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The Arts Thrive in These Nebraska Communities

Lincoln, Omaha, Red Cloud and Scottsbluff are among the hot spots

By Patricia Corrigan

A weekend workshop in glassblowing enchanted Vickie Hughes so completely that today, the retired letter carrier teaches the art. "I spent that weekend playing with glass and learning how to manipulate it, how it responds and how it sparkles," said Hughes, 61. "Glass moves, like honey or taffy, and when every move you make is perfect — well, it's like a song and dance."

A photo collage of a man doing pottery with a toddler and a woman working on a glass blowing project. Next Avenue
From left: Tim Barry, ceramics artist, instructor and co-founder of Hot Shops Art Center in Omaha, and Vickie Hughes, resident artist and glassblowing instructor at Hot Shops Art Center.  |  Credit: Courtesy of Hot Shops Art Center

That workshop took place at Hot Shops Art Center in Omaha, Nebraska, one of 16 cities in the Cornhusker State designated as a Creative District. After the instructor demonstrated how to make a flower, Hughes booked personal time in the studio "to repeat the loveliness of what I had learned," she said. "It can take 10 or 15 times to make a perfect flower, and then you can start on your own pieces."

"You have to care about the glass, be attentive to it."

In her classes, Hughes emphasizes that focus is key. "To get the response you are looking for, you can't fib or fudge," she said. "You have to care about the glass, be attentive to it." As a resident artist, Hughes sometimes makes glass paperweights like those her godmother owned that fascinated Hughes from an early age. "Paperweights are their own little worlds. You have to look at them from the bottom, through the middle and from the top."

The glass studio is just one area that "hums with creativity," said Kim Sellmeyer, executive director of the nonprofit that operates Hot Shops. (Take a virtual tour here.) An iron forge, a metal foundry and a ceramics studio also are at the site.

"Education is our primary mission, and last year we offered 648 workshops and classes to 3,395 people," Sellmeyer said. "Some 90 artists share 58 studios in an adjacent building, where we also have two galleries. And about 55,000 people visit us every year for tours and demonstrations."

Tim Barry, one of four artists who co-founded Hot Shops in 1999, serves as the education consultant and manager of the ceramics studio. "A lot of older adults who spent much of their lives in cubicles now want to do something with their hands," said Barry, 66.

"Working with clay is like drawing in three dimensions. There is something primal about it, and clay will record your experience and spirit." If you're lacking in either, Barry noted that throwing a pot provides a foundation for understanding pottery you've seen in museums.

Sculpture artist Les Bruning manages the metal foundry, which has attracted such clients as Louise Bourgeois (famous for her giant steel spiders), Yoko Ono, Topher Delaney, John Himmelfarb, Katherine Ferguson and Pepsy Kettavong. In the iron forge, students and visitors learn about ornamental blacksmithing as they watch resident artist Chris Kemp "hammer, bend, liquify, pummel, weld and beat iron into submission."

Red Cloud Celebrates Willa Cather

Author Willa Cather wielded a gentler touch in her work. The Pulitzer Prize winner wrote numerous books and short stories about life on the Great Plains, many of them inspired by her childhood in Red Cloud, which houses the largest collection of sites on the National Register of Historic Places dedicated to an author.

"I would encourage everyone to re-read — or read for the first time — Cather's books."

Currently, the town of 982 is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Cather's birth. A nonprofit foundation owns and operates the National Willa Cather Center, which is sponsoring the Cather Sesquicentennial with events taking place across the country.

At the Center, the "American Bittersweet" exhibit showcases a rotating selection of artifacts from Cather's life. (Take a virtual tour here.) Ashley Olson, the executive director, noted that the Center also offers guided tours of seven historic sites related to the author's early life, and rehabilitation of Cather's childhood home will be complete in October.


Olson added that "a full slate of events" takes place in town each year, including programs at the opera house, exhibits at an art gallery plus lectures and films. The Center also holds a conference each June for Cather scholars and general readers to celebrate the author's legacy and Nebraska's cultural heritage.

"I would encourage everyone to re-read — or read for the first time — Cather's books," Olson said, "and then be inspired to visit Red Cloud for an immersive experience to explore the setting she so vividly describes in her writing."

'No Wonder People Love Making Art'

The LUX Center for the Arts in Lincoln, Nebraska's capital, offers classes for all ages. "We serve about 2,200 students year, more than any public entity in Nebraska," said Joe Shaw, executive director. "We bring in artists-in-residence and we also supplement our teaching staff with artists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which has one of the top 10 ceramics programs in the country."

A rear view of a man painting with acrylic paints. Next Avenue
A student works on an acrylic painting project at The LUX in Lincoln.  |  Credit: LUX Center for the Arts

Shaw, 63, does more than talk the talk. "I've taken two pottery classes, two printmaking classes and a painting class," he said. "What I loved most is that you have three hours when you focus on something besides everything that's usually going on. The time flies because you're so enraptured with what you're doing. No wonder people love making art."

Stephanie Clark, a Lincoln resident, is one of those people. "After teaching elementary school for 40 years, my goal was to delve into art," said Clark, 69. She signed up for a pottery class at The LUX. "It wasn't as easy as I had anticipated, but it was fun, and I really enjoyed getting into the Zen of pottery. It's been a wonderful outlet for me. And what's cool about pottery is when you're done, you have tangible results of your effort."

Arts Center Displays Participants' Work

Older adults in Scottsbluff can relate to that, as their "tangible results" from an arts class often are on display in a gallery at the nonprofit West Nebraska Arts Center. "We are a small organization, but we have a lot going on here," said Stephanie Coley, program manager. "We have two galleries with 24 shows each year, plus educational programs and classes."

"After teaching elementary school for 40 years, my goal was to delve into art."

Artist Mary B. Hunt teaches the free monthly class for adults 55 and older. "The class includes beginners who want something basic to do and also retired professional artists," said Hunt, 65. "I try to come up with something different each month, something adaptable, and everyone seems happy."

Participants have worked with papier mâché, tried printmaking and painted metal gnomes. "Everybody likes to paint, so I offer a lot of painting classes," Hunt said. "Students have to mix the four basic colors, because it's important to give them something to learn each time. That helps them enjoy a level of success they can feel good about, which encourages them to do more art, and that's what I'm all about."

Chris Thomas, 74, attends the classes at the Center. "I always wanted to be an artist, but life got in the way," she said. She retired from the U.S. Postal Service about a decade ago. Before moving to Scottsbluff from Colorado, she took watercolor classes for several years, tried her hand at jewelry making and crocheted.

Once settled in Nebraska, she joined the Center. "I like art, I like learning things and art serves as an outlet, something to do with like-minded people — and that's good."

Patricia Corrigan
Patricia Corrigan is a professional journalist, with decades of experience as a reporter and columnist at a metropolitan daily newspaper, and also a book author. She has written for Next Avenue since February 2015. Read more from Patricia at Read More
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