Tag Archives: featured

Best of Omaha Voting 2020

July 16, 2019 by

Is there a restaurant whose dish you crave at least once a week? A grocery store you depend on to always have what you need? Do you have a mechanic you (routinely) trust with your life? Or a vet who’s helped you through all the issues (and heartache) having a pet entails?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, be sure to vote for them in this year’s Best of Omaha Voting 2020 contest.

Best of Omaha Voting 2020 is simple.

  1. Register on bestofomaha.com
  2. Check your email and click the link.
  3. Vote for a minimum of five categories. (Though you are welcome to vote in each.)
  4. Click the “I’m Done Voting” button to submit your votes.

Voting runs between July 1 and Aug. 20, 2019. Only one vote is allowed per email, but you may return as often as you like to add to, or modify, your ballot.

If you don’t receive your voting link email, check your spam folder for an email from bestofomaha@govotemail.com. Still no luck? Please contact us directly at joshua@omahapublications.com.

Please note, voting works best from a laptop or desktop, but you are able to vote from your smartphone.

Help support your favorite local businesses! Register to vote here.

For more information, and to see last year’s winners, go here.

Engaging Senses & Slowing Down

June 21, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Bing Chen, Ph.D., treats visitors to his home graciously, especially when those visitors are there to enjoy his garden. He even provides a walking path to his neighbors’ house for easy access to the trails of his garden and has a welcoming spot at the entrance path of his home where guests can sit and enjoy the beginning hints of what lies beyond the home’s structure.

No guests are as eagerly anticipated as the nesting mallards who visit every year in the spring for four or five weeks. Affectionately named “Donald” and “Daisy” by Chen, the mallards come to enjoy the peaceful pond and quiet setting Chen meticulously planned and executed.

“It’s a living Chinese landscape painting,” he says, referencing his favorite style of art. “It’s supposed to make people wonder, ‘where does the trail go?’”

statue in Bing Chen’s home garden

In the late 1980s when Chen and his wife were looking to buy a house in the Omaha area, he already had a vision for the space. “Land options were limited—I sketched a landscape at each potential location.” He visualized a landscape which, much like the paintings he admires, forces the viewer to “stare for a while until the mind starts filling in the missing spaces you can’t see.”

What visitors always see is a cascading waterfall that empties into a koi pond surrounding a viewing deck. Beyond the pond is a variety of landscape details such as a hillside forest, and created hills and mounds. Walking among them feels like walking on a trail in the mountains. There is also a cave with a fire pit directly in front of it, and numerous trails that prove challenging hikes for visitors who want to explore. Places to sit and reflect are peppered throughout the space.

To call the space behind Chen’s house a “garden” does not do the area justice. To say the creation of the space took some effort is another understatement.

Bing Chen’s home garden deck

Chen tells the story of the day Delwin Rogers of Rogers Sod Farm happened to stop by to see the space Chen was creating. “He looked around and said, ‘You look like someone who needs some boulders.’” Thus began the saga of acquiring the giant rocks necessary to bring Chen’s vision to lifeincluding a 10-ton boulder that “made the neighbors think there was an earthquake” when it was unloaded from the truck. “My goodness, what a thud!” Chen remembers.

Chen named every trail that runs through his space. The two main trailsRidge Trail and Rim Trailmeet up in various spots and combine into one on the west side of the house. He planted everything intentionally to achieve a “changing panorama of color and texture.”

Winter is a resting period. “The gardens are barren and have a quiet tranquility related to winter introspection,” Chen says. “Spring is a quickening of the pulse” and it’s when crocuses begin to bloom. Summer is when “the maturity of the garden displays itself,” he says. “Senses are engaged and new actors appear on the stage.” Fall is a “slowing down. It’s the last spark.”

Fall is Chen’s favorite time because it’s when he starts planning his planting for the next year. The space may look different from one year to another, yet it remains a delightful respite from the rigors of daily life and a hidden treasure in the Omaha area.   

This article was printed in the July/August 2019 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Bing Chen's home garden from above

Shooting the Stars

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It is rare for a person to see a shooting star, one that streaks across the night sky at just the right moment, right when one looks up.

Photographer and filmmaker Jesse Attanasio, aka ONElapse, knows that it can take a lot of time and legwork to see and capture a sight like that.

“Sometimes, I feel like I can find a really good composition, and it’s already there. I’ll take the picture, and I’m like, ‘I don’t have to do anything, I can just put it out there,’ ” he says. “And then sometimes, I can see it, but I’m not in the right element. There has to be a storm or something. So I’ll go to the same spots dozens of times, over and over, until I’m stuck in that situation.”

Attanasio displays the fruits of his labor on his website. His video “Exhale,” for instance, is 2 minutes and 45 seconds of sped-up landscapes where the viewer watches clouds roll, storms brew, suns rise and set, and more.

How Attanasio came to develop ONElapse, a kind of portmanteau of Omaha, and time-lapse, was also a time-consuming process.

Attanasio grew up in La Vista as a skateboarder, but he discovered after several injuries that he would rather take photos of skateboarders. He worked in television production for a short time in high school, but then he realized he did not enjoy working in that field, preferring instead to make and edit his own work.

“Kind of like with taking photos of weddings and stuff,” he says. “I’ve never wanted to do that because I don’t want someone else telling me how my art should be, so that’s always how I’ve felt about everything.”

Attanasio, who also works full-time as a graphic designer, now makes his own decisions about the art he wants to make. He does a great deal of traveling to make it happen.

“My first trip, I drove six hours and camped out overnight and saw the Milky Way,” he says. “And I was just, like, ‘This is incredible.’ ”

His images often seem magical, and so is his method for finding them. For “Exhale,” Attanasio was on the road and simply stopped in different places given the weather in these locations. It is a common scenario for him.

“Honestly, most of the time, I just fall into it.” He might see a storm and then think of a barn he’s driven by. He’ll want to see how the barn looks in a storm.

“I try to find unique situations in common places,” he says. “And then sometimes, it’s just finding a random place that’s just so unique, it’s impossible not to take a photo.”

It is an art form that requires time and patience. Shooting a sunset can take two to three hours while shooting the stars takes three to six hours. Those star time lapses, however, take a full eight hours of photography and videography. He says he sets up his cameras and goes back to the truck while the shots are happening. He whiles away the time listening to comedy podcasts and taking stills with a third camera, usually of his dog “being crazy.”

Even now, Attanasio says, he gets a feeling akin to euphoria  when a project comes together.

“What I wanted to happen is happening,” he says. “I wake up at 4 a.m., and I go out to this spot, and it works out exactly how I wanted it to. I got crazy pictures and my timelapses are going good. The adrenaline that’s going through me is, like, I don’t see how it still happens that way.

“In the moment, I’m just, like, ‘I should not be this alert and excited. It doesn’t make sense.’ I feel like a kid.”

Visit onelapse.com to view Attanasio’s work.

This article was printed in the July/August 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Photographer Jesse Attanasio, aka ONElapse

Raising the Bar

June 13, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For many event-goers heading to a concert, play, or other performance downtown, Mercury is a popular pick. The cocktail lounge at the corner of 16th and Harney streets draws pre- and post-show crowds, and it hits all the right notes: top-notch drinks, a proximity to several arts and entertainment venues, and an appealing menu of dishes perfect for sharing.

It’s a comfortable and inviting place, equally suitable for relaxing at the bar with a glass of red, enjoying happy hour with friends, or noshing on late-night snacks available until 2 a.m. Guests can kick back with cocktails on one of the couches or settle in at a table for a casual meal. The latter is the route we took during a recent visit.

meat and cheese board, Mercury Lounge

Small plates such as steamed mussels and meat-and-cheese boards, sandwiches, salad, and soup are available, along with heartier steak and chicken dishes. The food menu is short, but it’s solid and doesn’t skimp on creativity. Everything my dining partner and I tried was high quality and well prepared.

Earlier this year, Mercury added some new dishes to its seasonally changing menu. Among the new offerings are pan-seared scallops. Elegantly plated, the dish features three big, sweet scallops with a deeply golden crust, served with roasted parsnips, Brussels sprouts, and brown butter vinaigrette. Brown butter also shows up in the honey glazed carrots. Cooked until tender but still bright, sliced carrots are served on a bed of creamy polenta, topped with toasted walnuts for a nice textural contrast, and sprinkled with snipped chives.

pan-seared sea scallops, Mercury Lounge

Toasted bread dunked in rich, melty beer cheese? Yes, please. Mercury’s beer cheese fondue, served with slices of crusty baguette, is a comforting, decadent dish. The only downside is that, if you linger over it too long, it cools off quite a bit and loses its gooey goodness.

Rigatoni with bolognese is a memorable gem. Made with a blend of ground chicken and pork, the lush, meaty sauce—boosted with Calabrian chili for a little heat—clings to the pasta’s ridges and delivers big-time flavor. A dusting of grated Grana Padano cheese provides a salty-savory finish. A vegetarian version of mushroom bolognese is also available.

Opened in May 2016, Mercury has a laid-back vibe and doesn’t feel cramped, even when it’s busy. There’s a variety of seating formats, including sleek, low-slung couches arranged around coffee tables. Chic light fixtures, bright red chairs, vintage tile, exposed brick, and plenty of plants add to the visual appeal.

The idea behind Mercury, says co-owner Clark Ross, was to create a comfortable atmosphere with quality drinks at affordable prices, the kind of place where he and the other owners would want to hang out. After moving from Baltimore to Omaha in 2011, Ross led the bar program at the Boiler Room Restaurant in the Old Market, followed by a stint at Nite Owl in the Blackstone District before opening Mercury.

cocktail at Mercury Lounge

Located on the ground floor of the Limelight apartments, the bar occupies the former space of Brodkey’s Jewelers. Mercury owners, including certified sommelier Sara Mellor, converted an old walk-in vault into a wine cellar. Around 100 wines are on hand (a dozen offered by the glass), along with a selection of beers and 350-plus spirits.

From the list of seasonal cocktails, the Fashion Club refreshes with its blend of gin, mulled wine, fresh lemon, and sparkling wine. We also enjoyed the Sadie Hawkins, a variation on the French 75, that combines gin, pomegranate, fresh lime, apple, and prosecco. The bar also excels at the classics, including an elegant and balanced Martinez cocktail made with gin and vermouth.

Even the ice has an artisanal quality. Mercury uses a Clinebell machine, typically used by ice sculptors, to produce 300-pound blocks of pure ice that are broken down with saws and chisels into pristine, crystal-clear cubes. Ice is a key cocktail ingredient, so it’s important to do it right. “We take it seriously,” Ross says.

The bar recently unveiled an outdoor patio—perfect for people-watching, relaxing on a warm day, and fueling up before an event at the Orpheum Theater a few steps across the street. Blocks away are the Holland Performing Arts Center, Bluebarn Theatre, CHI Health Center, Film Streams, Slowdown, and many more venues a short walk away.

Visit mercury-omaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

scallops and menu at Mercury Lounge

Jazz to the Future

Illustration by Derek Joy

Legacy Informs Revival

Veteran drummer Curly Martin came of age in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when North O brimmed with players and venues. Today, he’s a flashpoint for shedding light on the history and making jazz relevant again. He is adamant “you can’t be taught jazz or blues.”

“We had mentors. Preston Love was one of my biggest mentors. I was a junior in high school, 16 years old, when I got the gig with his band. I got permission to go on the road and said bye to Tech High.”

He insists the only way to learn is to “just hang out and play, man.”

“My whole thing is about the music and passing on the knowledge,” says Martin, who’s forming a foundation to mentor youth, The Martin Mentoring Lab. He’s presented jazz labs at Hi-Fi House in the Blackstone District and is doing the same at The Jewell in the Capitol District.

“I believe the audience is in Omaha—they just don’t know what they’ve been missing because it’s been gone for so long,” says Kate Dussault, formerly of Hi-Fi House. “Omaha has this really unique opportunity right now, which is why we’re creating this foundation as a place where people can come and learn by osmosis.”

In Martin, Dussault found a kindred spirit.

“He reveres jazz like I do—as black classical music. Curly’s determined to bring jazz back to Omaha and [Hi-Fi House is] doing everything we can to help him.”

His son Terrace Martin, a noted musician and producer in Los Angeles, is leading a similar charge on the coast. 

“It’s a whole new clique going on,” Curly says. “All these young musicians catching hold and putting all this together—passing the work and knowledge around.”

The Grammy-nominated album Velvet Portraits, featuring Curly and Terace, was recorded at producer Rick Carson’s Omaha-based Make Believe Studios. Carson says Terrace, with artists like Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper, are leading “a jazz resurgence,” adding, “The jazz they’re playing isn’t straight-ahead jazz, it’s this jazz mix-up of hip hop, funk, R&B, and soul.”

“Terrace is sitting right at the nexus of hip hop and jazz,” Dussault says. “He’s a sought-after producer who works with Kendrick Lamar and Herbie Hancock. He’s part of that whole crew bringing this new sort of jazz and making playing jazz cool again to young people.”

That synergy travels to Omaha in work Terrace, Curly, and others do at Hi-Fi, Make Believe, Holland Performing Arts Center, and The Jewell. None of this new activity may have happened, Dussault notes, if Martin hadn’t asked Hi-Fi “to help him bring back jazz at the club level.”

“At the time, in my estimation, jazz truly was dead in Omaha,” she says. “Love’s Jazz was doing a little smooth jazz and you had great shows at the Holland, but you can’t develop a jazz audience at $35 and $65 a ticket. So we came up with a concept of doing shows where Curly and company perform jazz and tackle history he thought otherwise would never be told. He’s really a big believer if kids don’t see it, they can’t aspire to play it—and then we’ll never turn this around.”

Dussault committed “to celebrate the history with Curly and guys he grew up with that had a pretty important impact on the canon of jazz, blues, R&B, even rock. We brought back his friends. We underwrote the shows and we were full almost every time.”

Make Believe captures interviews and performances of Martin and guest musicians. The result is an archive of artists who lived North O’s jazz and blues past.

Filling the Void

Recent standing-room-only Holland performances confirm what Martin and Dussault already knew. “There’s an audience for this music—but you have to reintroduce it,” she says. “Omaha has to work on audience development.” She adds that there has been serious neglect of the scene, not just in Omaha but around the country. “It needs to be respected, coddled, and brought back.”

Omaha Performing Arts president Joan Squires saw the same void. Filling that gap became the mission of its Holland Jazz Series and 1200 Club.

“Nobody was presenting, in any real consistent way, the major touring jazz artists and ensembles here, and we felt it was important we do it,” Squires recalls. “Jazz is an important art form and something we’re very committed to. We do it not just for what’s on the stage but also for the education components the artists bring to our community.”

OPA’s jazz program launched in 2007. The main stage concert hall series features “a mix of very established jazz masters and renowned artists along with up-and-coming talent,” she says.

Jazz on the Green fell under OPA’s domain when Joslyn Art Museum sought someone to take it over.

“We jumped at the chance, because it’s certainly a big part of our mission and it’s a beloved series,” Squires says. “Midtown Crossing’s opening made for a perfect location. All the pieces came together to take that series to a whole new level. We’ll regularly get 8,000 to 10,000 people at a performance. It’s extraordinary.”

Omaha saxophonist Matt Wallace, who toured with Maynard Ferguson and played the prestigious Blue Note and Birdland, likes the city’s new jazz landscape.

“In general, I think the scene is very healthy right now between the players we’re producing and the available venues. The whole scene depends on schools doing well and having places to play. It’s very systemic. If one part is missing, there’s an issue. I’m very encouraged by what’s happening.”

He’s impressed by The Jewell, which opened last fall.

“What happens with most clubs is they get one of two things right—either it sounds great or it looks great. This club actually got all of it right. Another thing I like is that when you walk in you get a history of artists who played at the Dreamland—Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington.”

Jewell owner Brian McKenna’s club is a conduit to Omaha’s jazz past.

“There are two stories here,” McKenna says. “There’s the generation of Curly Martin and the previous generation of Preston Love. Each became enchanted with the sounds and players of their eras. They met the artists who came through and ended up playing with them.”

Back in the Day

Martin and his buddies learned to play jazz on the North Side, jamming alongside big-time touring artists. They became respected industry journeymen. Martin has brought some—Stemsy Hunter, Calvin Keys, Ron Beck, and Wali Ali—back to gig with him in Omaha.

North 24th Street landmark Allen’s Showcase, Martin says, “was a musicians’ hangout. It was just about music, period. You went to the Showcase for one reason only—to hear the best of the best. That’s what black music was about. That was the place for the players. The Sunday jam session was notorious. It went from 10 in the morning till 1 the next morning. You had time to play, go home, change clothes, eat, come back.”

The Dreamland Ballroom was where people went to see the major artists at the time. “We knew it as a blues place—Little Richard, Etta James, BB King…You never could dance in the damn ballroom because it was packed tight,” Martin says. “You know where us young musicians were at—right up to the stage looking up.”

“That’s how we met ‘em all. We had a chance to sit-in and play with them.…Later on, when we got 20, 21, they remembered us. That’s how we got gigs.”

Once musicians sufficiently honed their craft here, they left to back big-name artists on major concert tours and hit records. They found success as sidemen, session players, composers, producers, and music directors. Some, like Buddy Miles, became headliners.

The same scenario unfolded a generation earlier at the Dreamland, Club Harlem, Carnation Ballroom, and McGill’s Blue Room. Anna Mae Winburn, Preston Love, and Wynonie Harris broke out that way.

On the North O scene, mostly black talent played in front of integrated audiences on the strip dubbed The Deuce. Driving riffs, hot licks, and soulful voices filled myriad live music spots.

“Everybody was coming north,” Martin says.

“When I came up, we were not leaving Omaha for New York or Los Angeles. There was that much work. There were that many great musicians and venues. Then there were all the cats coming back and forth through Omaha. We were seeing the best in the world…why go anywhere?”

An infrastructure supported the scene in terms of black hotels, rooming houses, and restaurants. A&A Records was “a kick-ass music store with eight listening booths.”

“We had all that going on,” Martin says. “I’d come out of my house every morning and hear music on every corner. It was a fairytale, man. At night, you had to dress up—suit and tie, shoes shined. It was classy. Twenty-fourth and Lake was like being on Broadway. It was like that back in the day.”

Further making the scene special were clubs such as Backstreet, Apex Lounge, The Black Orchid, and The Green Light. At Off Beat Supper Club emcees introduced Cotton Club-like revues and floor shows. “It was killing,” Martin says. “It was the most popular black club in North Omaha.”

After-hours joints added another choice for late nights out. High stakes games unfolded at the Tuxedo Pool Hall. The Ritz and Lothrop movie theaters and social halls provided more entertainment options.

“North Omaha was a one-stop shop when it came to music. There was more to it than just jazz. That was just part of it. The history of North Omaha is not simple at all, especially about the music. There was just tons of music.”

And transcendent talent.

From Gene McDaniels hitting gold with “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” to Lalomie Washburn writing Chaka Khan’s mega-hit “I’m Every Woman,” it’s clear the talent was there.

“Cats getting record deals with Chess Records in Chicago. I can go on and on,” Martin says. “They were hometown stars in the ‘hood—and we all grew up together.”

Restoring What Was Lost

In the ensuing decades, clubs closed and the economy dwindled.

As the North O scene waned, new metro artists emerged—Dave Stryker, Jorge Nila, Dereck Higgins, Steve Raybine, and the Potash Twins.

There were still veterans around for up-and-comers to learn from.

Matt Wallace learned under Luigi Waites. “Playing with older, more experienced guys your game has to come up—there’s just no way around it,” Wallace says. “I try carrying that on.”

Drummer Gary Foster is grateful to his mentors. “I had so many experiences of people taking their time with me, from Bobby Griffo to Charles Gamble to Luigi to Preston, and Preston’s sons Norman and Richie. They were very open.”

Bobby Griffo, aka Shabaka, “was just a prime mover in the North Omaha modern jazz scene. Anybody that was anybody played with him,” Foster says.

Griffo ran the Omaha Music School and led the big band Arkestra that included prime players Timmy Renfro, Mark Luebbe, Gamble, and Foster.

Omaha’s Jazz Scene Hung On

“The Showcase was still going. The Howard Street Tavern had Tuesday night jam sessions. Luigi normally had a night there (and at Mr. Toad’s). A lot of people came in to play,” Foster recalls. “Jack DeJohnette’s band. The Johnny Otis Revue. Dizzy Gillespie and Earl Hines came to town and did a jam session at Howard Street.”

“That stuff went on all the time. The big one was at Kilgore’s. Chick Corea was in town to play the Music Hall. He wanted to know if there was anything going on and we took him to Kilgore’s. He sat in all night playing drums. He didn’t even touch the keyboard.”

Foster says jazz could also be heard at places like The Gaslight and Julio’s.

“And there were still all kinds of little after-hours clubs. I remember one down by the stockyards. I walked in there with my drums—this young white boy with all these black musicians in an all-black club. When the guys sitting at the bar turned around, their coats opened and they were all carrying pistols. They were like, ‘Don’t worry, you’re with the band, you’re cool, you don’t have to worry about anything here.’”

But things slowed to a crawl from the 1990s on.

“Clubs stopped hiring the caliber of jazz artists they once did,” he says. “There were always good local players playing, but it was just a niche thing. Nobody was really making any money at it. We turned to other music to keep gigging. You had to do what you had to do to make it. We played jazz because we loved it.”

The same 10 jazz players played all the gigs. “That’s why I moved to New York,” Foster says. Stryker, Nila, and Karrin Allyson preceded him there.

Climbing Back

Foster is glad the jazz scene has picked up.

Mark’s Bistro owner Mark Pluhacek helped feed the resurgence with a regular jazz program at Jambo Cat beneath his eatery. Though it gained a following, that wasn’t enough to prevent its closing.

Chuck Kilgore, a musician and former club owner, played at and booked Jambo Cat, which he called “the perfect venue.” Even perfect wasn’t good enough.

The truth, Kilgore says, is that few entrepreneurs are willing to risk an investment when there’s “almost certain” small returns.

“Jazz is mostly subsidized these days the way symphonic music is,” Pluhacek says. “It’s underwritten for it to survive. It’s not what people are listening to in huge volumes, so it has to be supported in other ways.”

Pluhacek enjoyed Jambo’s run while it lasted.

“It all came together. It was wonderful. We realize the importance of it. We hope the energy for jazz just grows and gets better.”

Hope for the Future

Besides the Holland and Jewell, other outlets for jazz include the Ozone Lounge, Omaha Lounge, Havana Garage, Harney Street Tavern, and Mr. Toad’s.

Education is also key to engaging an audience.

LJAC hopes to have artists at The Jewell work with elementary school students, and OPA is introducing the genre to pre-schoolers through Jazz at Lincoln Center’s WeBop program. Another facet of cultivating audiences is radio jazz programming. Artists still depend on air play.

“What’s changed is musicians’ ability to get their music out there,” KIOS-FM jazz host Mike Jacobs says. “We get a lot of music produced and marketed by musicians themselves. The major labels have gotten away from doing straight-ahead jazz. A lot of artists produce a hybrid jazz-pop sound. They’re like gateway artists to the classic stuff.”

Jacobs’ KIOS colleague Christopher Cooke is cautiously optimistic The Jewell and other jazz spaces will re-energize things here. He hopes to one day see a “real summer jazz festival in Omaha.”

Meanwhile, Martin helps to build appreciation for the past and a foothold for the future. “It’s about the music coming first. I’ve been blessed and I have to pass it on,” he says.

“Curly was around for a scene that doesn’t exist anymore,” Carson says, “and he’s still connected to the people who made that music…No one is putting him and those dudes on the pedestal. But they’re world-class musicians. They’re clearly exceptional talents.”

Martin wants North O’s renaissance to be informed by what went before.

“How you going to know what we need, when you don’t know what we had?”

This article was printed in the July/August 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Crafty Concrete

June 12, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sophisticated is a not a word that typically comes to mind with the word “concrete.” But these days, concrete is making appearances in places other than sidewalks and patios. 

There is a difference between cement and concrete. Concrete is cement powder that is mixed with water and contains additional fillers that make the substance strong when dried. Cement has a smoother texture when it dries because it does not have these fillers. Either substance will work for these projects.

One thing is certain—this is a DIY even those who do not think they are crafty can conquer. And to top it off, it is virtually impossible to mess up.

This project highlights texture, and the key is to create contrast. I found concrete works wonders when paired with natural elements such as wood, sand, and stones. But the substance will work with many designs to suit anyone’s personal style. I attempted three projects here that are sure to add interest to a home.

Materials Needed:

Plastic containers to use as concrete molds. Make sure it is strong enough to hold the shape of the concrete. I found plenty of large bowls while thrifting or at the dollar store. Two different-sized bowls are needed for the inner and outer shapes of the concrete bowl.

• Plastic storage tub 

• Five-gallon bucket

• Large, heavy stir stick

• Water pitcher

• Fine concrete (I used Quikrete 5000)

• Smaller rocks or sand

• Felt (if placing indoors)

• Sanding block or

sandpaper (coarse)

• Eye and face protection

• Rubber gloves

• Plastic drop cloth

• Cooking spray or WD-40

• Glass hurricane (craft stores have several assortments)

• Plastic coffee can

• Box cutter or handsaw

• Cardboard tube (I used Quikrete’s Quik-tube)

Important step before starting:

Thoroughly grease your molds so the concrete does not stick. Not doing so means that it will be tough to get the concrete out of the molds once the substance dries. Have all of this done and ready to go once the concrete is mixed, and be sure to work on a flat surface.

Hurricane lamp base:

Note: Make sure to use a cardboard tube that is at least 1 inch wider than the hurricane. Also make sure the top and bottom are both level.

Step 1: Create a makeshift bottom for the tube using a foam plate, or anything sturdy that will easily come away from the concrete.

Step 2: Place the tube on a piece of plywood or other level surface. This also protects the working surface from the concrete.

Step 3: Mix the concrete (I did three smaller batches and poured into the tube), then tap the side to make sure air bubbles are out.

Step 4: Press an object a bit wider than the glass hurricane (a plastic coffee can works well) into the concrete.

Step 5: Rotate the can a few times in the first two or three hours. After that point you can remove the can, then let the column dry another 24 hours.

Step 6: Once dry, remove the cardboard tube with a box cutter or handsaw. Spray it with water if necessary.

Step 7: Gently lay column on its side and remove the bottom, then sand the rough edges with a sanding block.

Step 8: Place the glass hurricane in the indention, then fill it with sand or pebbles, and decorate how you like. Mine has a base of 12 inches in diameter.

If you plan to use the hurricane inside, place felt on the bottom of the lamp base to protect surfaces.

Tealight candle holders:

Step 1: Mix concrete with water until it is the thickness of pancake batter.

Step 2: Fill the larger mold with concrete to about one inch from the top. Tap sides to eliminate air bubbles and level the surface. 

Step 3: Push the smaller mold into the area where you want the candle to sit, leaving adequate thickness for the bottom.

Step 4: Place sand or pebbles in the smaller mold (for weight) and let the concrete set for 24 hours.

Step 5: Remove the molds and smooth any rough edges with a stone or coarse sand block.

If you plan to use the candle holder inside, place felt on the bottom of the candle holder to protect surfaces.

Concrete Bowl:

Step 1: Mix concrete with water until it is the thickness of pancake batter.

Step 2: Fill the large, lubricated bowl ¾ of the way with concrete. 

Step 3: Nestle the smaller (lubricated on the outside) bowl inside the larger bowl filled with the concrete. Make sure to tap around the bowl for air bubbles.

Step 4: Add pebbles or weights to the inner bowl, to help create the indentation. 

Step 5: Remove the inner bowl after 24 hours, but allow additional drying time for the outside

Use this bowl to decorate as you like. Placing it on a wooden shelf would be beautiful.
If you plan to use the bowl inside, place felt on the bottom of the bowl to protect surfaces.

Enjoy your décor!  

This article was printed in the July/August 2019 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Where The Wild Things Are Drawn

May 30, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Derek Joy

Kevin Franz draws monsters. And just like humans, those monsters contain multitudes.

Franz, who earned his BFA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, double majoring in studio art and psychology, started with an emphasis on sculpture and installation, eventually moving in the direction of illustration. He’d created “different little monsters” along the way, but the effort crystallized during The Year of the Monster.   

“I did a drawing every single day for an entire year and they were all monsters of different kinds,” he says. “That was a very formative time in art for me because it was my last year of school and probably one of the years I gained the most popularity as an artist. People still reference that year of monsters when they talk to me about my art.”

Franz began the project as a way to keep the creative juices flowing going into his thesis, “A decaying life; or, if you’re a monster then I’m a monster too.” A longtime fantasy genre fan, he had been doodling monsters and dragons for years. So, Franz chose monsters as the theme and away he went.

“[The project] got very conceptual, too, because a lot of my thesis ended up talking about how people could become monsters or how people dealt with their own monsters, so it was a very simplified imagery for more complex ideas,” Franz says.

Franz’s creatures are typically colorfully drawn and featured alongside snippets of copy expressing all-too-human emotions such as despair, worry, and joy, allowing the viewer to empathize with them. The effect is a poignant reciprocity that lends humanity to the monsters while highlighting and normalizing the demons that humans face.

“When I first started, there were creepier, spookier monsters. Now I keep it more well-rounded. Monsters don’t have to be scary. Because everyone can be a monster and everything can be monstrous to certain people, I started going more in the direction of making it something you could empathize with and something that wasn’t the general concept of monsters,” says Franz, noting that much of the work became more autobiographical as his daily thoughts and feelings were reflected in each drawing.

Franz has created work around other themes, and you may have seen his work in galleries, online, or via commissions he’s done. But many Omahans have probably seen his talent displayed in an unlikely space: Trader Joe’s.

Franz has worked at Trader Joe’s in Omaha for seven years, and he spent about four years creating art for the store, which only a couple people at a time are able to do at each location. He says that work includes “anything you see there that’s visual, like the paintings on the walls, chalkboards, and handwritten signs.”

While he moved out of the “art cave” at Trader Joe’s to pursue a management position and allow an opportunity for others eager for a turn, Franz continues to create art for various reasons—chiefly, because he finds it therapeutic. When he was posting daily entries online throughout The Year of the Monster, Franz says many people approached him and indicated solidarity with some of the dark emotions in the work. 

“I think [making art] is good for your spirit and I think it’s good for other people,” Franz says. “I’ve always kind of struggled with depression, too, so that’s a heavy—but maybe not always right on the surface—influence. It was really enlightening for me to see how many people all thought the exact same thing and felt the same thing…That was one of the biggest motivators, helping myself and other people remember that you’re not necessarily alone with the darker parts of your life.”

For more information, visit letsplaymonsters.com.

This article was printed in the June 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Kevin Franz

Building an Industry

May 28, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha may not have the towering skylines of Chicago or New York City, but this humble Midwestern city’s geography and values have forged an engineering legacy it can trace back to the days of steamboats and covered wagons.

Omaha is a cornerstone for the engineering, architectural, design, and construction industries, providing a market where competition and mutual interests have created harmonious working relationships. HDR, LEO A DALY, and DLR Group call Omaha home, alongside Fortune 500 behemoth Kiewit Construction and a constellation of specialized regional firms.

“We punch way above our weight,” says Lance C. Pérez, dean of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Engineering. “It’s because of those great synergies and the amount of cooperation and collaboration that the university, the government sector, and the private sector have.”

The history of engineering in Omaha is dotted with the names of those companies’ executives —many of which can be found on the edifices of the city’s great buildings—but it’s also linked with the westward expansion of the United States in the late 19th century and the suitable geography that makes Omaha a key junction for travelers and merchants.

Government policies that followed, such as rural electrification and Nebraska’s unique model of sanitary and improvement districts, helped create the growth that fed those companies’ bottom lines.

Looking forward, Omaha’s legacy as an engineering town remains on a solid foundation. Educators and businesses are investing in the area, and the focus on attracting and retaining top talent will benefit the community’s legacy companies and entrepreneurs alike.

Thompson, Dreessen & Dorner Inc., commonly known as TD2, is one of those storied businesses that expects to continue enjoying the benefits of Omaha—including the presence of other
strong firms.

“The interesting thing about the engineering industry is that it’s pretty complicated and, in Omaha, despite having a lot of firms, we’re still friendly competitors,” says TD2 president Douglas Dreessen. “We don’t make things difficult on each other because the job is difficult enough as it is.”

Omaha has offered myriad engineering projects since settlers first crossed over from Council Bluffs. The Missouri River and wagon trails were among the original draws, but they were soon followed by Union Pacific’s transcontinental railroad. Later came U.S. Route 6, at one point the nation’s longest highway, and interstates 29 and 80 continue to funnel traffic through the metropolitan area.

Business thrived at those historical crossroads, from merchants supporting western expansion in Jobbers Canyon to the famed stockyards, and eventually Fortune 500 companies came like Berkshire Hathaway and Mutual of Omaha. Those businesses and their employees, in turn, built the city.

“Omaha being at this key intersection of the river, the transcontinental railroad, and the transportation associated with building the stockyards in the 1800s made it a natural place for certain types of engineering to grow,” Pérez says.

Another reason for Nebraska’s vibrant engineering community can be found in black-and-white columns in the back of newspapers. Public advertisement for bids helped create a robust market for professional services, where fledgling firms could compete against established
engineering firms.

“It avoids the good old boy network that you might find,” says Robert Dreessen, chairman of TD2’s board and one of its founding partners.

Omaha’s competition created successful firms that looked outward to other opportunities, he says.

“That has happened over and over again to Omaha firms. Firms like LEO A DALY and HDR are national firms that started small and systematically grew, and the same thing is occurring to intermediate firms that, early in my career, I remember as being small, such as Dana Larson Roubal and similar organizations that also now have a national exposure,” Robert Dreessen says.

Those firms have plenty of opportunities thanks to Nebraska’s system of sanitary and improvement districts, which began in 1949. SIDs are statutory taxing authorities unique to Nebraska used by developers to create residential areas on the fringes of cities that can later be annexed. SIDs allows Omaha to annex properties in an orderly fashion while avoiding unsuccessful projects, and it creates projects suitable for smaller developers and engineering firms.

“People go where there’s opportunity, so when there’s the opportunity for all these quasi-government agencies to be developed, an engineer gets a lot better perspective on how the whole system works rather than being pigeonholed into one aspect of a city,” says Dreessen. “There’s a lot of opportunities here, and that creates competition.”

Many large cities are actually hemmed in by small municipalities that it cannot annex, as outside of Nebraska, infrastructure has to be extended to an area before annexation can occur. With the notable exceptions of Boys Town and Ralston, Omaha has expanded its city limits freely as built-up areas and neighborhoods reach a mature level of development.

“The limitation in our particular urban area so far is the county line,” Robert Dreessen says. “Omaha is probably going to be one of the biggest cities in the whole country.”

The opportunity for growth in Omaha fueled innovation in the building industries, too.
LEO A DALY, for example, was among the first firms to include architecture and engineering departments—pioneering a model that has become an industry standard.

“Their key innovation was the integration of architecture and engineering,” Pérez says. “LEO A DALY brought them together under the same roof.”

Omaha has seen a flurry of development, as the city stretched westward through Elkhorn and today is encroaching on communities like Waterloo.

One of those major projects was HDR moving its global headquarters to a state-of-the-art building in Aksarben Village. The move puts HDR a few blocks from the Peter Kiewit Institute, which
hosts the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s construction management and civil, computer, electrical, architectural, and construction engineering programs.

“In this Aksarben area, with HDR moving their headquarters, one could argue this square mile has the largest architectural engineering presence in the country,” Pérez says. “There is great synergy between the university and the industry with respect to architectural engineering and construction.”

Growth in a community ultimately depends on the people living in it, and Omaha excels there, too.

“There’s just a lot of talent in Nebraska,” Pérez says. “When you take the Nebraska sense of integrity, hard work, and commitment to people–those are things that are extremely important to
successful firms.”

Education is also a linchpin, and the University of Nebraska committed to Omaha’s engineering industry when it formed the Peter Kiewit Institute in 1996. The institute brings together various UNL engineering and construction programs with the UNO’s College of Information Science & Technology.

“If you look at some of the large companies in Omaha, they are increasingly technology companies, so they need a different kind of engineering,” Pérez says. “As these companies grow, we have to continue to grow to provide that workforce.”

Engineering is an increasingly global and multidisciplinary career, Pérez says. UNL has built curriculum with the goal of incorporating communication skills, cultural competency, leadership, and teamwork into its academic program. Pérez says the college is expanding its new software engineering program, too.

“Whether you’re a construction management student, a chemical engineer, or a software engineer, you leave with a strong foundation in computing and how it’s used in engineering and construction,” Pérez says.

Training and retaining a highly skilled workforce is critical to many professions in Omaha, including engineering, where nearly two-thirds of the department’s students come from Nebraska. It is the only engineering program in the state, so any student who wants this degree while taking advantage of in-state rates goes to UNL. Attracting talented professionals to Omaha is also crucial.

Like Omaha’s storied engineering firms, those workers also should come to understand, if they don’t already, that Omaha has its own special quality—one that matters more than the city’s many practical and strategic advantages. Omaha is a place to call home.

This article was printed in the June 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Lance Perez, Durham School of Engineering

From Props in the Pacific to Detailing in Omaha

May 22, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Despite initial skepticism from friends back home, Robyn Helwig isn’t regretting her decision to leave the Pacific Northwest for the Great Plains.

In January the effervescent, 25-year-old Oregon native was honored with a 2019 Omaha Entertainment & Arts Award (OEAA) for “outstanding scenic design.” She won for her work on The Dairy Maid-Right at Shelterbelt Theatre—in a category where she was the only woman nominated and the competition included some of the metro area’s best known design talent.

Helwig takes that as a sign. “Maybe Omaha wants me to stay…so here we are!”

It wasn’t as if the multidisciplinary artist was about to leave. She’s committed to several projects this spring, including acting in Men on Boats at Omaha Community Playhouse; designing props for a demanding project at Bellevue Little Theatre; and her ongoing commitments at The Backline comedy theater. Not to mention her ‘day job’ working as a paraeducator with a local school district and her part-time teaching gig at The Rose Theater.

Helwig recalls advice she received from a mentor to “use your 20s to do everything,” because she can always sleep when she’s older.

She first enrolled at the University of Puget Sound as a piano performance major. But she soon realized that life as a professional musician wasn’t for her.

“If you make a mistake on the piano you can’t be like, ‘it was an acting choice,’” says Helwig, explaining her performance anxiety as a pianist.

Theater, in some shape or form, has been part of her life since fourth grade. So, she switched majors and discovered that she not only had talent onstage, but also behind the scenes.

“I was required for my major to take a tech theater class and then one of my teachers was like, ‘Hey, you’re kind of artsy aren’t you?’ and I was like, ‘You know what? I am!’” Helwig says. “I kept doing it (set and prop design) and now I consider myself more a designer than a performer, but I like to do both.”

Thankfully, the relatively small theater community in Omaha means that Helwig doesn’t have to choose between performing and stage design. She’s also grateful for Omaha’s relatively low cost of living, especially compared to the financial challenges faced by artist friends in cities such as Seattle. Helwig also says that there are a lot of “amazing, creative women here in Omaha who are directing and I work with so many…I could just enthuse about them for hours, they’re so great.”

One of those women is Amy Lane, director of The Dairy Maid-Right and Helwig’s aunt.

It was Lane who suggested that Helwig consider teaching theater because of her love for all aspects of the craft and mentioned that there were opportunities at The Rose. Helwig applied, and was accepted, to a summer internship followed by a year-long fellowship at the nationally recognized children’s theater.

Helwig says she has not looked back.

Robyn Helwig in hamburger

“I packed up my car and drove out here and have been here for the past three years,” Helwig says. “And every time I think I’m going to head home, I don’t. I find something else to do out here and [that] keeps me here.”

As a designer, Helwig says that her specialty is detail work. It was an ideal skillset for The Dairy Maid-Right, the final production for the Shelterbelt Theatre in its California Street location before the company was forced to vacate its long-time home. She points out that it was a “weird-shaped space,” not to mention small.

“One of the hardest things is—just because it’s so intimate—every little detail can be seen,” Helwig says. “So you kind of have to consider every little bit of space because the front row of your audience is in your set.”

The play takes place in a slightly rundown, mom-and-pop ice cream shop in a fictional Nebraska town. The story required the set to have indoor and outdoor space, a door that locked, a functional cellar door, and an authentic-looking kitchen.

“The main focus on the set was on the inside and making it feel like those places that haven’t been updated in 50 years,” Helwig says.

Lane and playwright Ellen Struve visited, and took photos of, small-town ice cream shops across Nebraska, providing inspiration for the production. Helwig’s design included a cluttered kitchen counter, a hand-written menu with items crossed off, and a painted parquet floor that was left in place for the next tenants to discover.

Helwig will keep her multiple talents and tremendous work ethic in Omaha for the foreseeable future. Following that flurry of upcoming projects in the spring, she plans to attend graduate school and become a certified teacher—because at some point, an artist needs health insurance.

Reflecting on how many irons she has in the fire, Helwig reassures herself with a laugh, “It’s fine, everything’s fine. It’s gonna be great!”

This article was printed in the May 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Robyn Helwig in Backline jacket

John Hargiss

August 3, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Master craftsman and stringed instrument maker John Hargiss learned the luthier skills he plies at his North Omaha shop from his late father, Verl. In the hardscrabble DIY culture coming from their roots in the southern Missouri hills and river bottoms, people made things by hand.

“I think the lower on the food chain you are, the more creative you become. I think you have to,” Hargiss says.

He observed his late father fashion tables and ax handles with ancestral tools and convert station wagons into El Caminos with nothing more than a lawnmower blade and a glue pot. Father and son once forged a guitar from a tree they felled, cut, and shaped together.

These days, the son’s hands are sure and nimble enough to earn him a tidy living at his own business, Hargiss Stringed Instruments. His shop is filled with precision tools—jigs, clamps—many of vintage variety.

JohnHargiss2Some specialized tools are similar to what dentists use. “I do almost the same thing—polish, grind, fill, recreate, redesign, restructure.”

Assorted wood, metal, and found objects are destined for repurposing.

“I have an incredible way of looking at something and going, ‘I can use that.’ Everything you see will be sold or used one way or the other.”

In addition to instrument-making, he’s a silversmith, leather-worker, and welder. A travel guitar he designed, the Minstrel, has sold to renowned artists, yet he still views himself an apprentice indebted to his father.

“He was a craftsman. Everything I know how to create probably came from him. Everything I watched him do, I thought, ‘My hands were designed to do exactly what he’s doing.’ On his tombstone I had put, ‘A man who lived life through his hands.'”

Hargiss also absorbed rich musical influences.

“(I was) constantly around what we don’t see in the Midwest—banjo players, violin players, ukulele players, dulcimer players. There are a lot of musicians in that part of the world down there. Bluegrass. Rockabilly. Folkabilly. That would be our entertainment in the evenings—music, family, friends. Neighbors would show up with instruments and start playing. Growing up, that was our recreation.”

He feels a deep kinship to that music, and his father had a hand in his musical development.

“My daddy was a good musician, and he taught me to play music when I was about 9. By 11, I was already playing in little country and bluegrass bands. I can play a mandolin, a guitar, a banjo, a ukulele, but I’m pretty much a guitar player. And I sing and write music.”

Hargiss once made his livelihood performing. “I like playing music so much. It’s dangerous business because it will completely overpower you. I knew I needed to make a living, raise my children, and have a life, so playing music became my hobby. I worked corporate jobs, but I kept being pulled back. It didn’t matter how hard I tried. I’d no more get the tie and suit off than I’d be out in the garage making something else.”

JohnHargiss1It turned into his business.

Hargiss directly traces what he does to his father.

“I watched him repair a guitar he bought me at a yard sale. The strings were probably three inches off the finger board. I remember my daddy taking a cup of hot coffee and pouring it in the joint of that neck and him wobbling that neck off, and the next I knew he’d restrung that guitar. I think that’s when I knew that’s what I’m going to do.”

The memory of them making a guitar is still clear.

“The first guitar I built, me and my daddy cut a walnut tree, chopped it up, and we carved us a dreadnought—a traditional Martin-style guitar. I gave that to him and he played that up to the day he died.”

Aesthetics hold great appeal for Hargiss.

“I’m fascinated by architectural design in what I create and in what I make. I study it.”

He called on every ounce of his heritage to lovingly restore a vaudeville-house-turned-movie theater. It came attached to the North Omaha buildings off Hamilton and 40th streets that he purchased five years ago. The theater lay dormant and unseen for 65 years, like a time capsule, obscured by walls and ceilings added by property owners, before he and his girlfriend, Mary Thorsteinson, rediscovered it largely intact. The pair, who share an apartment behind the auditorium, restored the
building themselves.

Preservation is nothing new to Hargiss, who reclaimed historic buildings in Benson, where his business was previously located. He was delighted to find the theater at the North O site, but knew it meant major work.

“I’ve always had this passion for old things. When we found the theater, I remember saying, ‘This is going to be a big one.’”

Motivating the by-hand, labor-of-love project was the space’s “potential to be anything you want it to be.” He’s reopened the 40th Street Theatre as a live performance spot.

Hargiss is perpetually busy between instrument repairs and builds—he has a new commission to make a harp guitar—and keeping up his properties. Someone’s always coming in wanting to know how to do something, and he’s eager to pay forward what was passed on to him.

The thought of working for someone else is unthinkable.

“I get one hundred percent control of my creativity. I’m not stuck. I’m not governed by, ‘Well, you can’t do it this way.’ Of course I can because the sound this is going to produce is mine. When you get to control it, then you’re the CEO, the boss, the luthier, the repairman, the refinisher, the construction, the engineer, the architect. You’re all of these things at one time.”

Besides, he can’t help making things. “There’s a drive down in me someplace. Whatever I’m working on, I first of all have to see myself doing it. Then I go through this whole crazy second-guessing. And then the next thing I know it’s been created. Days later I’ll see it and go, ‘When did I do that?’ because it takes over me, and it completely consumes every thought I have. I just let everything else go.” Encounter

Visit hargissstrings.com for more information.