By Zane Fletcher, Culture Editor
Omaha is not known as a melting pot. While the city does not lack differences in race, religion or sexual orientation, Omaha is not a city that comes to mind when one thinks of diversity. But right now, in downtown Omaha (12th and Cass Street), there is a public art exhibit which stands as a testament to Omaha’s willingness to embrace diversity.
Comprised of six, very large, outdoor conceptual sculptures and sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of the Plains States Region, TypecastRecast strives to improve the aura of unity and togetherness that has historically evaded our city. The sculptural types range from a painting on a wall to a steel structure, encompassing many different mediums.
The ADL, founded in 1913, is the world’s leading organization fighting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry. The Plains States Regional Office serves Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas.
ADL Regional Director Alan Potash envisioned this project as a conversation starter. Potash stressed the importance of college students to the cause.
“The project is ideal for college students who are exploring the challenges of discrimination,” Potash said. “It pushes the idea of how they perceive bigotry and bias in their lives. College offers plenty of opportunities to explore these issues.”
These works of art attempt to provoke thought and foster communication among college students and all other visitors. TypecastRecast asks each visitor to participate by listening to each piece, thinking about them, asking questions and when ready, beginning the conversation with neighbors, family members and schoolmates.
Conversations about prejudice, bigotry and bullying may be very challenging, but through art, the messages can be easier to digest.
“As a social justice public art project, TypecastRecast creates opportunities for individuals’ perceptions and judgments to be challenged—hopefully opening up a path of greater awareness of others,” Potash said. “We are using ADL’s expertise on educating about prejudice and discrimination and civic engagement, and we hope to build a stronger sense of respect in our community.”
TypecastRecast, installed in April 2014 and only in place through the fall of 2014, includes work from six artists: some local and some from other parts of the country.
One of these artists is UNO Associate Professor of Art and Design Avery Mazor, who contributed a piece entitled, “Always Forgive, Never Forget.” The work features the words spelled out in orange and pink string, woven along an 80 foot fence that can be read clearly as visitors approach the project. “Always Forgive, Never Forget” is impactful; it is as beautiful in its statement as it is in its vision of the tension of the strings as they pull back from either side of the fence.
In 2012, Mazor installed a similar piece in Israel with the words “Here is There, There is Here.” Upon installation, Mazor also availed himself of the ADL during several educational events and spoke directly with young students about his work.
Other pieces include:
“Broken Open” by Jarrod Beck. Beck, who lives in Brooklyn, begot a piece in which he first constructed well-known symbols of hate, before tearing them down and rebuilding into a large steel sculpture. The idea centered around the destruction of hate and also what may come of it afterward.
“Risers,” by Omaha native Paige Reitz, is a set of choir risers on the TypecastRecast site. These risers are used for sing-alongs, old-fashioned fun that truly brings strangers together. While Reitz will have planned get-togethers throughout the exhibition, the hope is that not only will official group performances occur, but impromptu ones as well.
“Two Drinking Fountains,” by Charlie Friedman, borrows more literally from American history. Friedman has created two drinking fountains, separate and unequal. One, labeled “99%,” is beaten and decrepit and the other, labeled “1%,” is pristine, highlighting racial inequality not only then, but now. From which will you drink and how do you feel while doing so?
“Debbie Butler” is by Omaha artist Jamie Burmeister. You may already know the Metro Community College instructor of art by his playful “vermin” that have appeared throughout the city, but this time, his story is a bit more serious. Former student Debbie Butler’s story of discrimination never left the artist and he now shares it in his sculpture for TypecastRecast.
“Wall” is by Andrew Conzett and Ryan Fisher, two architects intrigued by a retaining wall outside of the lot. This sculpture created a quasi-transparent scene depicting the other side. This piece is across the street from the others, attached to the western side of the Hilton Hotel’s parking garage and also asks the visitor to consider the “other side.”
Each piece of artwork has an accompanying sign with a description and some questions to get the introspection going.
The project has received significant media coverage and has grabbed the attention of Des Moines, Iowa which may be interested in hosting the project in the future. Since its opening, approximately 45 schools and community groups have toured the facility; according to Potash, because it is in a high traffic area, events like the Berkshire Hathaway conference and the College World Series have increased awareness.
The exhibit also provides a unique experience for the artists to provide a platform for the public to consider social issues important to them.
“It is an opportunity for the ADL to use art and artist intentions to discuss prejudice, bigotry, and bullying,” Potash said.
The art has also changed the landscape of downtown Omaha for the better, adding to the already significant changes of the past few years. Until it is dismantled later in the fall, the TypecastRecast project will remain a strong symbol of Omaha’s willingness to discuss, and hopefully affect, change in our society.