By Kamrin Baker
“Miss Mason, you’re the best art teacher in the world.”
Julia Mason; an art teacher at Indian Hill Elementary School, Beals Elementary School and a University of Nebraska at Omaha alum; knows what it’s like to have one student driving her up the wall and another student making her day with a single comment.
Since graduating from UNO in December of 2014, she has spent her weekdays teaching young students how to express their creativity in Omaha Public Schools. Mason, who is the product of an artist mother and an enriching education in state and abroad, is the ideal candidate for “best art teacher in the world.”
“The kids make art that is so free and so innocent,” Mason says. “There is really nothing holding them back. Many students I teach don’t get this exposure at home with things like clay and paints, so it’s really important that our public schools have that.”
While some days she holds silly memories dear, like students asking her about her shoes or her signature red lipstick, Mason also enjoys spending her free time growing her art business and showing her work at local maker’s markets.
Julia Mason Art’s black tablecloth donned with bright watercolors can be spotted at most any Omaha market, most often, Benson First Fridays, where she sells her prints and other products.
Mason focuses on making portraits of Omaha neighborhoods ranging from Little Italy, Benson, Dundee or the Joslyn Castle neighborhood. She says she likes to make pieces that people can purchase when they visit Omaha, since she is so inspired by artwork she has picked up in her travels. She also takes custom commissions and transforms her prints into various products like Christmas ornaments, calendars and tote bags.
Mason’s favorite medium is watercolors and has been for “the better part of four years,” according to her website. Since studying abroad in college, she likes to have a Moleskin notebook on hand for those lightning bolts of inspiration no matter the time or place, since “watercolors are so transportable.”
Currently working out of her downtown apartment—just around the corner from Hardy Coffee Co.— Mason packages her own goods and occasionally employs the help of her boyfriend and many other local creators in an assembly-line fashion. However, Mason will soon move into a studio at Bench Omaha to have more room for her artwork and production.
“Having my own small business has been a huge learning experience,” Mason says. “You have to be organized and separate your work from your personal life sometimes. I can be painting and still get distracted by the laundry or the dishes in the sink, so my current goal is to grow in my organization skills and find a balance.”
In addition to the balance of work and play, Mason has experienced some self-discovery through the creation and promotion of her work. Although she isn’t showing her art at galleries, she is a star at Omaha maker’s markets.
Originally, she felt like that was a step backward because gallery-showings are a more traditional route for artists, but the uprising of local businesses and shopping markets has transformed the Omaha art scene in the last few years.
“That’s the route I want to go: making art that is affordable for everyone,” Mason says. “Customers you see a year ago will come to another event later on and look for your work. The fact that people are supportive makes it a great community for an artist to strive. Omaha is smaller, too, and in any bigger city, the art community might be oversaturated and too difficult for someone like me to blossom.”
Mason says she is excited to see Omaha provide a platform and a stage for artists of all varieties. She found there was a valuable inclusivity and community aspect in the city, and that has made all the difference.
Omaha’s scene of local, affordable art and business has set the primer for ethical business practices and more hands-on interaction with customers. Mason is able to communicate with shoppers from all over the metro area.
She has an option on her online store for a “local pickup,” where she hand-delivers work or invites people to meet her somewhere to converse when they purchase art. She often asks how they found her, if they see things on her social media pages and what they’d like to see in the future.
“People are really receptive,” she says.
What about those who aren’t? Art education—and the arts as a whole—are often the first to go with budget cuts, and under the newest White House administration, more are susceptible to be hit financially.
Mason says that while she has heard feedback that is less than polite, she has yet to experience any real pushback as an arts educator. However, if someone came to insult her craft, she’d be ready.
“I’d deal with it by saying that art is important in so many ways,” Mason says. “It teaches us about the world we live in, as well as other cultures that exist. Art has taught us about lost civilizations and things we would have never learned about otherwise. I would go to combat with that.”