Tag Archives: WhyArts?

Encouraging Arts In Everyone

August 20, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Art is one of the most inclusive forms of expression. Carolyn Owen Anderson has dedicated nearly 20 years to helping an underserved population of seniors and people with developmental disabilities express themselves.

She is the executive director at WhyArts, the Omaha nonprofit dedicated to providing art to underserved populations. It’s a cause she can easily align with: she believes that everyone can benefit from a healthy dose of artistic expression, a belief that is realized in the organization’s slogan—“arts our way.”

“The general public see people with disabilities and think they don’t have talent, but I don’t believe that,” Anderson says. “Art is for everyone, and there is no right or wrong way to express your ability.”

As an organizational administrator, Anderson’s background is in psychology. She earned a master’s degree in counseling from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, which is helpful, as a large part of the job is observing people and matching artists’ skills with the organization’s needs.

“I think she has an eye for art, and she has a heart for people,” says longtime friend Nancy Williams, executive director of No More Empty Pots. “Her art is not in the traditional sense of artistry. Her artistic talent is pulling people together and giving them purpose through art.”

Anderson admits she has never been an artist, but that doesn’t keep her from attending arts events. She can be found watching productions by Omaha’s Blue Barn Theatre, Opera Omaha, or Omaha Symphony whenever she can.

Her passion for providing art to people of all abilities was ignited when she saw her adopted son struggle with academics.

“I got tired of him talking about what he couldn’t do,” Anderson explains. “People kept telling him what he would and would not achieve because his grades in math and science weren’t the best, but I knew he had potential. When he started concentrating on non-judgmental ways to do things he excelled.”

She first became acquainted with WhyArts 15 years prior as a contracted consultant. Anderson went on to focus her dedication towards an overlooked group of people—those of differing abilities—who could benefit from a non-judgmental way of expressing themselves. Throughout her years as director of the organization, she has helped include seniors in the arts and overseen several outdoor mural projects.

“Carolyn’s passion to connect and empower communities through the arts is an inspiration,” WhyArts teaching artist Sarah Rowe said via email. “As a working artist, I appreciate the challenge to help build creative experiences that strengthen the foundation of our city by uplifting individuals. Carolyn has a natural ability to coordinate events and connect people in a magical way.”

Along the way, Anderson has remained a consummate volunteer and philanthropist, a value instilled in her by her parents—Edward F. and Dee Owen. Dee, in fact, could be seen volunteering at the Omaha Community Playhouse into her 90s. Anderson herself serves on several boards, including No More Empty Pots and the Nebraska Writers Collective, and the board members and organizational leadership appreciate her work.

“She has a certain candor and brevity about things,” says Williams. “But you’ll know you have piqued her interest when she keeps digging more deeply. She’s been a good sounding board for moving things forward, or not moving them at all. She’s been supportive of not following status quo, but doing what she thinks is the right thing to do.”

Carolyn Owen Anderson at UNO's WhyArts.

Carolyn Owen Anderson at UNO’s WhyArts.

It is her position at WhyArts that has given her a special fondness for seeing talented artists working with people afflicted by various development disabilities.

“Our clients tend to have strong responses and genuine connections with our mentors,” Anderson says. “I love seeing seniors and people with special needs notice their artwork on the wall at one of our exhibits and saying, ‘Ooh, I didn’t think I could do that!’”

Williams not only works with Anderson at NMEP, she knew Anderson through a collaboration between Why Arts and Boys and Girls Club, where Williams was CIO.

“WhyArts gave the kids access to someone creative and who did creative work all day,” Williams said. “They got a chance to see how they can use their creativity and get paid for it.  It was good for them to be able to share with artists and find a hobby, but also to be creative and give the kids feedback on that creative outlet.”

Artists interested in working with WhyArts don’t need prior experience with disabled learners, but they must undergo an extensive observation process under Anderson’s watchful eye. She finds most of them appreciate the individuality of their clients and are willing to work with the special needs population.

“Instructors need to have a bag of tricks since a structured curriculum can fall apart when teaching people with developmental disabilities,” Anderson says. “I find that most of my mentors have a great degree of compassion for our clients and appreciate the challenge.”

Under Anderson’s direction, WhyArts has flourished; bringing a variety of video animation, visual arts, literature, dance activities and more to over 43,000 individuals through 2500 workshops in 2018, in places ranging from senior centers to after-school programs. Partnerships with a host of organizations including MOSAIC, Ronald McDonald House Charities, and Sacred Heart School guarantee Anderson will continue encouraging creative thinking, creative play, and creative access to the arts for an underserved population of aspiring artists.

“I’m not a [practicing] therapist, but I’ll always believe that art is great therapy. It enables anyone to express themselves,” she says. “You may not be a Rhoades Scholar in math or science, but you could be a heck of a visual artist, which holds its own merit.”

For more information about WhyArts mission visit their website at www.whyartsinc.org.

This article was printed in the 60+ section of the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Carolyn Owen Anderson at UNO's WhyArts.

Carolyn Owen Anderson is photographed at UNO’s WhyArts.

Clay in the Classroom

August 19, 2019 by

Walk into the center of artist Rich Chung’s studio, and suddenly you’re a giant in the middle of a stadium. Hundreds of miniature ceramic faces, handcrafted and in multicolored hues, look out from every side of the room (including a Yoda or two sitting near a 3D printer).

Chung has been an artist his entire life. From drawings and mud-sculptures crafted at his childhood home back in San Francisco to the years he spent studying studio art at University of California, Berkeley, he always knew he’d find a career somewhere in the art industry. When he landed a job with Jun Kaneko nearly two decades ago, Chung made the move to Omaha, where he has stayed ever since. The one job he never thought he’d have? Teaching.

Mr. Rich (as his students refer to him) now works with nonprofit art programs in the Omaha area, including the Joslyn’s Kent Bellows Mentoring Program (KBMP) and WhyArts.

Through KBMP, high school students apply to work with professional artists who mentor the students as they build a portfolio of work. Chung serves as the mentor for the Clay Media Program.

WhyArts provides art classes, workshops, and programs to underserved populations throughout the metro, which includes students of all ages and various backgrounds. Chung plans and prepares a lesson for each of his classes, making sure the activity can cater to every skill level. Regardless of the lesson plan, Chung’s main goal is to keep students actively engaged.

“You’re not just teaching them how to draw a circle, you’re also trying to teach them certain life skills and attitudes,” he explains. “It’s not just how do you get the paint to come out shiny, even though that’s definitely a part of it. It’s more about how do you handle yourself when the paint doesn’t come out shiny and you’ve tried 10 times?”

For Chung, this means taking an individualized approach. Whether he’s working with preschool students or senior citizens, he aims to connect with each student and figure out how much direction they need.

Aside from clay, Chung also works with—and teaches—painting, 3D printing, drawing exercises, printmaking, crafts, and computer software (such as Stop Motion and GarageBand). Teaching gives Chung the opportunity to learn and create alongside his students.

“I see different people every week or every day, and it’s a different challenge and different age group, and I really like that. It keeps me on my toes and is always interesting,” he says. “I realize now I’ll probably never be able to hold a job that’s 9-to-5 again.”

When Chung leaves the classroom, he transports students’ clay works back to his studio, where he fires them in his kiln and prepares them for glazing. Often, this entails long hours and many nights spent working late into the evening. For Chung, it’s always worth it. Whether he’s uploading work into the 3D printer, or inviting students over to finish a project, Chung is always looking for more ways to help his students.

“We want them to have a desire to learn,” Chung says. “That’s the main goal. It’s not what they learn, it’s that attitude of ‘I want to learn more and I want more knowledge.’”

Chung also plans to host an open-studio event in the fall, where community members can tour his workspace and view his art.

For more information on the Kent Bellows Mentoring Program, visit Joslyn.org. For more information on WhyArts, visit whyartsinc.org.

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

Richard Chung standing in is his studio

Richard Chung in his studio.

Artists for Inclusion

February 24, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Iggy Sumnik is a noted artist. Bryan Allison is a young man with intellectual disabilities. Their worlds may seem galaxies apart, but the two have more in common than one might suspect. Both share a love of art, and both would appear to live by the same simple philosophy.

“I like to approach each new day as if I were going for a walk,” says Sumnik, a ceramic artist who worked for three years as a studio assistant under the internationally acclaimed Jun Kaneko. “I sense that Bryan and I might be a little alike in that regard. We keep our eyes and ears open during our walk through the day, and maybe we stumble onto something that is a little bit different. Maybe we even learn something new. I expect to learn something from Bryan today. I hope he feels the same way.”

Sumnik was introduced to Allison through a collaboration between local nonprofit organizations WhyArts and VODEC. WhyArts works to ensure that visual and performing arts experiences are open to people of all ages and abilities throughout the metro area. VODEC (see the related story on page 117) provides vocational, residential, and day services for persons with intellectual disabilities in Nebraska and Iowa.

Sumnik unpacks the tools of his profession—a massive block of malleable “potential” and a jumble of clay-working implements—as he explains to Allison and nine of his VODEC friends what would unfold over the next hour or so.

20131213_bs_8014“I didn’t come in with any particular project in mind for you,” he explains. “I’m just here to be an extra set of hands, so I want to see your creativity today—your ideas, not mine.”“Our ideas,” the perpetually smiling Allison replies. “I’m going to make an island. Hawaii. I’m going to be an artist!”

From senior centers and middle schools to the Completely KIDS campus and vocational facilities like VODEC, WhyArts offers a broad slate of programs backed by a small army of talented artists from the arenas of the visual arts, theater, dance, music, poetry, storytelling, and beyond.

The roster of WhyArts artists reads something like a Who’s Who of the creative community. Jill Anderson is the popular chanteuse, recording artist, and Actors’ Equity performer. Roxanne Nielsen makes magic as a frequent choreographer of Omaha Community Playhouse productions. Ballet legend Robin Welch was featured in the last issue of Omaha Magazine. Add spoken word impresario Felicia Webster and Circle Theater co-founder Doug Marr, to name but a few, and it’s a line-up that represents the very best—and most caring—of a city’s imagination pool. “These are more than just talented professionals with long resumes who happen to do workshops,” says WhyArts director Carolyn Anderson. “They are advocates of the arts, but they are also passionate advocates for inclusion.”

Originally known as Very Special Arts Nebraska when the group formed in 1990, the WhyArts model is one that recognizes the simplest of ideas—that creative expression is a foundational attribute of the human condition.

“The underserved populations we reach generally do not have access to the arts,” Anderson continues, “but creativity is innate in us all, regardless of age or ability. What we do is to help people discover that creativity. We don’t try to ‘teach’ art. We experience it right along with them—and on their terms, just like you see Iggy doing here today. Everything we do is carefully tailored to the needs and abilities of the people we serve, but we do it in a way that respects the individual and encourages the artistic expression that is waiting to be released in each and every one of us.”

It’s a formula that also works well for organizations like VODEC.

“The WhyArts mission of inclusion mirrors our own in a perfect way,” says Daryn Richardson, VODEC’s services development   director. “Both of our organizations build bridges to the community with as many organizations and with as many people as we can. That’s the goal of every program we develop.”

Making art in a group, Sumnik adds, is a two-way street. “I try to be nothing more than an enabler for their imaginations,” he says, “but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found inspiration for my own work through people like Bryan.”

Sumnik’s artists have now completed a menagerie of clay creations that will be fired by WhyArts before being returned to their makers. Allison’s fanciful island paradise features a larger-than-life giraffe towering over a lava-spewing volcano.

“We’re getting ready to photograph my art for a magazine!” says Allison, now the center of attention throughout VODEC’s humming-with-activity work floor. “I’m going to be an artist!”

“Going to be?” Sumnik replies. “You’re already there, my man. You’re already there.”


Three Generations

January 30, 2014 by
Photography by Laurie and Charles Photographs


This issue’s Style Shot keeps it all in the family with three generations of women.

Laurie Victor Kay, one half of the acclaimed photography duo of Laurie and Charles Photographs, is joined here by her daughter, Evie, and mother, Carolyn Owen Anderson.

Twelve-year-old Evie is known for her mad skateboard skills, while Anderson —“Drams” to her grandchildren—is known as an energetic community supporter and director of WhyArts, the nonprofit that ensures visual and performing arts experiences are open to people of all ages and abilities throughout the metro.

On the business end of the camera and completing the family circle is husband and father, Charles Kay. 

Hair and makeup by Eric Burden, BUNGALOW/8 Hairdressing.

Courtney Stein

November 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If all the world’s a stage, then 25-year-old actress, dancer, and choreographer Courtney Stein is definitely a player.

While performing in the musical Once On This Island at the tender age of 5, Stein, who was born and raised in Omaha, says she got “the itch” for theatre. “I grew up in the Ralston Community Theatre, taking part in numerous summer musicals throughout my adolescence,” she adds.

After she graduated from Ralston High School, Stein headed out to southern California for a year to join the Young Americans, a touring performance and music education outreach program. She then returned to Omaha to study vocal music education at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Shortly thereafter, she went to New York University, where she created her own program of study in various culture, dance, theatre, and music, but then returned home once more to graduate from UNO in 2010 with an individualized degree in interdisciplinary studies—specifically, anthropology with a focus on music, dance, and theatre.

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Today, Stein earns her living as a freelance choreographer and dance instructor, and she also teaches yoga, tai chi, and tap dancing at Bellevue Senior Center. Beyond her freelance work, Stein is involved with several nonprofit organizations, including WhyArts? and Arts for All, Inc. “I teach at a multitude of elementary schools in the metro, through both the Artery’s Dancing Classroom program and through the Omaha Community Playhouse’s educational outreach program. I [also] choreograph several area high school musicals and show choirs, as well,” she says.

But just teaching performance wasn’t enough for Stein; she wanted an outlet to continue the passion for performance her 5-year-old self had felt so long ago. That’s when she looked into the community theatre scene in her hometown.

“We don’t act for the money, we don’t sing for our supper, and we don’t dance for a dime.”

“Omaha is special,” she says. “It is home to so many artists—starving and otherwise, who are lucky enough to share their passion in a welcoming environment…We are privileged to have such wonderfully diverse yet mutually supportive theaters.”

One such theater is the Omaha Community Playhouse, the largest community theatre in the nation. The theater opened in the 1920s after a group of Omahans—including Alan McDonald, architect of the Joslyn Art Museum, who later became president of the Playhouse—wanted stage performances to return to a community increasingly dominated by the rising popularity of films. In April 1925, the Playhouse’s very first play, The Enchanted Cottage, opened and was directed by Greg Foley, starring Dodie Brando, mother of actor Marlon Brando. The theater later saw the acting debuts of Henry Fonda (father of actress Jane Fonda), Marlon Brando, Dorothy McGuire, and Julie Wilson. For Stein, having the chance to stand on the stage where these legends once stood was an aspiration.20121031_bs_1664-Edit copy

“The first show I auditioned for at the Playhouse was Urinetown, and I actually wasn’t cast.” But Stein was stubborn and auditioned for the Playhouse’s next big musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, in 2007, where she was cast as a tap-dancing stenographer. During that role, Stein believes she must have done something the directors liked because she was then cast in the next show, A Christmas Carol, as fun-loving and energetic party girl Lucy.

Though she’s played Lucy for the past five years, this November and December, Stein plays Millie. “[Millie] is married to Scrooge’s nephew, Fred,” Stein explains of her character. “This is the first year since I have been a part of the Carol that I will not be Lucy, [who] is the slightly crazy, very energetic younger sister of Millie.”

Stein is slowly building a solid performance reputation with the Playhouse, as she has been involved in at least two musicals/plays each year. Her list thus far includes:

  • Thoroughly Modern Millie (as stenographer), 2007
  • A Christmas Carol (as Lucy), 2007-2012
  • The Cocoanuts (as Polly Potter), 2008
  • Batboy (as Ruthie/Ned), 2009
  • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (as chorus member), 2009
  • All Shook Up (as Lorraine), 2010
  • Fiddler on the Roof (as Chava), 2010
  • Footloose (as Wendy Jo), 2010
  • Nunsense (as Sister Mary Leo), 2011
  • Hairspray (as Amber Von Tussle), 2012

This past year, Stein was even nominated for the Omaha Theatre Arts Guild’s awards for her supporting actress role as Amber Von Tussle in Hairspray. Though it was exciting, Stein says she was somewhat shocked about the nomination. “I’ve played several sweet, ingénue-type roles and never received as much recognition. But I was cast as Amber in Hairspray, a horribly mean-spirited—albeit charming and funny—young girl and WHAM! I’m nominated for a TAG award and an OCP award!” she laughs. “Perhaps I’m not as innocent as I thought!”

Though she has been nominated for several other awards for her performances in Fiddler on the Roof, All Shook Up, and The Cocoanuts and received the Charles Jones Director’s Award from the Playhouse in 2010, Stein feels humbled by awards and tries not to put too much stock into them, as the performance is her true honor.

During her time with the Playhouse, Stein has developed a new ambition beyond just acting, singing, and dancing in the shows—she also wants to work behind the scenes as a choreographer.

Stein as Amber Von Tussle in the Omaha Community Playhouse's production of Hairspray.

Stein as Amber Von Tussle in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s production of Hairspray.

Last year’s Carol was the first year that Stein was asked to co-choreograph the play with Michelle Garrity. “[We] used a divide-and-conquer strategy to teaching the choreography. The show is such an institution at the Playhouse, and the choreography has remained true to the original, so it was intimidating to say the least.” And this past summer, Stein helped choreograph Hairspray with Kathy Wheeldon. “It was a wonderful experience to see some of my own original choreography onstage at such a prominent theater,” she adds, hoping she’ll have more opportunities to have her choreography in Playhouse shows.

Although it may seem like a career in performance is difficult to get with all of the fierce competition, Stein feels like community theatre doesn’t work that way. “We don’t act for the money, we don’t sing for our supper, and we don’t dance for a dime. In fact, we sacrifice time, energy, and sanity for one reason—an undying passion to tell a story, to convey a message, to leave the world a little different than before. We want to reach an audience.

“In the whirlwind of everyday chaos, theatre provides an outlet for release, a platform for expression, and a vehicle for social commentary. I believe that arts education is essential to the growth of a well-rounded human being and community.”

A Christmas Carol runs from Nov. 16 through Dec. 23 at the Omaha Community Playhouse (6915 Cass St.) and will be followed by Yesterday and Today, which runs from Dec. 7-31, and Deathtrap, which runs from Jan.18 through Feb. 10. For more information, visit omahaplayhouse.com or call 402-553-0800.