Growing up in 1980s Omaha, I witnessed a compact yet vibrant arts scene. My parents made sure I was exposed to the city’s culture, and that’s something I’ve always wanted to offer my own children. My husband, Sam, and I both love art and are determined to share this love with our children, Ruth and Simon, even as they go through their indifferent middle school years.
Omaha’s art scene has developed in many ways since I was a kid, and public art is one area where the city has really stepped up its game. So, on a recent trip home, we took the kids on a tour of some of Omaha’s top public art destinations. The fact that all of this amazing culture would be cost-free for us to view was an added bonus!
I mapped a tour of Omaha’s most noteworthy public art for our first day: South Omaha’s colorful cache of murals, a large-scale mural in Downtown Omaha, and a historic sculpture in North Omaha. On day two, we would mosey along Omaha’s Downtown Public Art Walking Tour.
“South Omaha’s been home to waves of immigrant populations over the years,” I explained to my family of non-Omaha natives as we drove down South 24th Street. I also told them that Czechs, Germans, Greeks, Poles and many other groups lived in this part of town, and you can still feel their influence today alongside the Latino population that has inhabited the area more recently.
We stopped at the Mexican community mural at the El Mercado building, Del Futuro Al Pasado, by A Midsummer’s Mural with lead artist Hugo Zamorano. The mural crawls vividly across two sides of the large brick building, alive with the movement of so many rich colors and important stories being told in one unified piece. It showcases historically prominent Omaha Latinos alongside clear nods to the community’s future.
“That’s what the title means, Mom,” said Ruth, uncharacteristically engaged in our family outing and showing off her 8th-grade Spanish skills. “It’s linking the future and the past.
Armed with my trusty smartphone, I planned to act as our curator of sorts, providing interesting context and history throughout our public art journey. Funny thing is, I thought I knew Omaha backwards and forwards, but I learned that the South Omaha Mural Project planned to create a total of 10 murals. Each depicts various immigrant groups that made this neighborhood great and contributed so much to Omaha.
As we walked from Del Futuro Al Pasado to the Magic City mural at 24th and N streets, the neighborhood churned brightly around us. An ice cream shop, a street vendor selling Mexican snacks, a dress shop, pottery store and several restaurants enhanced the culturally rich neighborhood. Traditional and pop Latino music spilled out of cars and buildings creating a festive atmosphere, and Simon was loving the tunes. I thought to myself how similar Norteño music was to the sounds of Polka music common to South Omaha in my youth.
We arrived at Magic City to find a beautiful expression of the neighborhood’s cultural history as a melting pot, dominated by red, green, blue and yellow vertical panels on brick, and bookended by a younger woman’s face on the left and an older woman’s face on the right. Musicians, streetcars and other neighborhood characters and features fill the middle.
Sam wanted tacos for lunch, but the kids and I outvoted him. They’d heard me tell the tale of delectable Dinker’s burgers, and there we’d also see our third South Omaha mural, Nostrovia, a colorful depiction of the Polish community. Scenes from Sheelytown—the name for this largely Polish/Irish sector of South Omaha—included depictions of happy newlyweds, families, a baseball player, a cook, families, a dancing man and, of course, an accordion player.
I stared at the mural, thinking I’d like to come back in a few years to see the South Omaha Mural Project’s latest works of art honoring the area’s history, until Ruth and Simon snapped me out of my trance with pleas of hunger.
“Mom, can we try the onion rings? It says they’re famous,” asked Simon, with visions of home-cooked fried foods dancing in his eyes.
Rather than moving chronologically left-to-right through the region’s history, the past is featured in the background, layered with the present in the foreground.
With full bellies, we made our way to our next stop, the Fertile Ground mural at 13th and Webster. At 32,550 square feet, this depiction of Omaha and Nebraska’s history is one of the largest murals in the United States. Conceptualized by master muralist Meg Saligman, it celebrates the region’s landscape, landmarks and people, with respect for the past, present and future. Rather than moving chronologically left-to-right through the region’s history, the past is featured in the background, layered with the present in the foreground.
Depictions of specific people and places include Peter Kiewit, The Road to Omaha College World Series statue, St. Cecilia’s Cathedral and many others. General groups and aspects of Omaha’s history are also represented with trains, Native Americans, musicians, the native Burr Oak tree, families, a football player, a veteran and others. The land is well represented as the uniting force of the region, with images of the Missouri River, a boundless blue sky and the stunning sunsets Nebraska’s known for. Roots, which represent connection to the land and community, transition into a yellow ribbon held by a young businessman, symbolic of Omaha’s forward progress as “fertile ground” for agriculture and business alike.
Our family loved the size and scope of this impressive mural. It was like a beautiful love letter to Omaha.
Next up was North Omaha’s Jazz Trio, a bronze sculpture at Dreamland Plaza on North 24th Street by artist Littleton Alston. It depicts a woman singing, accompanied by trombone and saxophone players. Dreamland Plaza is named in honor of Omaha’s historic Dreamland Ballroom nightclub where jazz and soul greats like Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington and Preston Love performed, and where young, burgeoning talents like Wynonie Harris and Buddy Miles were inspired.
The sculpture brings this exciting past vividly to life, and I could see the kids’ imaginations run wild at the prospect of the golden age of jazz having such deep roots in Omaha. In addition to its impressive past, I was happy to see shops and restaurants filling the corridor in the present. Right across the street in the historic Blue Lion Building—home to McGill’s Blue Room nightclub in the 40s and 50s—was The Union for Contemporary Art, which works to build Omaha’s creative culture, support working artists and cultivate a love of art in local youth. A stop for another day!
From south to north and in between, we’d seen that Omaha’s public art beautifully reflects the people and places that shaped the city. At the end of a long, fun day of public art and family bonding, I was delighted that the kids were still looking forward to day two of our visit and the Downtown Public Art Walking Tour, which features murals, sculptures, quilts and even Jun Kaneko’s iconic dangos. The kids so quickly lose interest these days, but they were just as hooked as Sam and I were on learning more about Omaha’s public art.
I knew that Omaha’s art scene had developed rapidly since I moved, but my family and I were thrilled by what we saw and happily anticipating everything yet to come. Not only had I learned tons about my hometown through the amazing public art we’d seen so far, I learned that you can go home again, although you might find it a lot different than you left it—in a really great way.