In a metro area that wasn't known for a plethora of public art, just look around — because there's so much more to see.
Art was a theme last week as the youth services agency Children's Square U.S.A. presented its 2012 Jason Awards to those whose work helps instill important characteristics in young people. All five recipients, some very publicly and some privately, have contributed to an appreciation of art to people of all ages.
On both sides of the Missouri River, public art now abounds in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area. Sculptor John Lajba of Omaha gave a special nod to the city on the east side of the Muddy Mo.
“Every time I come to Council Bluffs,” he said Wednesday at the Mid-America Center in the Bluffs, “I see this explosion of art. It's all over your city.”
Increasingly, that applies to Omaha, too. And the artwork across the two-state metro not only provides more pleasant surroundings but also affects the way we see and understand ourselves — and the way we create ideas. Especially, perhaps, among the young who grow up amidst more and more public art.
“What kind of world that must open up to all the kids that see it,” Lajba mused to more than 300 people Wednesday evening. “Think what it does for their imagination, for their creativity, for their sense of wonder.”
Lajba, whose many detailed works include the College World Series “Road to Omaha” sculpture outside TD Ameritrade Park as well as military and other figures at the Durham Museum in Omaha and Bayliss Park in Council Bluffs, was one of the five recipients at the Mid-America Center.
» Matthew Placzek of Omaha, a sculptor whose works include “Imagine” at Children's Hospital & Medical Center, “Illumina” in front of the CenturyLink Center and “Labor” on the Omaha riverfront — the one whose upraised fist and hammer became a symbol of the fight against last year's historic flooding.
» First National Bank of Omaha, for its “Spirit of Nebraska Wilderness Park” and “Pioneer Courage,” sculptures that span more than seven city blocks as a tribute to those who settled our area and beyond.
» Lyn Stuntz of Council Bluffs, a musician whose years of “caring, contribution and commitment” have ranged from teaching in Turkey when her husband was stationed there for the Air Force to encouraging expressions of art among youngsters at Children's Square.
» The late Lora May Nielsen of Fort Collins, Colo., an artist whose work depicted a love of nature and mankind and who lived at Children's Square long ago as a child when it was called the Christian Home.
Children's Square sits just below the site of the Abraham Lincoln monument. That bluff is believed to be where Lincoln, in 1859, viewed land that local surveyor Grenville Dodge recommended to be part of the nation's first transcontinental railroad.
Three years later, as president, Lincoln selected the site as the railroad's eastern terminus.
Only two decades after that, a Missouri River flood left many homeless. A widowed father of three young girls soon pleaded for help on the doorstep of First Baptist Church, where the Rev. Joseph Lemen and his wife took the girls in — and the agency now known as Children's Square was born.
Today at 1:30 p.m., CEO Carol Wood will unveil three John Lajba sculptures depicting the moment the desperate father dropped off his children.
The new sculptures, Lajba said, “are about fear, about uncertainty, about abandonment — but what they are really about is love.”
He said youngsters served by Children's Square, many of whom come from extremely difficult circumstances, receive much love and care there.
A river separates Nebraska from Iowa, and Omaha from Council Bluffs, but it needn't be a chasm. The event Wednesday night and today's unveiling represent unifying Omaha-Council Bluffs events.
The two cities are now linked by the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which is surely functional. But with its high towers, bright lights and sweeping path, it is also another example of public art.
“All you have to do is walk the bridge any day to realize the variety and number of people enjoying that piece of art,” said artist Allan Tubach, a former chairman of the Omaha Public Art Commission.
Tubach told me last last week that he has long hoped that our metro would follow in the footsteps of Chicago and other cities that embrace “groundbreaking kinds of sculpture that become icons of their cities. Who knows? That day may be coming.”
Even occasional controversial art in our area, he said, “has done a lot to get people thinking about public art.”
Public art can be contemporary, abstract, realistic and more. The First National Bank of Omaha's wagon trains, buffaloes and geese are examples of realism that's grounded in our history.
Dan O'Neill, a Council Bluffs native and the Omaha bank's president, said in accepting the Children's Square honor that we would do well to ponder what early settlers faced.
With no restaurants, no phones, no social media and no highways, they set out across America needing to kill game to survive. Crossing rivers, mountains and deserts, he said, they also faced the possibility of death.
“It's not really a trip many of us would sign up for,” O'Neill said. “They really paved the road for all of us.”
The artists honored last week by Children's Square, and the many others who are contributing throughout the metro area, are paving the road for more public art in the future.
Not just for kids, public art does something for all of us — in Lajba's words, for our imagination, our creativity, our sense of wonder.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, email@example.com