capitol helped jumpstart Omaha’s burgeoning indie-rock scene by booking lots of local and national acts. The Lalleys would frequent The Brothers Firmature on Sundays, their only day off. The bar offered an escape from the demands of club management and music promotion.

“It was our secret spot for us and a few friends,” Lallaya recalls.

“It felt like your weird uncle’s cool basement,” Trey adds.

In the mid-’90s, after the Capitol Bar closed, Trey worked at the now-shuttered Theodore’s Bar located at Saddle Creek and Leavenworth streets. Lallaya ran the front of house at McFoster’s Natural Kind Cafe, which was located across the street from The Brothers Firmature on Farnam. The beloved organic restaurant shut down last year. Around 1997, Trey and Lallaya were approached by Robert Firmature about working at The Brothers Firmature in hopes that the two would eventually take over ownership. In the meantime, Bobby offered to mentor both Trey and Lallaya on the ins and outs of operating such an establishment.

“I knew how to smile and sell a beer, but I didn’t know how to do the books,” Trey says.

Trey and Lallaya took over Brothers in 1998. Some of the original decor remains (the original The Brothers Firmature sign, old movie posters like The Plainsman, starring Gary Cooper, and Riders in the Sky, starring Gene Autry), but the attitude of the place took on a new edge. In 2003, they were operating as owners. In 2012, they owned the building outright.

Edward Huddell has been coming to Brothers for almost 40 years. Sitting at the bar on a Friday night, sipping a lemonade, Huddell said he knew Robert Firmature, but connected more with Trey and Lallaya. During Huddell’s heyday, he would go to Brothers three or four times a week. His drink of choice: Rolling Rock or tequila shots.

“When I first came here, there was mostly Mutual of Omaha people. Then, after a while, it became more working-class people,” Huddell says. “When Trey and Lallaya took over, the average age of the patrons went down quite considerably.”

Trey and Lallaya’s personal touches are all over the bar. Brothers has become home to one of the most revered music jukeboxes in the Heartland, hosted a secret show by The Faint, and now serves as a sort of bridge between old neighborhood regulars and new patrons who are drawn to the renovated Blackstone District.

Visually, there are subtle indicators of Brothers’ punk aesthetic: the obligatory bathroom graffiti, black-and-white portraits of Joey Ramone, Nick Cave, and The Clash. But the obvious indicator is in its fabled jukebox. It’s one of the few in the city that contains actual physical CDs, chosen by the bar owners. Along with established icons including Bad Brains, X, and Dead Kennedys, it also plays beloved hardcore and punk staples like the Pornhuskers, Agent Orange, and the Circle Jerks.

Trey and Lallaya have a simple system regarding what goes into the jukebox: Both must agree on the CD. Having a bar where you can determine what is played has its advantages, but also some obvious drawbacks. The primary one being the risk of burning out on some of your favorite bands.

“It’s ruined some of my favorite records of all time for me,” Trey says. “What can’t I listen to anymore? Minor Threat. Black Flag, Slayer, and any Ramones song. Bands I cherished and love, I just wore into the dirt.”

Many of the institutions near Brothers have either went away (McFoster’s), or have dramatically revamped themselves (Sullivan’s). The rest of the businesses are part of the newer bars and eateries in the Blackstone District. The new businesses have given Brothers some new patrons, who mainly stop by more out of curiosity while bar-hopping than to hang out, Lallaya says.

“I call them ‘weekend tourists.’ They stop by once or twice, and they never come back,” she says.

Trey expressed some annoyance with the development around the bar. For months, it looked like Brothers was under construction as the high-end bar and kitchen eatery Stirnella, located next door, was being built. Parking has also become a problem, Trey says.

“I’m all for progress. I just really liked it the way it was before. People came here for a reason. It wasn’t just like ‘Oh, what’s this place. Let’s walk in and check it out.’ It was ‘Let’s go to Brothers.’”

One notable blogger of historic Omaha falls into the “Let’s go to Brothers”-style of patrons. She was so taken by the bar’s history that she penned an exhaustively researched piece about its history for her blog, My Omaha Obsession. Because of the sensitive nature of her job, she chose to remain anonymous, opting to use her pen name, “Miss Cassette.”

Miss Cassette spent months researching the history of the Brothers building. In a post titled “Brothers Lounge and the Case of the Vanishing Mom and Pop,” Miss Cassette used old articles from the Omaha World-Herald and The Omaha Daily Bee, as well as the Omaha city directory to trace the building’s history. Some key facts she discovered was that the spot where Brothers now resides used to be home to two separate businesses. Before the Firmature brothers bought the building, it was a grocery store and a self-service laundromat.

Miss Cassette began her research the same way she does most of her stories: by tracking down the city directory. “It starts with the address, then I see what shakes out,” she says. “It gets really rabbit hole-ish.”

In 2016, Brothers celebrated its 50th anniversary. Trey and Lallaya plan to keep Brothers operating long enough to justify another research piece by Miss Cassette. Don’t expect many changes to the bar, with the exception of more live shows. Lallaya says the number of live shows has grown from six to about 25 each year.

Trey says he can imagine running the bar for another 20 years, minus a week or two off a year for vacations.

“We don’t have an exit plan. This is it…We were in business to have a good time with our friends, not to make millions of dollars and sell out. Obviously, we did that,” Trey says with a laugh.

Visit facebook.com/brothersloungeomaha for more information.

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

From left: Trey and Lallaya Lalley

 

Louder Together

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Lauren Martin was a small-town farm girl from McCook, Nebraska. She loved country music and never expected she would one day lead Maha—Nebraska’s pre-eminent annual music festival.

On Aug. 19, Martin oversees one of Maha’s boldest lineups ever. Headlined by the controversial hip-hop group Run The Jewels, Maha 2017 is poised to be one huge spectacle that promises to bring together a diverse group of concert-goers.

That kind of unity through music drives Martin, who got her first taste of it when she was a college student working on the campus program council at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “All of the sudden, I realized my favorite thing was to bring people together around experiences,” says Martin, who was named Maha’s first executive director in 2015.

While attending UNL, Martin helped bring such performers as singer-songwriter Jason Mraz and comedian Kathy Griffin to the university. After graduating, she wanted to continue exploring a career of booking musical talent.  Martin interned at Omaha-based Saddle Creek Records in 2007. The following summer, she found herself working at Live Nation, a global entertainment company in St. Louis. However, the Great Recession of 2008 cut her career plans short, forcing her to move back home and assess her future in the music industry.

“I came back to Omaha and felt like a dog with my tail between my legs because I failed—or because I couldn’t hack it—whatever it was” Martin says.

In 2009, Maha was born, and Martin took interest. Over the next few years, she wore many hats, including working as a house manager at Omaha Performing Arts and as programming director at Hear Nebraska. In 2012, she was given the reins to Maha’s social media accounts. She was also named to Maha’s board of directors that same year, eventually serving as vice president.

As she continued to work with Maha, Martin’s view of music changed, especially how it can affect people and bring them together. This feeling and sense of community is something she continues to incorporate into Maha.

“Now I realize music is something we all share, and it has a power to connect. It’s everything from a release, to a way to express yourself,” she says. “And while I myself am not a musician, I find that music helps me process things. It helps me connect with other people. It’s a passion in a way that music is an avenue for my fulfillment.”

Martin also worked in communications at the Omaha Community Foundation, where she helped implement Omaha Gives!, a 24-hour charity event aimed at raising money
for nonprofits.

Then, in 2015, something big happened—Maha sold out for the first time, thanks in large part to a phenomenal lineup that included Modest Mouse and Purity Ring.

“It caused everyone involved with Maha to realize that, if we want the event to continue and really be sustainable and see what even further impact we could have on the community, we needed someone full-time. That’s when I became the executive director,” Martin says.

She also emphasized that the popular festival, currently held at Stinson Park in Aksarben Village, is much more than music. The event serves as a medium for other nonprofits to receive attention.

“It’s about raising awareness,” she says, “not forcing anyone to learn about something or expose them to potential trigger topics.”

For example, this year the festival will have information about suicide, the second-leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 34 in the U.S. Martin says the majority of Maha’s demographic falls in this age range.

“Maha is more than a music festival. It’s a platform for engagement,” she says. “We realized not only can we be a platform for other organizations, but we can help spread education.”

Martin adds that while information is available to event-goers, the staff aren’t trying to make attendees uncomfortable. “Because that isn’t the intent of anyone,” she says. “We’re not impacting the experience by throwing mental health in your face,” Martin says. “We’re not scared to talk about this. We want to be an organization that is listening to what is going on in our community.”

In addition to providing mental health information, other nonprofits team up with Maha as part of its community to culture and social activities.

This year Maha has again partnered with Louder Than a Bomb, an annual youth poetry slam with roots in Chicago that focuses on bringing teens together across all divides. The group was recently the subject of an award-winning documentary of the same name.

Another repeat partner is Omaha Girls Rock, a nonprofit that typically draws plenty of attention. The group empowers young women to voice creativity through music education and performance. In general, to “rock.”

“Maha is an event that connects and reflects the community,” Martin says. “In that kind of structure, you get to walk away saying ‘Omaha’s got some really cool stuff going on.’”

As Maha continues to grow, Martin says people are getting even more out of the music festival. To this date, the event has drawn music fans from 46 states, according to its website.

“While the music is seemingly the main event, you come to Maha and get so much more than that,” Martin says. “I thought I was getting involved with Maha for the music, but what kept me involved with Maha was all the people I’ve gotten to meet.”

Visit mahamusicfestival.com for more information.

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

 

Lauren Martin

Eye Vibe

Photography by Sarah Lemke

Twenty-six-year-old Omaha native Michael Garrett isn’t simply a photographer—he’s a visual communicator. “I’m a photographer, graphic designer, content creator, and  overall creative,” he says.

The son of a hardworking single mother, the University of Nebraska-Omaha senior grew up around 18th and Pinkney streets and the now-defunct projects near 30th and Lake streets. Eventually, he transferred to South High School, where he experienced yet another segment of Omaha’s  diverse demographic. Despite his challenging circumstances, he managed to beat the odds and will soon be the first college graduate in his family.

As the founder of MGPhotog and co-founder of The Creative Genius collective, the burgeoning entrepreneur is clearly becoming a master of his own destiny, and he understands photography is more than meets the eye.

“Photography is oversaturated. I think it’s due to social media,” Garrett says. “Everyone feels they can do it. But in doing so, they don’t really know what it takes to be a photographer. The goal should be more than taking a picture. As a visual communicator, I treat it more like an experience. And what I’m trying to capture, it depends on the client, but I go in with a strong idea of what I want to do to communicate visually. When you see it, you should feel exactly what I want you to feel from the image.”

With a firm grasp on what it takes to set him apart from other photographers and graphic designers, Garrett takes the time to truly get to know his clients, which he believes is one of his defining characteristics.

“I kind of put me as a person first,” he says. “If I need to do work with a client, I meet with them and go into who I am, just so they’re a little more comfortable with me. To me, I’m building a relationship. I feel good communication is more effective and delivering the work becomes a little easier once you have that open communication with your clients.”

It all started the day he was fired from his job at a bank. Four years after he graduated from high school, Garrett was at a crossroads in his life and not quite sure what he wanted to do next. Getting fired, he says, was the best thing to happen to him. It was from that moment, he realized what he wanted to pursue.

Michael Garrett

“It was a random thing,” he says. “I got into an argument with my manager, and she wasn’t too fond of the things I said. The same day I lost my job, I went to the camera store at Nebraska Furniture Mart and bought a camera. I figured it would give me something to do and get my mind off of losing my job.”

It didn’t take him long to put his camera to use. He was a huge sneakers aficionado and  loved taking pictures of them. As an avid collector, he jumped on the Instagram trend of posting an array of specialty shoes online. Subsequently, owning a camera made perfect sense. His love affair with the lens had begun.

“Sneakers on Instagram took off,” he says. “That started it all. As far as my work, I model some of my work after some [photographers], but I’m very versatile. I can shoot a wedding, food, children, shoes—everything.”

In 2013, he was invited to a celebrity basketball game at the Mid-America Center. At the encouragement of a few of his predecessors, he quickly realized he could make a living out of his passion.

“I met a few other photographers at the tournament, and they took me under their wings. They said I should start charging for my work. From there, it took off.”

While he predominately grew up with his mom in a single-parent household, Garrett says it was difficult not having a male role model around.

“It affected me in a way, but I had to learn to be a man about things,” he says. “I had a bunch of mentors in school because I was active. I did journalism, basketball, track. I had male figures there, but they weren’t an authoritative figure outside of the sport. I could do what I want, but on the leadership side, it was good.”

His life circumstances forced him to grow up quickly, which undoubtedly led to his fierce work ethic. In addition to school, graphic design, and his photography business, he also works part-time at the Boys and Girls Club as he continues to garner more and more attention for his work. The sky is the limit, he says.

“For me, I’m more in love with the process of communication…I’m just living. I want to leave my plate open to the possibilities.”

Visit facebook.com/thecreativegeniuscollective for more information.

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

Transitorily Yours

June 15, 2017 by
Photography by Amy Lynn Straub

As a millennial in the midst of fatherhood, there’s a range of interesting observations and surprising lessons I’ve taken in along the way.

I somehow evaded having a child throughout most of my adult life. As it turns out, I was terrified at the thought of being a progenitor. But now that I’m in the process of fatherhood with my 17-month-old, I’m here to say—it’s not that bad. In fact, the first lesson I learned came when I realized that fathering is actually quite a bit more enjoyable and easygoing than I thought it would be.

The second is that while the breast-feeding, co-sleeping, and full-time co-parenting strategy has observationally been of great benefit to our child, I’m convinced that my baby already came into this world packaged with her sassy wit, charming curiosity, and giggle-box antics. Knowing that makes my job simple: Love her, keep all her limbs intact, and equip her to be the person she’s predestined to be.

Thirdly, it’s pretty f@#%ing weird when a complete stranger tells you they want to eat your child. It happens a lot.

You’re walking through the grocery store, an old lady passes by and starts to geek out on your kid (normal). But then you’ll hear a line like, “She’s so absolutely adorable I could just eat her!”

What?

Truthfully, I’ve had the same thought thousands of times. Every day. I look at my daughter and I get this emotional reaction that I just can’t seem to process, so an urge comes about where I just want to dive into her sweet little rosy cheeks or nuzzle and gobble on the neck rolls. And because we relate to such statements, we just accept them as culturally permissible forms of endearment.

But if you think about it from another angle, it actually sounds like we’re sugar-coating the urge of cannibalism. Like, you really want to tear chunks of a child’s face off with your teeth?

No, of course you don’t. So how did our culture land on this odd expression?

Well it turns out there’s such a thing as “cute aggression.” It comes down to a fundamental biological feature of our humanity: Sometimes our brain can’t seem to process an overabundance of an emotional reaction, and so we balance ourselves out with a negative expression.

Have you ever responded to something insanely cute or arousing with a “grrr” sound? Had the urge to squeeze something? Tears of joy?

That’s all cute aggression. Yale graduates Rebecca Dyer and Oriana Aragon came up with the term via their research. They observed hundreds of people and recorded their emotional responses upon looking at pictures of cute babies. What they found is that while folks would express a desire to care for and protect a child, they’d also mention that they’d like to eat them up as well. The more a person elicited this aforementioned type of aggression, the quicker they were able to come back to a normal state of emotion.

The researchers surmised that from an evolutionary standpoint, our body yearns for emotional homeostasis. If we expend too much energy on emotional highs and lows, it’s taking away from our ability to get other tasks accomplished (like staying alive).

Dyer and Aragon pointed to instances in other cultures of this type of expression, such as with the Phillippines’ Tagalog people, who use the word “gigil” to mean “gritting of teeth and the urge to pinch or squeeze.” Or for folks that use the Farsi language, it’s common to compliment a baby by saying that you want to “eat their liver.”

These are also called “dimorphous expressions,” which occur when two juxtaposed responses come from the same situation. This means that negative emotions also can be met with seemingly opposite reactions, such as laughter. We see this in our culture with nervous laughter, or hysterical laughter that comes with a particularly desperate moment of sadness.

There’s a bunch of research that talks about how our brain’s release of dopamine is cross-wired with our pleasure and aggression centers, but I’ll let you Google search all this if you wanna get in deeper.

The important and odd thing to note is that from how we experience food, sex, and celebratory moments, cute aggression or dimorphous expressions are incredibly revealing of how humans express ourselves in a wide range of circumstances.

With that in mind, when a stranger at the grocery store is having a pleasure/aggression brain meltdown at the sight of your child, just know that it’s not about cannibalism. They’re just working through something so that they can get back to picking out some celery sticks.

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

To share your life perspectives—or whatever—with Brent Crampton and Encounter, email millennials@omahapublications.com.

 

Digital Daredevils

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The masterminds behind Omaha band Glow in the Dark—Lawrence Deal and Aaron Gum—have always had an affinity towards musical instruments and toys. Since they were young, Deal and Gum surrounded themselves with a variety of ways to create sound, which consequently led to their obsession with electronic music. While the passion for it was easier to harness, coming up with a proper band name took more of an effort.

“It was really difficult to settle on something because it is important to have a name that really captures what you’re going for,” Deal explains. “I think Glow in the Dark does a great job of that because it has some elements of nostalgia, but also has some duality between light and dark. That sort of captures our musical style.”

“A band name becomes part [of] your identity,” Gum adds. “It can inform artistic choices beyond the music.”

Gum and Deal loved the contrast of something lighting up and coming alive in the dark. Gum, in particular, was drawn to glowing monster models/kits from the 1960s, and the name tied into some of the electronic instruments they use to create their music. From the sea of blinking LED lights on the modular synthesizers to the LCD screens of their vintage drum machines, light plays a starring role in what they do.

“It’s synth-based, so it’s definitely an electronic act,” Deal says. “However, it’s not just your typical ‘press play’ DJ act. Aaron plays all of the parts organically, and we use drum machines in the same manner.”

“It’s easy for some people to write off synth-based music as ’80s or modern electronic music as whatever latest sub-genre is popular at the moment,” Gum adds. “It’s OK to draw inspiration from your influences, but important to develop your own style.”

With its heavy synth sound and explosive melodies, Glow in the Dark earned an opening slot for famed ‘80s actor Corey Feldman’s group, Corey Feldman and The Angels, at Maloney’s Irish Pub, which drew a huge crowd due to Feldman’s bizarre behavior during a performance on the Today show in September 2016. The gig was the catalyst for getting their live show together, which they admit wasn’t exactly figured out yet. Up until this point, they had only been a studio act.

“We had barely talked about how we would go about performing any of [the music] live until news broke that Corey Feldman would soon be coming to town,” Gum explains. “Suddenly it was a real thing. This project that we had been slowly chipping away at in between our other projects had its first real live show, and we had two months to figure out how to transition a studio project into a live show. We discussed bringing in some friends to play parts, or even add parts, but eventually we kept it simple with just the two of us.”

Despite several hiccups, including Feldman running three hours late, their inability to set up their equipment ahead of time and countless last-minute changes, they managed to pull off the set, which Gum believes is a testament to the importance of being able to improvise and adapt to the situation as it develops.

“The crowd seemed to enjoy us,” Gum says. “It wasn’t your typical Omaha show crowd. A lot of these people are at this show only to see Corey, so that’s cool to be able to entertain them.”

Although Glow in the Dark is in its infant stages, it’s quickly gaining its footing due to Gum and Deal’s extensive experience in the musical realm. Despite the industry’s competitive nature, they’re clearly up for the challenge.

“We have both played music for most of our lives and probably wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves if we didn’t,” Deal says. “We don’t really concern ourselves with how oversaturated it can be, we just focus on making the best music that we can for ourselves.”

For now, Glow in the Dark is putting the final touches on its seminal full-length album and sending its latest video, “Digital Lust,” into the web stratosphere, so there will be more from the duo in the near future.

“For me, this is probably the project that I have been the most proud of to date,” Deal says. “It’s a group where I feel that I can really express myself, and we don’t put a lot of rules or limitations on each other. That is very refreshing.

“Making music is very special to me,” he adds. “It has the ability to really touch people, and that is a powerful thing. Even if it doesn’t, expressing yourself with music is a very positive outlet. I think everyone needs that in some regard.”

Visit facebook.com/glowglowdarkdark for more information.

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

Dropping Bombs

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Suzanne Withem has to size you up before she decides how to tell you the name of her next play.

After all, you don’t drop an F-bomb on just anybody.

Withem has spent the better part of her life on stage and behind the scenes, and this fall she takes another big step as a big name in Omaha theater circles when she directs Stupid F@#%ing Bird at Omaha Community Playhouse.

That’s how OCP is promoting it, at least.

What does Withem say when she tells folks about her upcoming project, billed as a “sort-of adaptation” of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull?

“It depends who I’m talking to,” she says with a laugh. “In most of my artistic conversations, I say f…”

So there, she drops it. “The Queen Mother of dirty words” as A Christmas Story’s Ralphie
calls it.

Withem says it with gusto—this is adult theater, after all. Besides, there’s plenty more to Stupid F@#%ing Bird than its effing title.

There’s plenty more to Withem, too.

She first set foot on stage as a 5-year-old dressed in pink and cartwheeling across the stage in a Ballet Omaha production of The Nutcracker. By middle school she was Gertrude in Hamlet, then performed at Papillion-La Vista High School and the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where she earned a B.A. in theater. That’s also where her aspirations turned serious, especially after a turn as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Suzanne Withem

“That’s the first time that I got to delve into production and really feel like an artist and not like I was just someone memorizing words and blocking,” Withem says. “I felt like I really had created a character and had a clear understanding of the script.”

She’s fed her own desire ever since, teaching, acting, stage managing, and directing with a wide variety of theaters: OCP, Nebraska Shakespeare, Bellevue Little Theatre, Opera Omaha, Bridget Saint Bridget, and others.

For the past three years, she’s turned more and more to directing. This February that included direction of Bellevue Little Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing.

“As I’ve started working with more and more seasoned actors, I love hearing what they have to bring to the table, and that goes back to that collaboration thing. What I love is working with my peers,” she says.

Somewhere along the way, though, Withem grew to love something even more. Something beyond scripts, sets, and other stage stuff.

“Education is the thing I care most about,”
she says.

Which is funny, she adds, given that “I swore I would never, ever go into education.”

In other words, she’d never be like her parents.

Her mother, Diane, taught in public schools for 34 years and now is an adjunct in the UNO English department. Her father, Ron, also was a high school teacher but later became a state senator and one-time speaker of Nebraska’s Unicameral. Now he’s associate vice president for the University of Nebraska as director of its governmental relations.

It’s not that Mom and Dad expected her to follow them to the classroom. After all, they were the ones who piqued her interest in the arts.

“My mom would take me to the ballet, and the opera, and the theater. When we traveled we’d go see productions. Both have a strong appreciation for the arts. It started there,” she says.

Her first job after graduating from UNO (she was one of the few in her cohort to get a job in the field after graduation) was at the Rose Theater. She figured it would be a foot in the door opening to a great stage career. But it also involved educating others about theater.

“I got to act a little bit,” Withem says, “but they kind of tricked me. Maybe I just didn’t read the fine print.

“What ended up happening is I fell in love with teaching in a way I didn’t think I would.”

She returned to UNO and earned an M.A. in English. She taught students in the Writing Center there. She taught high school drama classes. She became artistic director for RESPECT, an organization that works to build healthy relationships through theater. And she landed a job at UNO as coordinator of its Master of Arts in Critical and Creative Thinking program.

But the theater still pulls strong. She recently had personal business cards printed after growing tired of writing her theater chops on the back of her UNO card.

“Educator, Director, Stage Manager, Writer.”

That might be a f@#%ing mouthful, but now she has something that sums up all that is Suzanne.

For now.

“What comes in front of me has pretty much been always just the right thing,” she says. “As far as where I’m going to be in five years or 10 years, I am kind of waiting to find out.”

Visit omahaplayhouse.org for information about Withem’s play.

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

March 31-April 2 Weekend Picks

March 30, 2017 by


PICK OF THE WEEK
: Not many international events are held in Omaha. That’s why it really is a big deal that people from around the globe have been filling up the area’s hotels this week as the FEI World Cup equestrian championship gallops into full throttle. The competition that began Wednesday is considered the equestrian equivalent of the Masters in golf or the U.S. Open in tennis. More than 50 horses and their riders will compete in both dressage (horse training and movement) and jumping events with the finals on Saturday and Sunday at CenturyLink Center. How did these beautiful equines from all over the world make their way to the Big O? Check out the latest issue of Omaha Magazine or online here for the scoop on the horses’ big trip from Amsterdam, Netherlands. For more information about the World Cup and to view a schedule of events, go here.

TONIGHT: Thursday, March 30: Another huge Omaha event is the annual MAHA music festival. Organizers have been mum about the this year’s lineup. The silence will be broken TONIGHT at Benson’s Reverb Lounge (6121 Military Ave.). The reveal video will be shown at 8 p.m., followed by karaoke. The pain or excitement of the announcement will be eased or enhanced by plenty of drink specials. Tickets for MAHA (Aug. 19 in Aksarben Village) also will be on sale. Now in its ninth year, the nonprofit indie music festival features an all-day lineup of local and national acts. Prior years’ headliners include Modest Mouse, The Flaming Lips, Death Cab for Cutie, Garbage, Dashboard Confessional, and Passion Pit. For more information, click here.

Friday, March 31: With Lent season in full swing, Omaha Magazine provides an awesome guide to getting your fish Fridays on. Executive editor Doug Meigs compiled a list of six must-try fish fries. “Expect to spend a few hours standing and waiting in line at Omaha’s most-popular fish fries,” Meigs reports. “The long wait—and the chance to meet new friends while drinking beer—is sometimes the most fun part of the evening.” Great grub mixed with alcohol and friendly conversation? That doesn’t sound fishy at all.

NEW GRUB IN NODO: Speaking of fish, one of the metro’s best new seafood restaurants is Hook & Lime + Tequila (735 N. 14th St.) located across from Slowdown in Nodo. The menu features a large selection of top-quality Mexican dishes, including a la carte tacos and tortas, all for under $20. “We have this amazing menu, these amazing items, that we’re able to bring to people who normally wouldn’t get to experience them,” owner Robbie Malm says. “We’re trying to take that food, that approach of sourcing locally and treating these items with respect, and make it more approachable. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a suit and tie or flip-flops, we welcome everybody here.” And don’t forget about the tequila. Read all about Hook & Lime is the latest issue of Omaha Magazine’s Encounter, or read the article online here.

Saturday, April 1: Tequila shots may be just the thing to celebrate “150 Years of Nebraska Poetry” at the launch party for the new book Nebraska Poetry: A Sesquicentennial Anthology, which will be released in May. The University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Criss Library is hosting the event Saturday at 3 p.m. on the lower level of the library. Editor Daniel Simon will be on hand to discuss his anthology—the first of its scope to encompass 150 years of the state’s literary history, featuring 80-plus poets and more than 180 poems. This landmark collection includes poems by such well-known poets as Willa Cather, Loren Eiseley, and Tillie Olsen—as well as some remarkable but relatively forgotten writers from the late 19th to the mid-20gth centuries. For more information or to order the book, click here.

FOR A COMPLETE LISTING OF EVENTS, CLICK HERE.