Tag Archives: The New York Times

Staircase to a Magical Mural

October 15, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A house hunting expedition 30 years ago, spurred by the needs of their growing family, eventually led Maureen and Jim Waldron to tour a Spanish-style home of ivory stucco on South 56th Street between Farnam and Harney streets in Omaha’s historic Dundee-Happy Hollow neighborhood.

The size and openness of the living room with its honest-to-goodness slate floor—a testament to 1925 architecture—decorative tiles, carved wood, and wrought-iron accents throughout the house, not to mention several bathrooms, appealed to both their aesthetic and practical senses.

But nothing prepared the couple for what they saw when they passed by the dining room and reached the stairs leading to the second floor.

A mural of a cornfield, in shades of green and accented with gold leaf, filled the east wall adjacent to the staircase and followed the wall’s narrow angle upwards. A second mural of a barn and rustic fence covered the entire wall facing the bottom of the stairs. The artist camouflaged the light switch by making it a part of a fence post. Connecting the two oil paintings, there is a continuation of the field along a narrow strip of wall between the ceiling and the frame of a door leading to the kitchen.

Who painted it and when? The Waldrons didn’t know, but they believed only a professional hand could have created something so unique, so vibrant, and so unexpected. Not everyone touring the house that day shared their sentiment.

“Well, this thing is going to have to go in a hurry,” a woman sniffed to her husband, waving her hand dismissively toward the mural.

Maureen remembers closing her eyes and thinking, “Oh please, don’t let this woman get this house. We may not get it, but she doesn’t deserve this house.”

The Waldrons prevailed and so did the painting.

Shortly after moving into their new home, a neighbor, who happened to be an art appraiser, walked across the street and asked Jim and Maureen, “You haven’t touched that mural, have you?”

She had good reason for concern.

The staircase cornfield, the neighbor informed them, was drawn by artist Eugene Kingman. He and his family moved to Omaha in 1946 and lived in the house through the early ’70s, during his tenure as director of the Joslyn Art Museum.

The name Eugene Kingman didn’t ring a bell with either Maureen or Jim. But from that day forward, the couple’s son and daughter, ages 2 and 4 at the time, heard “don’t put your hand on the painting!” every time they climbed the stairway to their rooms.

For the next 24 years, Jim built his law practice and Maureen worked in corporate public relations before co-founding the online ministries program at Creighton University, their alma mater. In 2011, Maureen finally found the time to “Google” Kingman’s name and write letters. She realized that he painted more than just walls in Omaha—her research and perseverance proved a catalyst for a chain of events that still resonates from Omaha to New York City.

Kingman, she discovered, had already won awards as a cartographer, painter, and muralist when (in 1946) then-publisher of The New York Times Arthur Hayes Sulzberger commissioned him to paint a 20-foot-long mural for the newspaper giant’s newly renovated lobby on West 43rd Street in New York City.

That same year, Omaha came calling with a job offer at the Joslyn.

“He asked for—and got—permission from the Joslyn, his new employer, to do the high-profile mural for the Times,” Maureen says. “We have pictures of him painting the mural in the Joslyn. We now believe he painted it in one of the Joslyn’s galleries, not the basement.”

Kingman’s iconic post-war mural, a depiction of the Northern Hemisphere as viewed from space, greeted famous newsmakers and crusty news reporters in the Times lobby for more than 40 years before winding up in storage for another three decades.

With the help of the muralist’s two daughters, Elizabeth Kingman and Mixie Kingman Eddy, Maureen and a group of Omaha friends persuaded the Times to part with the mural. In 2014, a rolled up, dusty, and nicotine-filled canvas arrived in Omaha, donated by the Times to the nonprofit Joslyn Castle Trust. Kingman’s newly restored work now hangs in the W. Dale Clark Library downtown.

Having shined a light on an under-appreciated talent, Maureen, in turn, became enlightened on the origins of the staircase mural.

Kingman, a native of Rhode Island, “fell in love with the Midwest and West when the U.S. Department of the Interior commissioned him to paint seven national parks while he was an undergraduate at Yale,” Maureen says. “He absolutely loved the openness of Nebraska and loved to paint cornfields.”

So when his wife, Betty, lamented that their little daughters were leaving dirty fingerprints on the ivory stucco walls along the staircase, Kingman did what any self-respecting muralist would do: He painted what Mixie would later call “magical cornfields” to hide their fingerprints, thus enabling Mixie and Elizabeth to continue touching the wall—a luxury the Waldron children never had; nor does the next generation.

When the Waldrons’ four-year-old granddaughter recently visited with a little friend, the tot issued a warning of—you guessed it—“don’t put your hand on Nana’s painting!”

Visit eugenekingman.com for more information about the artist.

This article appears in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

A Campaign Trail Nomad Rooted in Nebraska

February 8, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

Thankfully, the presidential horse race was over and the breathless autopsy of the results were ebbing by Thanksgiving. It gave CNN’s senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, a chance for a break—a quick holiday retreat to see his mom on the farm where he grew up outside Exeter, Nebraska, a tiny town an hour southwest of Lincoln.

“A little different pace,” he says wryly on the rainy Monday before Turkey Day. “I try to get back as much as possible. But I haven’t been back much this year. My mom has made me aware of that.”
While his CNN title suggests he is tethered inside the Beltway, Zeleny is, particularly during election season, more of a campaign-trail nomad. Thanks to his dogged work reporting on presidential campaigns for The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, ABC, and CNN, he is one of the most respected political reporters and analysts in the business.

One reason for his gift for in-depth, spot-on work, his colleagues deduce, is his life and career trajectory—from farm boy, to sports reporter, to Midwest journalist, to D.C. insider. That path has made him uniquely qualified to penetrate and make sense of a political landscape deeply divided along urban/rural and white-collar/blue-collar lines.

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“Jeff is a brilliant journalist,” says David Chalian, CNN’s political director and oft-seen on-air analyst who hired Zeleny away from ABC. “He’s a reporter’s reporter. His work is so deeply sourced. He’s addicted to breaking news. He loves getting out on the road to talk to people.

“With all that, he’s such a good guy—he’s never ‘gone Washington,’” Chalian says. “You can’t take the Nebraska out of him… I think that helps him connect to almost anyone he meets.”

“Jeff is a remarkably gifted journalist,” adds Jane Hirt, a fellow University of Nebraska-Lincoln alum of Zeleny’s who was managing editor of The Tribune during his stint in Chicago. “He was born to tell stories.”

Indeed, by the third grade, Zeleny says he was already glued to the television each night, watching Walter Cronkite on CBS nightly news. In high school, he began his journalism career by calling in high school football results to the local newspaper. By his senior year, he, one of 12 Exeter High School prospective graduates that year, was at the other end of the phone, fielding calls from sports correspondents for The York News-Times.

“Sports coverage is the only thing that prepares you for election night,” he says.

Zeleny headed to UNL with dreams of being a broadcaster. Print journalism professors at UNL suggested he first pursue a print journalism path to build his reporting and writing chops. His sophomore year, he quit playing trumpet for the Husker marching band to join the staff of UNL’s college paper, the Daily Nebraskan, where he later became editor. In his summers, he landed prestigious internships, including one at The Wall Street Journal, where, in a crowd of Ivy Leaguers, Zeleny says the editors “really liked the idea that I was from Nebraska.”

“Your Nebraska brand is a really good brand,” he says. “The Midwest mindset and work ethic is something people believe in and respect. It’s an advantage, not a drawback.”

Zeleny’s biggest break, though, may have been back in Des Moines at his first job with The Register. For a young reporter, those bellwether Iowa caucuses, with its stampede of presidential hopefuls crisscrossing the state as the world watches, placed Zeleny’s detailed and astute reporting on the national stage.

Then he was off to Chicago, where he covered the rise of a young U.S. senator to the presidency.
After seven years with The New York Times, during which he increasingly made national television appearances as a guest political analyst, he took a position with ABC. As CNN began expanding its staff to cover the primaries and general election, Chalian went looking for “the top talent out there.”

“Jeff and I had spent a lot of time together on the campaign trail as colleagues in the press corps,” Chalian says. “I knew what a great reporter and great guy he was and I knew he was one of the most respected political reporters there is. I’m thrilled to have him here.”

The trick for Zeleny has been making the jump from being a newspaper reporter to a broadcast journalist—his dream job since his formative years watching Cronkite. A mere three years into diving into broadcast journalism, a time during which he says he’s received “a lot of behind-the-scenes training,” you could argue he still seems a shade stiffer than your typical broadcast journalist. While his reporting and writing is incisive and often witty, he’s still a little off with those affected vocal tone, pitch, and timing mechanics standard in the broadcast business. He doesn’t have the cheekbones of most of the guys in broadcasting. He’s more subdued than many. Basically, you can still kinda see that Zeleny is a newspaper guy doing television.

Good, Chalian says. Times have changed. “Many of the old-school broadcasting rules are less important now,” he says. “The key is great, robust, well-sourced storytelling whether it’s print or television or a podcast.”

Zeleny, good natured through a bit of ribbing from an old print reporter, seconds Chalian’s critique of the evolution of broadcast news. Viewers, he says, increasingly have made it clear that, “the blow-dried look,” as he put it, “isn’t important any more. We like real things.”

For all of Zeleny’s immersion in both rural and urban political landscapes during the last election cycle, he still didn’t predict a Trump victory. But news junkies and CNN fans know he was arguably the most prescient regarding the depth of frustration throughout the rust belt and other parts of the country with the perceived impact of trade deals and environmental regulations on the economy, and the idea of maintaining business-as-usual in D.C.

“Trump was seen as the exterminator,” he says. “It was a change election. Then Republicans came home to him. A lot of things came together.”

Now, Zeleny says, as interesting as this election season was, things may get even more interesting in the coming years.

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“It’s going to be fascinating,” he says.

And rough, and weird. In late November, Zeleny reported there was no evidence to back Trump’s claim that millions of people had voted illegally in the 2016 election.

Trump himself then targeted Zeleny, retweeting a rant from a 16-year-old: “@Filibuster: @jeffzeleny. Pathetic—you have no sufficient evidence that Donald Trump did not suffer from voter fraud, shame! Bad reporter.”

Also, this retweet: “Just another generic CNN part-time wannabe journalist!”

Zelleny, professional and measured as ever, responded: “Good evening! Have been looking for examples of voter fraud. Please send our way. Full-time journalist here still working.”

Much of the battle now, Zeleny and Chalian say, is providing people with real news amid an onslaught of fake news, fake news that even the President of the United States seems uninterested in fact-checking.

“Our job now is to make sure we’re doing the best job possible and holding people accountable,” Zeleny says. “You need people to be there to call a ball a ball, and a strike and strike, and just keep going and going to get it right. It’s a very important time in the country. My job is to keep pushing and keep asking the tough questions.”

Visit cnn.com/profiles/jeff-zeleny-profile for more information.

Frank Carter

December 28, 2016 by
Photography by Contributed by Douglas County Historical Society

The story of Frank Carter—Omaha’s phantom sniper—is a histrionic tale of fear and madness gripping the city in the wake of a mysterious shooting spree.

For several weeks in February of 1926, the whole of Omaha was terrified. The first victim was a mechanic, William McDevitt, shot four to six times with a silenced .22 pistol. One shot went straight through his head, lodging behind his eye. McDevitt did not survive.

A few nights later, somebody shot through the windows of a pharmacy. Two nights later, a doctor named A.D. Searles was found shot to death in his office. Two other men claimed to have been shot on the same night as Searles. An officer opined to The Omaha World-Herald, saying, “My theory is that it is the work of a degenerate, probably suffering from a social disease.”

carter-frank-9277-edit-cmykAccording to The New York Times, city newspapers called for a blackout, as several of the victims had been shot through their windows at night. The sniper continued to fire through windows, and Omaha came to a standstill with residents terrified to exit their houses. The sniper was also responsible for shooting a Council Bluffs railroad detective, Ross Johnson, on Feb. 21. This was to be the end of his reign of terror. Johnson saw his shooter and described him.

On Feb. 22, about two weeks after the phantom sniper began shooting, police captured a sad-faced middle-aged man with a shock of black hair named Frank Carter. He was found 30 miles south of Council Bluffs, and he quickly admitted to the known crimes and more. He claimed it had been his intention to rob McDevitt and Searles, but he shot them instead. “I just get the inclination to shoot,” he said.

As it turned out, Frank Carter was not named Frank Carter at all. Instead, he was an Irish immigrant named Patrick Murphy with a criminal background, including a stretch in prison for killing cattle.
Carter proved to be a bit hysterical, insisting he had killed 43 people. No evidence of this has ever been found, and even the newsmen of the time were unimpressed.

The Lexington Herald wrote that “he ‘confessed’ to 43 murders to reporters, most of them obviously fictitious.” Carter’s lawyers pushed for an insanity defense while Carter gleefully threatened to escape, and then insisted he wanted to be executed, saying, “I am glad they don’t hang in this state, because I am anxious to see how it feels to be electrocuted.”

Carter got his wish on June 24, 1927, when he was put to death in the electric chair at the Nebraska State Penitentiary. “Be sure to fix this right so that it will get me the first time” he is reported to have told his guards as they strapped him into the electric chair.

His last words, according to witnesses: “Let the juice flow.” The San Diego Union tells the story a bit differently, claiming that his final words were “Turn on the ju—,” leaving incomplete his final statement because he was electrocuted while still speaking.

Scott Blake

October 10, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Scott Blake looks giddy as he weaves between traffic on 72nd and Pacific streets. He holds a tattered and discolored “now hiring” sign covered by a piece of cardboard—which he calls his “security blanket”—and his dark, disheveled beard frames a mischievous grin. In place of the ragged employment sign stands a provocative work of street art reminiscent of old-fashioned directional street signs. But instead of pointing viewers to local streets or nearby towns, his sign details distances to Benghazi (5,951 miles), Gaza (6,512 miles), and Guantanamo (1,920 miles) in crisp black letters. A three-dimensional star-spangled bomb tops his message like a star on a Christmas tree.

Blake is no stranger to unique and controversial art. Born in Florida in 1976, he first received widespread recognition for his Y2K-inspired barcode art, a project that has become increasingly interactive thanks to the emergence of smartphones and barcode-reading apps. His barcode portraits range from Jesus to Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Lee, and others.

His 9/11 Flipbook project also garnered national attention, which allowed him to donate proceeds to the Twin Towers Orphan Fund, the Red Cross, and other charities. His work has been featured in publications like Adbusters, FHM, and The New York Times, and has been exhibited as far away as London, Paris, and Vienna. His accolades include several Adobe Design Achievement Awards, and a 2009 Omaha Entertainment and Arts Award for Best New Media Artist. But his controversial and covert signpost project is less likely to earn him any official recognition.

The current iteration of the street sign project has been ongoing for about a year. Blake cites two primary sources of inspiration. First, a San Franciscan friend who painted directions to Guantanamo Bay on driftwood. “I get a lot of my ideas from talking with people,” he explains, “but I also go the extra mile—I take it and do this, that, and the other, and make it specifically about Omaha.” Blake initially utilized wood for his own signposts but soon realized that the ubiquitous “we buy houses for cash” signs lining streets and cluttering medians were “like Omaha driftwood” begging to be repurposed.

His second—and more personal—source of inspiration is the iconic signpost from M*A*S*H, the show from the 1970s that features a fictional team of doctors stationed in South Korea during the Korean War. The sign in M*A*S*H points to locations like Boston, San Francisco, and Coney Island, places that represent home for the characters, but Blake’s signposts flip this idea on its head. “I’m already home,” Blake says, “so I want to know where the wars are at—I want to remind people where the boogeyman is.” He also notes that many of the locations have American bases and personnel: “In a way, I actually am pointing to a little piece of America.”

Blake’s process has become part of his daily routine. He takes his signposts with him when he runs errands, and he makes mental notes when he sees “Omaha driftwood” ripe for pilfering. He prefers outdated or illegally placed signs and avoids those that are political, charitable, or artistic in nature. The collected signs are taken to his home studio where they are painted white, cut into arrows, and labeled before being placed into the back of his car to await installment on one of Omaha’s major thoroughfares.

Blake argues that this kind of thought-provoking public art is particularly important when both major presidential candidates treat military intervention as a matter of course. “I consider (our ongoing) wars to be illegal and unjustified and I’m obviously anti-war,” he explains. “There’s no way I’m going to stop the wars; but at the same time, I’m not going to roll over. You can’t be against something—you can’t subvert something—without talking about it.”

Responses to the signposts have been mixed. “Is it weird to think that the bombs are cute?” asks Sarah Johnson, owner of Omaha Bicycle Co. Many locals have expressed confusion over the signposts’ ambiguous nature. An employee of SignIT (a local company that provides the materials for the star-spangled bombs) asked, “Is this a Fourth of July sign?” The conversation about Blake’s public art has even extended to the digital world. Reddit user ZOUG posted that the works are “Not much of a statement if no one understands what they are saying.”

But Blake isn’t too worried about these reactions: “A lot of people have asked me, ‘Are you for the war or are you against it?’ My number one thing is to get people thinking. I’m just reminding people that, whether they’re for or against the wars, these things are happening.” Blake has considered crafting signposts with directions to Boston, Orlando, San Bernardino, and other American cities affected by domestic terrorism and civil unrest, but for now he’s content with his current project.

“I’ll stop when the wars stop.”

Visit barcodeart.com for more information.

Encounter

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Jenny Kruger

July 22, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Midwestern farmland can be described in many ways. Paisley, however, is not a descriptor that normally comes to mind. Artist Jenny Kruger, however, often sees paisley on the farm—at least in paint.

Her art consists of colorful floral patterns serving as backdrops to barns or rural settings. Everyday landscapes become surreal. The brightly hued paintings are nostalgic, byproducts of Kruger’s nomadic youth.

Home has always been more of a feeling than a physical place for the artist. Her works are more about what she remembers than what a place actually looked like.

“I never really had a strong sense of home being tied to a location,” says Kruger. “It’s memories.”

Lately, her work has become bigger and grander. Kruger is currently working on a triptych that will measure 6 feet wide by the time she finishes the three panels. “I keep getting bigger because I think the landscapes need to breathe,” she says.

JennyKruger2She works on the weekends and whenever time allows in her life, in between raising two young boys and managing a career as dean of Communications, Education, and Fine Art at Iowa Western Community College. She also squeezes in time to occasionally illustrate for publications such as The New York Times.

Painting has taken a backseat in her life right now, but it hasn’t gone away.

“It’s important to me. If I stop painting, this job wouldn’t work for me,” admits Kruger of her position at the college.

It wasn’t always this way. For much of her life, art was everything to her.

Kruger spent her early years in Salt Lake City, with countless hours devoted to drawing pictures in her bedroom.  As the scenery started to change, the constant in her life was art.

Before she reached age 10, she spent a year learning Spanish in Monterey, Mexico, and then sailed the East Coast with her family.

Following a year at sea, her family settled down in Indiana. Kruger pursued art head on, encouraged by her parents, who enrolled her in advanced art classes. She painted in Florence, Italy, while a college student. A Fulbright scholarship sent her to Barcelona, where she could paint nonstop.

A favorite artist growing up was the American realist Andrew Wyeth, and while you can spot a hint of his realist influence in Kruger’s work, her own traveling has definitely flavored the trajectory and style of her painting.

“I saw many different sceneries, different ways of living, different kinds of people, and different ways of learning,” says Kruger.

While studying for her master’s degree in New York City, she dabbled in portraits, but also began painting images of water towers, adding a floral background. Eventually, she ended up in Nebraska, where her surroundings now inspire her frequently and at strange times, like while driving to work. She’ll see a striking wrapping paper pattern and save it to be her creative muse later.

After her boys are tucked in bed, Kruger is in her basement studio, revisiting her collection of muses and memories, and trying to build enough pieces for her next solo show.

Visit jennykruger.com for more information.

Sam Walker

February 11, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Technically, Sam Walker is retired and has been retired from the University of Nebraska—Omaha for nine years. But the 71-year-old author and civil liberties activist is still going full throttle. His national profile as a voice for police accountability has arguably even risen in these years when most of his contemporaries are stepping from the fray.

Walker recently sat down at a Midtown coffee shop to do some reflecting. But it quickly became clear he plans to remain a vital and vibrant member of the civil liberties movement that he’s been active in for nearly five decades. He’s not unlike many whose ideals were forged fighting racism in the segregated South of the 1960s. A passion for justice doesn’t easily retire.

Walker says he was recently invited to do work with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on Early Intervention Systems, a computerized database dealing with officer performance. The Canadian trip comes right after a conference in New York. Walker also was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal in October about the lack of a national database regarding officer-involved shootings.

Walker has become a national expert in police accountability and civil liberties. He is usually the first person local media seek out whenever there is an issue with law enforcement, but he also has been asked to provide insight by national media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, among numerous others.

Walker has written 14 books in 36 different editions. His most recent book on policing, The New World of Police Accountability, was just released in a second edition. Walker says he enjoys the continued work on the various editions, cutting out the old and working in new developments.

In the last few months, Walker has been fielding numerous phone calls and emails regarding the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Walker says that even though he retired from UNO, he knew he was going to stay busy. He saw firsthand what retirement did to his father.

“My father had a forced early retirement at 62,” Walker says. “He was an executive at the railroad, middle management, and he had no outside interests. He just sat around every day and started drinking and before this he wasn’t a drinker—maybe a drink at a party but that was it. My mother tried to push him to find interests but it didn’t work. So I think, ‘Where was my father at 71?’ He was an alcoholic.”

His mother, though, was a very active woman and lived to be 98, tending to her garden and staying busy until her final years. Looking at Walker, you’d never guess his age. He is still tall and trim. A graceful man who speaks very directly and gives answers that are fully thought out—no abrupt pauses or half sentences like most of us communicate. One gets the sense that Walker is constantly taking in information, studying, and collecting data to come to deeper understanding. He is pretty much what one would expect a professor emeritus to be like.

A friend and former peer in the 1960s civil rights movement recently found a photo of a young Walker taken in Mississippi standing on a porch working to register African-American voters. Walker was a student at the University of Michigan at the time and wasn’t sure what he was going to do with his life. Things changed for him one night in 1964 when he went to see Bob Moses speak about the Mississippi Summer Project. He ended up traveling to Mississippi that tumultuous summer and worked to register voters.

Then the conversation quickly turns back to pressing current affairs. Walker gives his predictions on how the Ferguson crisis would play out and what the slew of press leaks might mean to the looming outcome. This is Walker’s world. Strides have been made in police relations with minority communities. Obviously there is much more work to be done.

But perhaps more so in this quasi-retirement, Walker can shift gears back toward more traditional leisure-time fare. He loves taking in movies (he’s a frequent patron of Film Streams). This self-admitted “rock and roller” has more than 9,000 records, a collection so large it has outgrown his home. It seems the hectic pace of retirement suits Walker just fine.

“I’m working harder than I was when I was getting paid,” Walker says. “And loving it. It is very gratifying when those phone calls and emails come in from people who know me only though my work. And they keep on coming.”

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