Tag Archives: Art Institute of Chicago

Nyame Brown

May 3, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Oakland, California, artist Nyame Brown arrived in Omaha for a four-month residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Nebraska’s biggest city wasn’t what he expected.

No, he wasn’t under the impression we all drove John Deere tractors through the streets. The more-fierce-than-friendly winter weather, though? Well, he knew January in Omaha was bone-chilling cold, but negative wind chills that rivaled the Antarctic wasn’t exactly the welcome he was looking for.

It wasn’t until he found out Malcolm X was born here in the heartland that he learned Omaha held its fair share of good surprises too.

“In light of the fact that Malcolm X was from Omaha and the breadth of Black Panther pride and history here, I saw Omaha in a new light. I saw a place my work could make a bigger impact,” Brown says.

As a multimedia illustrator, printmaker, and painter, Brown has devoted much of his work to exploring the perception of black people, merging aspects of the traditional with the imaginative and illustrating how the larger African diaspora has affected today’s pop culture. He continued this trend while serving as one of Bemis’ artists-in-residence from Jan. 10 to April 6 with his New Black Mythologies series.

“It’s got a narrative base with this mega story where random characters come into play,” Brown says. “Fantasy is the key element, but the catalyst was really the idea of slaves having to create an internal world outside of their reality to survive each day.”

To bring to life the inspired and inventive pieces, Brown looked at different folk symbols ranging from tribal tools to signs used by the Crips in Compton, and illustrated them to exist within one canvas. He also strived to be self-referential by including characters from previous work to create new myths where historical-based Afrofuturism meets abstractionism.

Further adding meaning, many of the pieces are symbolically made on blackboards. Instead of chalk, oil paints are used to show that the story of black culture is one that’s permanent and can’t be erased.

“The blackboards also harken back to the classroom,” Brown says. “These stories should already be known, so there’s an urgency to learn.”

Brown’s own story began during the summer of love in late ‘60s San Francisco when his mom, a fashion designer from New York, met his dad, a West Coast painter and sculptor. Watching two creators and growing up in a progressive city, Brown quickly learned art has the power to break down walls and shatter ceilings, especially for those at the fringe of society.

“Being exposed to art at an early age that showed African-Americans in a non-typical, hyper-realistic way had a profound impact on me,” Brown says. “I then wanted to create images that showed us not as stereotypes and not in the ways popular culture spoke to us.”

This drive led him to receive a bachelor’s degree from the Art Institute of Chicago and later a Master of Fine Arts from Yale University. He now hopes to inspire a new legion of young minds in the same way he was, currently serving as a faculty member at the Oakland School of Arts.

“Every day I see extraordinary talent and hope I show my students, especially those of color, that this career is possible for them,” Brown says.

Even with his devotion to the classroom keeping him busy more than 1,000 miles away, he was drawn to the Bemis artist-in-residence program and knew a break from teaching would be worth the opportunity. From peers and publications, he’d heard about Bemis for years and was itching for the chance to trade coastlines for cornfields.

Not only was he attracted to the prestige of the program, he says the ample creation and living area provided to each artist was a huge draw as well. After all, he comes from a city where space is at a premium, with average rent for a one-bedroom apartment stretching beyond $3,000. Additionally, the program offered access to a multitude of creative resources in the form of tools and actual human beings.

“Ultimately, I wanted to broaden my professional network and propagate the work I’m doing,” Brown says.

In today’s political environment, Brown says it’s never been more important for programs like this—one that’s built on attracting artists that make statements on identity, race, and culture—to connect creators and inspire them.

“With the climate we’re in now, black artists have a heightened responsibility,” Brown says. “There’s so much racism going on, so we have to be bold and put forth images that speak to that.”

Rocking a short-sleeved Malcolm X tee while showing off his work during one of those bone-chilling winter nights, it’s clear Brown has gone full blown Omahan. And when his residency is done, he hopes to make the trip from Big O to Big O (that’s Oakland to Omaha, of course) again, creating pieces that bring awareness to the Malcolm X Foundation.

“In all my work now and [in] the future, I hope the community sees themselves reflected back as who they really are,” Brown says. “We’re not mutated characters, we’re not stereotypes, we’re fully realized and that’s powerful.”

Visit bemiscenter.org to find out more about the residency program.

This article appears in the May/June 2018 edition of Encounter. 

Artist Erin Blayney

October 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For visual artist Erin Blayney, who grew up in the great outdoors, it’s all about light and space. She has plenty of both at her Old Market apartment that doubles as her studio.

Natural light from six large, south-facing windows cascades over her easel and houseplants. “Not only is that perfect for the type of lighting I need to do my best work, it’s healthy for my overall well-being,” says Blayney.

erinblayney2Exposed brickwork, high ceilings, and an open floor plan contribute to a sense of spaciousness. Extra-wide windowsills provide great perches for her collection of succulents.

“I love nature and the outdoors,” she says. “This apartment allows me to integrate that love into my living quarters, and not feel cramped or experience cabin fever.”

Her spot above Urban Abbey in the historic Windsor Hotel building puts her right in the thick of things. “The Old Market for me is very welcoming, unique, and nourishes a diverse group of people of all ages and backgrounds,” she says. “It’s urban yet has some aspect of a small neighborhood as well.”

A Florida transplant and Art Institute of Chicago graduate, Blayney creates figurative drawings and paintings. She previously worked as an art preparator for California museums.

Her mother preceded her to Omaha to be near a sister, and Erin followed. “My mom lives three blocks away from me, so it’s wonderful to conveniently meet for coffee or go for a bike ride together,” she says.

This self-described “people person” is drawn to the human form. She variously works from live models or photographs.

“Drawing and painting people, mostly gestural, seems to be pretty consistent for me,” she says. “It’s capturing the physicality of a person expressed through facial expression or movement. I love capturing the realness of their character, even if it’s subtle.”

Recently, Omaha restaurant mogul Willy Theisen commissioned her portrait of his granddaughter for his new Paragon eatery in Dundee.

When approaching a new work, she says, “I never know how it’s going to look, so it’s a little adventurous. If I stop thinking about what I’m doing and just let it flow, it comes out naturally. That ‘diving into it’ mindset is what I have to be in for the work to really evolve. It’s mysterious.”


Blayney’s work is not all figurative. “Occasionally, I’ll do still life,” she says, gesturing to an in-progress oyster shell rendered in a swirl of pastels. She is contemplating an oceanic-themed series motivated by her love of the water, marine life, and nature.

“I was brought up on water. I swam in the Gulf of Mexico. So that’s in my bones.”

In Omaha, she has twice worked at Jun Kaneko’s studio (most recently in 2006 as a painting assistant). Of the celebrated artist, she says, “We had a good connection. He’s very quiet, polite, observant, receptive. He was very trusting of me. Like when I did some mixing of colors, pigments—he trusted my instincts. I’m not a ceramicist, but I felt in my natural element.”

She feels at home in Omaha, where she says, “The connections I’ve made are so important.” The same for her day job at Alley Poyner Macchietto, where she curates art shows. She admires the local art-culture scene.

“I feel the creative community in Omaha is very supportive rather than super competitive. The friends I’ve made here are very authentic, genuine, and loyal.”

She enjoys what the Bemis and Joslyn offer as well as how “smaller, contemporary, progressive galleries like Project Project and Darger HQ are pushing the envelope. I’m a huge fan of Garden of the Zodiac. 1516 Gallery is just gorgeous.”

In the spring of 2016, Petshop Gallery in Benson exhibited her portraiture work. She regularly shows in the Bemis Benefit Art Auction and had a piece in the October 28 show (she described the colorful abstract portrait as “a little mysterious looking”).

Blayney also contributed to the Old Market Art Project; hers was one of 37 banners selected (from nearly 300 submissions) to be displayed outside the Mercer Building as renovations followed the M’s Pub fire.

“It’s an abstract painting that took forever,” she says. “There’s a lot going on in it. Finally, it just came together. I collaborated with another artist in the process of painting it, and then I finished it.”

She sees many opportunities for local artists in Omaha, but there is room for improvement, too. “There’s definitely room to grow—I’d like to see even more galleries because there’s so much talent here,” she says.

Going into the fall, several commission projects were “consuming” Blayney’s time. Her projects come from anywhere and everywhere. “Lately, it’s been more people coming to me and asking either for a portrait of themselves or of a family member. I can be surprised. I’ve given my card to someone and then a year later gotten a commission. It’s unpredictable.”

Visit erinblayney.com for more information.