Those of us now emerging from our two-year Covid-induced hibernation will find that Metro artists have been busy “building back better,” creating new and distinctive murals to transform our urban infrastructure and energize our community. With spring in full swing, it’s time for the public to go see the “writing” on the wall.
In fact, Omaha has been home to a full-on mural resurgence in the last 15 years, with artists turning blank urban facades into bright, expressive canvases. A few cases in point: Meg Saligman’s “Fertile Ground,” among the largest murals in the US. Benson business district’s indie murals to enhance alleyway walkability. Emerging Terrain’s former “Stored Potential” project, transforming a hulking old grain silo into an inspiring display along I-80. The Midsummer Mural group’s South Omaha Mural Project (SOMP), turning its urban core into a gallery of culture past and present. Featuring teen artists, the Kent Bellows Mentoring Program’s murals dot many city neighborhoods.
More recently, ORBT’s artist-designed utility boxes at its bus stations help make commuting more inviting. Both Amplify Arts and Union for Contemporary Arts have mobilized notable public arts initiatives. And the Spark community nonprofit kicked off its North Omaha Trail greenway project with a Reggie LeFlore mural of “Coaches and Boxers” at its northern terminus at the B&B Sports Academy, promising it’s the first of many artworks to come.
What follows is a selection of notable new murals among the many created in the last two years that best fulfill the potential of public art to support economic growth and sustainability, create attachment to community, promote social cohesion, and recognize artists as contributors to a city’s well-being. More examples of public art can also be found at publicartomaha.org and vistitomaha.com.
“Ancestral Voices” by Aaron Olivo with Sarah Rowe and Steve Tamayo. Located at 2402 N Street, this 12th SOMP mural resulted from artists’ interest in filling a particular void in Omaha’s public art’s representation of Native Americans. Rather than memorializing an individual, the goal was to recognize area nations without creating hybridized portrayals of indigenous culture. To that end, the artists worked with tribal members and the broader mural team to develop a bright and highly legible design rich with symbolism and imagery that draws from historical sources and amplifies living tradition.
The wall emphasizes the importance of women in indigenous society by featuring four standing female figures in traditional tribal dress representing the tribes headquartered in Nebraska—the Ho-Chunk, Isanti (Santee), Osni Ponca and U-Mo’n-Ho’n (Omaha). The name of each tribe floats above them in a star-filled night sky and beneath each is a silhouetted buffalo filled with stylized forms of significant native plants. Olivo blends aspects of Plains Indians pictographic style with contemporary street style lettering to reinforce the fluidity of past to present.
“Ancestral Voices” joins other SOMP murals that, as a suite, highlight the diverse folkways that flavor the cultural stew of South Omaha and spark conversations about shared community values. While in the neighborhood, be sure to visit the new “Black American Community Mural,” by Barber with Zaleski and Jennifer Young, located at 3003 Q Street. This montage-style mural shines a light on the existence and legacy of an often overlooked, thriving South Omaha community of African Americans by highlighting notable current and former residents, businesses and gathering places.
“Transitions,” by Jair Rodriguez. Awarded a wall along a busy stretch of Harney near S. 37th Street, Rodriguez was in search of a motif to represent the theme of change echoed by residents of the reemergent Blackstone neighborhood. Inspired by the canopy of mature greenery in the Gold Coast, he painted a set of muscular trees, stand-ins for strength, durability and shelter. All manner of beautiful birds and plants symbolize of the diverse range of residents during the area’s many seasons of metamorphosis.
“Transitions” resulted from a collaboration between the Blackstone Business Improvement District and Amplify Arts, with the goal of enhancing the walkability, safety and beauty of the area. As Blackstone continues to revitalize and the city’s core continues to repopulate, public art projects such as this help to humanize the built environment.
Interested in how murals help revive urban business districts? Head over to the recent “Rainbow Peace Wall” by norm4eva, with its never-more-trenchant symbolism. Located at Benson’s downtown gateway, N. 60th and Maple Streets, it’s the latest in a string of indie wallworks that have transformed the unfriendly business of alley parking into an artsy discovery journey and lifted the entire area into a welcoming destination for arts, dining and entertainment.
“Northern Reflections” by Rachel Ziegler and Patty Talbert. Hot Shops is no longer a creative oasis in north downtown, neighbor now to the Millwork Commons development, which is busy placemaking by repurposing old warehouses, building new apartments and providing public amenities to fashion a thriving innovation hub. The Ashton Building at N. 12th St. and Millwork Ave. is its centerpiece, marked inside and out by artwork including this multi-panel, mixed media mural that doubles as a utilities screen.
In their first collaborative work, Talbert employed her batik-influenced design sensibility, with strong geometric patterning and bright color enhanced by Ziegler’s expertise in glass and tile mosaic. Together, they achieved an expansive, rainbow-hued work of radiating chevrons, with glittering inset diamonds of colored tile and restored antique gears. The result is lively and eye-catching, adding an energetic vibe to the red brick building it dresses. Without being didactic, it subtly suggests that dynamic work can happen when the creative gears are turning.
Appreciate how well-placed murals signal the establishment of new communities? From Millwork Commons, drive a few blocks up N. 11th Street into the New North Makerhood to see the “Midco Mural” by Weston Thomson. As this industrial area transforms into the daytime home of professional creatives, this artwork calls attention to the area’s roots in the artisanal production of goods and materials.
“James Scurlock,” by Hugo Zamorano. The rise of street art has shown that the “writing on the wall” can respond in real time to current events and provide a visual fulcrum for community outcry. In the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, citizens in Omaha gathered to protest police brutality. In the ensuing days of unrest, a young man named James Scurlock was killed in the Old Market by an armed civilian. Soon after, Zamorano was approached by artists Kim Darling and A.D. Swolley, (Scurlock’s brother) about creating a visual memorial to Scurlock, who had gone from being an ordinary citizen to an emblem of injustice.
The mural centers not on the tragedy but on the individual, portraying the smiling face of Scurlock surrounded by roses and the words “Rest in Peace” and “Juju World,” referring to his nickname. In the end, the mural’s creation was a community enterprise, with his neighborhood’s Easy Drive Package convenience store at N. 24th and Camden offering a wall, Benson First Friday offering funds for paint, and a host of street artists and volunteers helping Zamorano make the work happen over a period of several days.
The summer of 2020 sparked other artists to create messages to catalyze change. The UCA’s “Black Lives Matter” posters still hang in windows all over town. And Anthony Peña was moved by Dalton Carper’s photograph of 7-year-old protester Zuri Jensen to create the “Hope” mural. In collaboration with activist-artist Watie White, Peña streamlined the image of a girl with an upraised fist, holding a sign reading “Hope,” so that her motion of defiance became a message of promise for the future. Originally sited across from Hot Shops, the work was damaged in last December’s storm; it is expected to return later this year on the Rochester Midlands building in the same neighborhood.