Tag Archives: University of Nebraska

Mary Mitchell

December 22, 2017 by
Photography by Heather and Jameson Hooton

These autobiographical pieces and corresponding photos are part of a special edition of 60PLUS featuring local residents who prove that fashion has no age limits.


Mary Mitchell, forever young

I was born in Buffalo, New York, to John and Irene Kafasis. After graduating as a fashion illustrator from the Albright Art School in conjunction with the University of Buffalo, I worked as the in-house illustrator at Flint & Kent Department Store for two years. I married John C. Mitchell, an attorney, and moved to Kearney, Nebraska.

My son, John, was born in Kearney. We eventually moved to Omaha where I worked at the Nebraska Clothing Co. for four years as their fashion illustrator. I started freelancing for about 15 retailers, doing advertising and illustrating their fashions in the World-Herald and Lincoln Journal. A few of the retailers I worked for were Topps, I. Eugene Shoes, The Wardrobe for Men, Goldstein Chapman, Natelson’s, Wolf Brothers, Zoobs, and Aquila.

In the 1980s, photography took over illustrating fashions in newspapers and magazines. It was a time of transition for the industry and for myself as well. I decided to put my skills to work for Mitchell Broadcasting Stations. John had acquired 16 radio stations in Nebraska, and I started working full time as vice president at our Omaha office, where I handled all the advertising and designed logos, newspaper layouts, billboards, and bus ads. During this time, we also got involved in ownership of two restaurants, Le Versailles and The Golden Apple.

In the meantime, I had saved over 1,000 of my original fashion illustrations. Our good friends, Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Jochim, saw some of them and asked me if they could find a venue to exhibit them. They pursued several venues and settled on The Durham Museum. I had a four-month exhibit at The Durham Museum in 2012, which was the impetus to write my book, Drawn to Fashion. I was very fortunate to have Oscar de la Renta write the forward to my book. The exhibit traveled to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for one month, where the official dedication of the Mary Mitchell Fashion Design Studio took place in October 2012. All proceeds from the book, note cards, and prints of my illustrations go to scholarships for University of Nebraska students in fashion design. There are four scholarships each year, and the program will go on in perpetuity.

It is my fondest wish that the University of Nebraska scholarship fund can help pave the way for exciting careers for young people who are, today, just like I was as a child—dreaming of beautiful clothes, making them, drawing them, selling them, loving the creative life, and feeling that powerful urge to get involved—young people who are, just like I was, “drawn to fashion.”

I am so fortunate and grateful to have had a wonderful husband, John, who always urged me to follow my career and pursue my dreams. I am proud of our son, John, who is an outstanding person and doctor, our lovely daughter-in-law, Kathleen, and my exceptional grandchildren, Emily, John B., and his beautiful wife, Roxanne.

As far as aging gracefully, I would say, surround yourself with good friends, enjoy your life through thick and thin, and always strive to help one another. And, of course, pursue your dreams.

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

Huskers’ Winning Tradition

December 18, 2017 by
Photography by Scott Bruhn

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln volleyball team entered 2017 with tempered expectations after losing three All-Americans and two assistant coaches from the previous season. But what began as a rebuilding year became a 32-4 national championship campaign for the overachieving Huskers, who capped an unexpected return to the pinnacle of their sport by defeating Florida in four sets in the NCAA title match on Dec. 16.

Thousands of Big Red fans made the trip to Kansas City for the Final Four, where a record crowd of 18,000-plus viewed the deciding contest.

Coach John Cook celebrates with his team and their trophy.

While tradition-rich Husker football has been in the doldrums for two decades, the equally tradition-rich volleyball program has carried the school’s elite athletic banner. NU volleyball and its gridiron brothers have now won five NCAA titles apiece. This was NU’s second volleyball crown in three years and the fourth under head coach John Cook since succeeding program architect Terry Pettit in 2000.

Cook was an assistant under Pettit, whose stellar work at Nebraska—including one NCAA title (along with his overall contributions to the sport)—landed him in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame back in 2009. The current Huskers volleyball coach joined his predecessor as an inductee in the fall of 2017. Cook’s formal induction came only hours before facing the No. 1 seed Penn State in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.

Cook has said the 2017 Huskers, led by Papillion native and setter extraordinaire Kelly Hunter, were a joy to coach because they actually lived out their season slogan: “with each other, for each other.” That mantra got tested early when the young, inexperienced squad opened the season without an injured Hunter on the court and promptly suffered two losses—one against future NCAA finals opponent Florida. But the Huskers stayed the course and with Hunter back at setter the rest of the way, they rallied to finish the non-conference schedule with a 7-3 mark. The team really found its groove in tough Big Ten play, going 19-1 to share the league championship with arch-rival Penn State, and finished the regular season 26-4. 

Kelly Hunter, from Papillion, helped to lead the Huskers to clinch a fifth NCAA volleyball title.

Hunter and fellow seniors Briana Holman (middle blocker) and Annika Albrecht (outside hitter) led the way with junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke and junior libero Kenzie Maloney. Two dynamic freshmen—middle blocker Lauren Stivrins and outside hitter Jazz Sweet—rounded out the balanced team volleyball approach that became NU’s trademark. No superstars. Just solid players executing their roles and having each other’s backs, whether at the net or in the back-row.

Hunter, Albrecht, and Foecke did earn All-America honors.

Months before seeing Penn State in the semifinals, on Sept. 22, NU dealt the No. 1-ranked and star-studded Nittany Lions their only regular-season loss by sweeping them at Happy Valley. The Huskers earned the right to host a first-round NCAA Tournament playoff in Lincoln, where fans jammed the Devaney Center. Fifth-seeded NU swept both its foes to advance to regionals in Lexington, Kentucky, where NU downed Colorado and host Kentucky, dropping only one set in the process.

For their national semifinal match in K.C., the Huskers drew Big Ten nemesis and No. 1 overall seed Penn State. In an epic classic, the Big Red prevailed in five sets. Then, in the ensuing final against Florida, NU avenged that early season loss to the Gators in capturing collegiate volleyball’s top prize. Hunter and Foecke were named co-outstanding players of the tournament.  

In 2018, NU loses Hunter, Holman, and Albrecht—look for at least one to be the latest Husker to make the U.S. national team—but the team otherwise returns with the core stable of their 2017 championship team. NU will add four top recruits to the mix, too. As defending champs, no one will underestimate the Huskers this time. A key to the season will be finding a setter to replace Hunter, the team’s on-court quarterback. Incoming freshman Nicklin Hames may just be the heir apparent in that key role. 

But you can bet that Cook & Co. will stress the benefits of playing team volleyball in search of another title.

The 2017 Huskers squad poses with their trophy.

To learn more about how volleyball has become the top sport in Nebraska (and how Omaha plays an important role in the talent pipeline) be sure to pick up the January/February edition of Omaha Magazine featuring Leo Adam Biga’s cover story.

Healing By Design

December 20, 2016 by
Photography by Contributed

“She’s an inspiration for women everywhere because she has always wanted to do something to better the world.”

– N. Brito Mutanayagam, Ph.D.

Is it possible for design, function, color, texture, light, artwork, botanicals, and aroma—things that form an indoor environment—to heal a person? Aneetha (pronounced “Anita”) McLellan believes they can, and do. She strives to use her gifts as an interior architect to advance the premise; in the process, McLellan has helped revolutionize the way people “see” health care.

The award-winning, highly sought-after interior innovator heads the health care division of DLR Group, the architectural and engineering firm she joined in early 2016. She guides a team of architects, landscape designers, civil engineers, and electrical engineers in designing medical facilities, from sprawling hospitals to smaller clinics and rehab centers.

“I’m an interior designer, but I impact the exterior architecture in every way,” McLellan explains. “The experience a person has walking from the parking lot to the front door and then into the building is a big deal to me.”

As the model of health care moves away from the intimidating sterile corridors of huge hospitals to the more intimate spaces of outpatient wellness clinics, McLellan’s signature interiors share a basic template. They offer wide open spaces, clean lines, minimal clutter, peaceful outdoor views, and lots of natural light.

Her work spans the globe, but examples of her unique vision punctuate the landscape in Omaha, her home base.

“I cut my teeth on Children’s Hospital. It was my first big project,” says McLellan, who began her career with Omaha’s HDR. “It won Hospital of the Year in 2000,” she says, still amazed at the buzz created by the window-rich building at 84th and Dodge streets.

She incorporated the same open, airy, and stunning effect of glass into Methodist Women’s Hospital off 192nd Street. During her 19 years at HDR, the accolades accumulated.

More recently, with DLR Group, McLellan proudly attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital’s new state-of-the-art facility near Village Pointe, which features a more traditional brick-and-mortar look. She worked closely with Madonna to create a decidedly warm, homey feel with large resident rooms and a meticulously landscaped therapy garden, an “oasis of healing.”

Light seems to surround McLellan, a light generated by the passion this tiny dynamo displays for her profession, family, and heritage. The only child of an Indian father and a mother from Sri Lanka, McLellan grew up in Lincoln. She graduated from Pius X High School and earned an architecture degree in 1997 from the University of Nebraska, where her father taught community and regional planning for many years.

“She was a go-getter from the time she was a little girl, and I knew she was destined for greatness,” says N. Brito Mutunayagam, Ph.D., clearly proud of his daughter. “She’s an inspiration for women everywhere because she has always wanted to do something to better the world.”

At home in Omaha, McLellan’s world revolves around her 9-year-old daughter and her husband, Jim McLellan, an electrical engineer she met on an early HDR project. The two now work together at DLR. “I don’t know what it’s like not to work with him,” she laughs, clearly grateful for his unwavering support of her career, which has her traveling at least once a week. “He’s always there for our daughter,” she says. “He was meant to be a father.”

And, it could be argued, she was meant to heal through design.

Visit dlrgroup.com for more information.

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Glenna Slater

August 25, 2016 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When a language dies, its culture suffers a tragic loss. The indigenous Omaha people—the Umoⁿhoⁿ—are thus in a precarious position. Although there are about 6,000 living members of the tribe, its language is in danger of passing into history.  According to Glenna Slater, member of the Omaha Tribe, fewer than 12 tribal members are considered fluent in the language—and many who know the language are unable to teach it.

Slater is one of those rare fluent speakers alive today.

“We’re right here at the edge,” she says. “We lost one teacher in January.”

The Umoⁿhoⁿ settled the Great Plains during the 17th century before losing much of their territory to the U.S. government in the early 1800s, including where the city of Omaha sits today. The Omaha Reservation was established in 1854 and is seated in Macy, Nebraska.

Slater, now in her 70s, grew up on the reservation speaking Omaha as her first language, though she was never taught formally. She did not speak English until she began attending school. Slater eventually attended the University of Nebraska and began a lifelong career in social work, but the compulsion to educate runs through her bloodline. Her mother taught on the reservation as well. “I could never walk in her footsteps,” says the ever-humble Slater.

GlennaSlaterThese days, she gives a weekly course at the UNO Community Engagement Center, teaching the Omaha language to learners young and old. She began teaching around 15 years ago, helping her older sister Winona (now in her 90s) give lessons on
the reservation.

Many of Slater’s students are older—in their 40s and 50s—but a new batch of younger people have also taken up the mantle. Some of her students are as young as 10 years old. They practice with primers on vocabulary and grammar. They read narratives and traditional stories. “The students want to learn everything. When young ones want to go home and ask their parents, their parents are unable to help, because they were never taught formally or they aren’t fluent.”

Slater tells her students to keep their handouts and everything they acquire, for they may be called upon in the future to pass on the language. Her older students are already teaching their own grandkids, she says.

In tandem with classes at UNO, Slater is also involved in Umoⁿhoⁿ language instruction at Nebraska Indian Community College (NICC) in Macy. Established in 1973, NICC is an accredited land-grant institution providing two-year degrees to residents of the Omaha and Isanti (Santee Sioux) reservations.  She has also taught in South Sioux City, and at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha.

Slater speaks of the language with great respect and deference. “There would be something missing if I didn’t know the language,” she says, regarding her relationship with the Omaha Tribe and her ancestors.

“The language is very sacred: if you question the rules and reasoning behind it, you’ll be told it comes from up there,” Slater says, pointing to the sky. “And you won’t get more of an answer than that.” Slater’s respect for the language and Omaha tradition is mirrored in the class, too: “You can only tell the legends during the winter months. If you don’t respect this, strange things will happen.”

Preserving the language has been a difficult process. In addition to the generational challenges, a dictionary was completed only in the last decade, owing much to the contributions of Professor Mark Awakuni Swetland of UNL, who passed in 2015 yet remains a controversial figure among tribal leaders (due to concerns that a non-Omaha person might be profiting from the Omaha language).

Written documentation of the language is limited, and much of the knowledge is still fragmented across the recollections of surviving fluent speakers. Slater herself must defer to the wisdom of her siblings and peers in some cases. “You might know the language,” she says, “but you don’t know it all.”

Her goal with the classes is to continue enthusiasm for the language, and to ensure its survival for generations to come. “I just hope it can go on after me,” Slater remarks, “and I would be happy if I can get even two or three students to become conversational in it.”

Despite the challenges ahead, Slater remains optimistic. Several language revitalization initiatives are underway with the collaborative involvement of elders residing throughout the state. That’s in addition to lessons taught in Head Start, primary and secondary schools, community colleges, and in homes across Macy.

Slater hopes her teaching will expose more people to Omaha culture. “This has been the most fulfilling thing for me,” she says. “When students leave, they want to be hugged. Life is so hard, they need this extra something. And I learn from them, too.”

Visit omahaponca.unl.edu for more information.

Cover story by James Vnuk

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Sidebars by Doug Meigs

BillLynnA LANGUAGE FAMILY: WILLIAM LYNN

The mission statement of the Dhegiha Preservation Society states: “the Osage, Omaha, Quapaw, Kaw, Ponca, and Northern Ponca peoples are bound to one another through a shared history, ancient social, political, and cultural relationships, and a common language, the latter of which is in jeopardy of extinction.”

Once a year, Dhegiha speakers and educators gather for a language conference. The sixth annual Dhegiha Language Conference took place in Omaha at UNO’s Community Engagement Center on July 21 and 22.

“Our main goal is to create fluent Dhegiha speakers,” says William Lynn, chairman of the Dhegiha Preservation Society and an enrolled member of the Osage Nation.

The Omaha language is an offshoot of the Dhegiha-speaking branch of the Proto-Siouan language family. In comparison to European languages, it’s a bit like Danish, an offshoot of Scandinavian (North Germanic), which is a branch of the Proto-Germanic language family. The Ponca-Omaha languages are mutually intelligible, and linguists generally group them together.

“It was great that the Ponca and Omaha hosted this year,” says Lynn (Osage). “We’ve had it in Oklahoma for five years. Last year, the Omaha sent a couple of vans down to Oklahoma with 12
fluent speakers.”

VidaStablerON THE HOMELAND: VIDA STABLER

Umoⁿhoⁿ language documentation dates to James Owen Dorsey, Alice Fletcher, and Francis La Flesche (the first Omaha-Ponca anthropologist). “But many others have documented our language since then,” says Vida Stabler, Title VII Indian Education Director of Umoⁿhoⁿ Nation Public Schools.

The Omaha Reservation schools currently employ two full-time and two part-time Umoⁿhoⁿ language instructors to teach across roughly 20 K-12 classrooms each week. “We do not have enough teachers to meet demand on the reservation,” says Stabler, who has taught at the schools for 18 years. She recently helped to organize a new teaching group, ToUL (Teachers of Umoⁿhoⁿ Language), and says developing immersion programs will be crucial to language revitalization.

Three years ago, the Omaha Public Schools and the Umoⁿhoⁿ Language Cultural Center produced a language app called “Omaha Basic.” Over the past decade, Umoⁿhoⁿ Nation Public Schools and UNL partnered to complete the first Omaha language textbook (to be released in 2018). The projects relied on crucial contributions by the late Marcella Woodhull Cayou, Donna Morris Parker, and Susan Fremont. In 2017, Umoⁿhoⁿ Nation Public Schools is partnering with the Language Conservancy to produce an Umoⁿhoⁿ textbook for instructors and students.

AubreyStreitKrugAN OUTSIDER’S VIEW: AUBREY STREIT KRUG

Aubrey Streit Krug began studying the Omaha language as part of her ongoing Ph.D. in English at UNL. Her adviser suggested that she learn a Native American language, so she started taking classes with the late Mark Awakuni-Swetland, Ph.D., an anthropology professor of Euro-American descent (who had been adopted by Omaha elders).

Streit Krug says she was a minority in the class as a non-Native person. After Awakuni-Swetland’s passing in 2015, she remained among the 10-15 people working on a collaborative textbook. The textbook’s copyright is owned by the Umoⁿhoⁿ Language Cultural Center and Umoⁿhoⁿ Nations Public Schools. The upcoming textbook and the Omaha-Ponca Digital Dictionary are the legacy of her mentor’s lifework.

“Studying Umoⁿhoⁿ is important because this is the land where we are situated. My ancestors were German immigrants in the late-19th century, and I grew up in rural Kansas,” she says, noting that the Omaha language helped her to understand the root meaning of the Waconda Lake near her hometown (a Siouan word for “holy” or “sacred”). “What I knew of the Great Plains was the history of Euro-American settlement. But there is this beautiful, ongoing tradition of Native communities.”

Symone Sanders’ Iowa Odyssey

December 18, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Symone Sanders’ childhood dream never came true.

As a young girl Sanders created an alter ego, that of an intrepid news professional she named Donna Burns. She would grab a spoon as a microphone and report live (from the kitchen of her home) in covering breaking news all across the globe.

“I so wanted to be Donna Burns,” Sanders said. “I so wanted to be that person.”

Donna Burns never really left her, she’s just been just turned inside out. Now Sanders is the one having microphones thrust in her face.

Last August the 25-year-old (she turned 26 in December) was hired as Bernie Sanders’ national press secretary. At a time when many of her classmates from Creighton University’s class of 2013 were still clawing for that first entry-level position somewhere—anywhere—Sanders was taking the national stage in handling an army of “Donna Burns” for the Vermont Senator.

The Mercy High School graduate who had earlier attended Sacred Heart School is the daughter of Terri and Daniel Sanders. Her first taste of politics came as a 10-year-old through her involvement with Girls Inc. At 16 she would be selected by the organization to introduce President Bill Clinton when he spoke at a 2006 Girls Inc. event in Omaha.

Omaha Magazine caught up with her at Bernie Sanders’ state campaign headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, the day before the Nov. 14 National Democratic Debates at Drake University.

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“I feel like I was in the right place at the right time,” she demurred in describing her formative years in Omaha. “Things were pretty stagnant in this town at one time. Now Omaha is breeding superstars. This city set me up for everything I’ve done. It’s an amazing place for exposure, opportunity, and access, and there are so many efforts moving the needle in a good direction…Willie Barney at the Empowerment Network [where Sanders was once communications, events, and outreach manager], the folks at the Urban League, the NAACP, Heartland Workforce [Solutions], Inclusive Communities, Women’s Center for Advancement, and tons of others. There are so many great organizations guiding young people and kids in building better lives and a better city. They’re doing it right, and they’re doing it right there in Omaha.”

In 2014, only 11 months after graduating from college, Sanders would become deputy communications director for Nebraska Democrat Chuck Hassebrook’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.

“Symone is the kind of person that people just love to be around,” said Hassebrook, who spent his career at the Center for Rural Affairs, including 18 years as a University of Nebraska Regent. “She’s very smart, but it is her principles and ethics that I perhaps most admire. I’m a huge Symone fan. She’s a person that I hope will be running things someday.”

The day after votes were tallied in the 2014 election Sanders was on a plane to Washington, D.C. to begin a job with Global Trade Watch, an arm of Public Citizen, the nonprofit advocacy think tank founded by Ralph Nader in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress.

Also passionate about issues surrounding juvenile justice, Sanders has served on the board of the Nebraska Coalition for Juvenile Justice and recently stepped down as the national chair of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice Youth Committee.

“The system isn’t set up well for minority communities,” Sanders explained as staff and volunteers scurried throughout the campaign headquarters in Des Moines in the run-up to the debate. “Young people need to be involved in juvenile justice because this is so often a young person issue. My brother was incarcerated when he was young. I’ve been arrested myself—I told Bernie all about that right upfront—and this is an epidemic. Black and brown kids are being locked up at a disproportionate rate. It’s a school-to-prison pipeline. What so many of them need is help, jobs—not jail.”

Sanders is also aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, and it was through that relationship that the campaign team first came to know her. She was brought in to advise the candidate shortly after Black Lives Matter protesters had interrupted a campaign rally in Seattle.

She met with Bernie Sanders to help him better understand and connect with a voting bloc that skews toward Hillary Clinton. Two hours later she was his national press secretary.

“The original Civil Rights Movement,” Sanders said, “is a phrase that was coined so that everyday Americans could understand the issues…so they could wrap their heads around it. That’s what Black Lives Matter is. It’s the same movement, the same ideals, but now for a new generation. There’s nothing new about the movement. It’s the same struggle. It’s the same people shaking things up for social justice. Malcolm X, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King didn’t call themselves Civil Rights leaders. They were just…leaders.”

Sanders has a magnetic personality and speaks in a rapid-fire, staccato fashion. Trying to keep up with her words in transcribing the interview from a micro-recorder was a nightmare of stops and starts, pauses and rewinds. But just as she is known for her mile-a-minute delivery, Sanders also knows when to take it down a notch or three.

During the pre-debate walkthrough of the auditorium, spin room, and media center on the Drake campus later that day, she became a deliberate, finely modulated machine that spoke in an even, deliberate tone in asking questions and soaking up every detail of where, when, and how the candidate and campaign team would navigate the crucial debates in the state where America first goes to the polls in the process of nominating and electing the next occupant of the Oval Office.

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And a chance encounter in the spin room had her taking her foot completely off the gas in coasting into a warm, engaging exchange with Donna Brazile, the political strategist and analyst who ran Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and now acts as vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

Sanders demonstrates a razor-sharp grasp of issues, policy, facts, and figures, and only hesitates when the ever-focused media pro is tossed questions about her personal life that take her at least temporarily out of campaign mode.

It took her seemingly forever, for example, to be able to conjure up her Burlington, Vermont, mailing address when that information was requested so that she could be sent a copy of this magazine. And a query about how many nights she’s slept in her own bed since taking the press secretary gig drew—if only for a nanosecond—a blank stare.

And then she was instantly “on” again in flashing her broad, trademark, light-up-the-room smile in replying, “Bed? You mean my air mattress? I don’t have time to furnish a place. The only beds I sleep in these days are in hotels.”

Over the course of the campaign Sanders has spent a lot of time crisscrossing the nation with Dr. Cornel West. The activist, author, and philosopher is a major Bernie supporter and was again stumping with the candidate in Des Moines.

“Symone Sanders is a visionary,” West told Omaha Magazine the next evening moments before he was to take the microphone as the headliner at a pre-debate tailgate rally where, true to its name, he and other speakers addressed the crowd from the tailgate of a well-worn farm truck in the state where agriculture rules and corn is king. “She has the power to be the voice of her generation. She has the intellect, the moral compassion, and the energy to become a great leader.”

Also “Feeling the Bern” at the rally that night was Creighton senior Dawaune Hayes.

“Symone was always involved in everything on campus,” Hayes said. “She was involved in everything all over town. Everyone at Creighton knew she could change the world someday. Now she’s actually doing it.”

Sanders may already be well on her way to becoming a world-changer, but one thing she hopes remains the same is the secret recipe at Time Out Chicken on North 30th Street.

“The first job I ever had was at Time Out,” she said, “and I worked there all through high school and college when I could—even after college. I miss Omaha. I miss my family. I would kill for some Time Out Chicken right now. And I miss the girls at Girls Inc.”

“Symone was the epitome of a Girls Inc. girl,” said Roberta Wilhelm, the organization’s executive director. “She was heavily involved in our media literacy program called Girls Make the Message. That’s where the girls made their own public service announcements and created their own messages to the world. Not surprisingly, Symone took to that like a fish to water. Ironically, the theme was Girls for President, and now she’s working on a real presidential campaign. Symone is doing big things. She’s going to matter.”

And what message will Sanders deliver the next time she has a chance to visit her hometown Girls Inc.?

“Be smart. Be strong. Be bold,” she said in echoing the nonprofit’s tagline. “You can do anything you set your mind to. Anything. Omaha needs you. The world needs you.”

Donna Burns covered a lot of stories from that kitchen in north Omaha, but it looks like she missed the most important one. Now her creator would be the interview of a lifetime for the ace reporter.

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Aguek Arop

January 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Aguek Arop will blow out the candles on three more birthday cakes before he dons a Big Red basketball jersey for the first time. The 15-year-old Omaha South sophomore is the youngest player ever to commit to the University of Nebraska basketball program.

In the meantime, he will be recuperating from another kind of blowout—this one to his knee. Arop suffered a season-ending injury in a recent pre-season practice.

At least his downtime will give the native of South Sudan an opportunity to work on rehabilitating his nickname.

“You know the scene in the old Disney movie where Bambi slips and slides on the ice?” asks South High Coach Bruce Chubick Sr. in describing the vision of a spindly, wobbly, all-elbows-and-knees form of chaotic locomotion. “He seems to spend most of every practice on the floor,” Chubick adds with a chuckle. “Part of it is his all-out style of play and part of it is the fact that his other senses haven’t caught up with the fact that he has grown so rapidly to…almost 6-foot-5 now. We hope he has a couple more inches to go before he hits Lincoln.”

Arop, flashing a wry grin, explains that coach has it all wrong.

“My nickname—the one I like—is just Gwookie. That’s all…just Gwookie,” says the young man whose name is pronounced uh-GWOOK uh-ROPE. “Coach is always joking with me that I need to ‘watch out for the line,’” as if the white grid outline of the court’s floor were some insurmountable obstacle to vault. “I run hard. I play hard. Sometimes I end up on the floor,” he adds with a so-what’s-the-big-deal shrug.

Living down a nickname and learning to get around in a cast may seem like significant challenges for any teen, but that’s nothing compared to the danger Arop and his family faced in war-torn South Sudan before fleeing to find refuge in the United States before eventually settling in Omaha.

“I never could have seen myself here and in this position when I was a little kid,” Arop says. “I started playing basketball in the 4th grade after we got here and now it is really important to me to be successful. I went down to Lincoln when I was in 8th grade. I was already excited about the program and coach, and that was all it took to know I wanted to play for Coach Tim Miles” (see related story on page 172).

Arop is a polite, well-mannered sort of young man, but that doesn’t mean he is incapable of some playful theatrics. He revealed his decision to commit to Nebraska in a meeting with Miles in Lincoln. With his parents in tow, bear hugs all-around followed after Arop dramatically peeled off one T-shirt to reveal another.

“It said ‘All In’ on that shirt,” Arop beamed. “I’m all in for Coach Miles and Husker basketball.”

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Site Specific

August 8, 2014 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Ying Zhu was choosing a major at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, family friends encouraged her to focus on computer science because, they said, she would always be able to find a job. Little did they know how right they were. But not because the BS in Management Information Systems that she earned would lead to job offers, but rather because taking art classes to fill credit hours would convince her that her true calling was art.

In retrospect, it isn’t surprising that Zhu wound up in a career rooted in creativity rather than information technology. The artist, who was born and raised in China, had studied stage lighting design and received a BA in photography at China Communication University in Beijing before moving to America. So making the jump to art was not a big leap. “My last semester at UNO I needed to take additional credit hours to be full-time for my scholarship,” she explains. “Although it sounds cliché, I never studied so hard as I did for the studio design class. I was very immersed in it. I knew what I wanted to do. For computers, I couldn’t wait to graduate. For art, I didn’t want to leave.”

She never has. After taking a year off, she returned to school, and this time studied art. Zhu earned her MFA from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2010, and the following year became an Artist-in-Residence at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, ranked one of the country’s top residency programs. Artists from around the world apply annually for limited slots in a blind jury process, and the likelihood of a local artist being selected was a long shot. Zhu, however, received one of the coveted spots, and the residency allowed her to understand the intricacies of her profession better.

“I was freshly out of school,” she remembers. “The artists I was with were all in my age group and emerging. It was really nice to see how people worked and managed their careers.”

How Zhu works is hard to classify. “I try not to categorize,” she says, “but most of my work is three-dimensional installation-based art.”

That’s putting it simply. Zhu creates work that is often breathtaking both in scope and articulation. When Project Harmony, a non-profit dedicated to stopping child abuse, wanted artwork for its new Omaha headquarters, Zhu was chosen from an open call. Her proposal involved creating a 500-square-foot floor-to-ceiling wall composed of 650 10”x10” panels that mimicked ocean waves. She chose this subject and the different shades of blue for a reason. “It is a simple image,” she says. “Sea water and the colors are soothing for children.”

But Zhu didn’t just paint the panels; she constructed each of them from Legos, roughly two million of them in the smallest size available—the kind usually used to create tiny details like traffic lights.

The work was labor-intensive and time-consuming, and Zhu worked with people of all ages to construct the panels. “I really felt the love of the community through this project,” she remarks. “I had groups of people coming to help. I met a lot of people I normally would not have.”

Other projects followed, with the most recent being Zhu’s most prominent to date. UNO commissioned her to create an installation for its new Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center, the permanent home for its outreach programs, which opened this past April. Like Project Harmony, this installation was similarly detail-oriented. Zhu took six sheets of large-scale mirrors, cut into approximately one-inch, irregularly shaped pieces, and painted the edges in seven vibrant colors. She then mounted the pieces over several sections of the lobby’s wall to create a dazzling optical effect.

“I used mirrors because the center is a gateway between the university and the community,” Zhu says. “In my mind, I envisioned how we see ourselves in others and how they see us…as reflections of one another. But I didn’t want people to see exact replicas. I wanted fragments. I wanted a little of me in you, a little of you in me. I wanted a lot of fragments because there are many of us.”

The artist’s career shows no signs of slowing down. During September, she has two exhibitions, one at the Lux Center for the Arts in Lincoln, the other at Creighton University’s Lied Art Gallery, and that work will be just as new and fresh, but still inimitably hers.

“There’s a common thread in my work that is mostly my aesthetic,” Zhu muses. “But it is constantly changing and evolving. I am always trying to broaden my repertoire. It’s best not to limit myself.”

And as her work continues to grow in scale and concept, it’s certain that she won’t.

For more information about the artist, visit www.yingzhu.org

The writer is the Communications Manager for the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

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