Hansen: Artist infests Omaha with hundreds of tiny vermin sculptures

Jamie Burmeister with his tiny ceramic creations he calls “vermin” at Modern Arts Midtown.


Jamie Burmeister starts his minivan with one hand as he sweeps a pair of cleats and a duffel bag out of the passenger side with another.

“Probably smells like soccer in here,” he says by way of apology as he swings onto Dodge Street and steams west toward the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

It does smell vaguely of grass stain, but no need to apologize, Jamie. The whiff of damp fescue helps set the olfactory mood for the hunting expedition we have just embarked upon.

We carry no guns, we have applied for no permits and we are wearing no safety orange.

But as Jamie veers across three lanes of traffic and pulls into a metered parking stall a spear's throw away from UNO's Community Affairs and Public Service building, we do have a mission.

We're going hunting. Vermin hunting.

“Look, there's one!” Burmeister says, jabbing a finger toward the sky as we stand at the front entrance of the CPACS building. “See it up on the top tier?”

I squint into the midday sky, and sure enough, sitting on the building's ledge, I spy a bona fide vermin.

This creature is ceramic, approximately as tall as your index finger, and known to live in the nooks and crannies of Omaha's finest bars, restaurants and art galleries.

This vermin looks like a man, a tiny, little man, and has lived on a second-story window ledge at this UNO building since October 2010. That's when Jamie Burmeister climbed a ladder, dabbed a little silicon caulk onto the vermin's feet and stuck him in place.

“Still right there,” Burmeister says, a hint of pride in his voice.

For the past five years, Burmeister, a 44-year-old Omaha artist, has been making these tiny figures. He has handmade them out of clay and he has made them using molds. He has made vermin men, vermin women, vermin children and eventually entire vermin families and communities.

And he and others have stuck hundreds of these creatures — Burmeister guesses maybe 500 — all around the Omaha area, where they often get swiped or swept away by a cleaning crew.

But every so often, if you are lucky, one sticks around and peeks out at you from a nook or cranny.

“Then something happens,” says Larry Roots, the owner and director of Omaha gallery Modern Arts Midtown. “Then you are playing Jamie's game.”

August is, in fact, a big month in the life cycle of the vermin. Jamie's vermin are the focus of a current exhibit at Modern Arts Midtown, an exhibit you can see through Saturday — the first time the accomplished multimedia artist has made an entire gallery show out of the tiny creatures.

Now, these aren't your granddaddy's vermin. Many of those Jamie made for the show have lifelike faces and complex poses. There are vermin hugging, vermin fighting, vermin chopping wood and vermin saving other vermin from falling off ledges.

He made dozens of vermin out of bronze, including one who is pushing a giant bronze boulder up a hill like he's the world's smallest Sisyphus.

At the show's opening on the first Friday in August, the Omaha art crowd oohed and aahed and snatched up many of these new vermin at $200 and $300 a pop.

But there is good news for the young and the thrifty: Jamie has hundreds of old vermin, the ceramic kind, for sale at Modern Arts Midtown, too.

These little guys sit and stand and point and gawk for the low, low price of $20 a head. These little guys are the brethren of the vermin who live on the street — the vermin scattered around Omaha that Jamie and I went hunting for on a recent Tuesday.

Jamie climbs into some bushes on the UNO campus. He looks down a grate where he remembers putting some 50 of the tiny ceramic figures in the fall of 2010.

Alas, there is but one vermin left in the grate. And this vermin appears in critical condition: He's lying helplessly on his back and looks to be missing a leg.

But Jamie doesn't appear particularly troubled by this. He knows the truth: Most of the 500 vermin he has placed around Omaha have disappeared like bit players in a bad Mafia movie.

There is one still sitting above the bar and watching the patrons at Barley Street Tavern in Benson, but the one that Jamie hid in the Joslyn Art Museum has vanished.

That vermin was bowing before a Jun Kaneko sculpture, Jamie says, “paying homage to the master.”

There is one still hiding in the gift shop connected to Dixie Quicks, the popular Council Bluffs restaurant and art gallery, but the one that Jamie propped on a damaged stop sign at 192nd and Fairview Road has long since gone missing.

A few have probably been blown away by summer thunderstorms and wintry blizzards, but Jamie figures most of the disappearances are man-made.

Cleaning crews are a constant enemy to the vermin — Jamie once watched a Disney World employee sweep one up just seconds after he had placed it inside the Magic Kingdom. (Vermin have also come and gone from the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China and the Australian outback.)

But the biggest enemy of the vermin are people. People who want a free vermin all their own.

“Honestly, I think that's kind of neat,” Jamie says when I ask him about Omahans who have yanked vermin out of parks and galleries and off of fence posts. “Democratic.”

That is kind of the point: the pleasant subversiveness of a tiny creature who showed up in an Omaha public space and was always meant to be plucked if someone felt like it.

Jamie once asked that people send him photos of the vermin in their new homes — you can track the movement of these creatures at vermin.me, a blog and related map for the creatures. But he doesn't much care about the map anymore, as long as you give the little guys a happy home. (Jamie is happy to learn that I bought a $20 vermin who is now hanging out, cross-legged, on my favorite living room bookshelf.)

When we go inside the CPACS building, Jamie peers behind doors, into corners and onto ledges where he remembers placing vermin before an on-campus art event in 2010. He can't find even one.

But when we walk around outside the building, Jamie sees one, then two, then three other vermin that have managed to make it three years in one place. They are hanging out on the building's ledges, far from the sticky fingers of UNO students, professors and janitors.

On the first day of class this August, my guess is at least one freaked-out freshman looked up into the sky and saw a tiny, little man staring down at him.

My guess is that freaked-out freshman smiled.

“Children seem to find them most of all,” Jamie says. “Adults walk past the same place a thousand times, inside our own heads and sometimes we don't even notice…”

But sometimes we do.

Then, Larry Roots says, the vermin aren't pests at all.

“They bring out the kid in all of us.”

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