Stories from middle America

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A glimpse of what’s on the way, on the corner of 9th and Dodge streets

It’s hard out there for the new kid. Fear of the unknown, fear of being unpopular, fear of being the weirdo eating alone in the cafeteria. The new kid wants to be liked, to be thought of as “cool” and to be invited to hang out. The new kid wants to fit in where all else has long been established.

In school, I was never the new kid. I was born and raised in the same town; I left when I was 19 years old. Looking back, I remember always wanting to be that new kid. I wanted to start fresh, to have a blank slate, so to speak, to be a new or better version of myself.

New kids always stirred things up. They showed up mid-year, right in the middle of our routine and breathed new life into the classroom. They didn’t know our stories or the daily dramas of our lives, and we didn’t know theirs. We saw them and accepted them for what they were: a newer, slightly different version of ourselves. And we couldn’t wait to hang out.

The restaurant industry isn’t so different from school. In any city across the country, new restaurants are popping up, trying to find a niche and make a name for themselves among the established. Diners are wary, unsure… yet interested in getting to know the new cuisine. And before you know it, the new kid in town becomes a place where regulars hang out.

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Sara Blake with LOCAL’s certified cicerone Eric Brouillette and co-owner Charlie Yin

That is the hope for my newest adventure. I was offered, and happily accepted, the position of Assistant General Manager to Omaha’s newest craft beer bar called LOCAL Beer, Patio and Kitchen. Our focus is Nebraska craft beer, and we can’t wait to share our stories with you. We’re taking over the former 9th Street Tavern location at 902 Dodge Street; Omaha’s gorgeous Old Market just blocks away.

We’re a little off the beaten path, but as the new kid, we have a lot going for us. Omaha superstar branding agency Secret Penguin has breathed new life into the space. We’ll will have at least 54 taps of outstanding craft beer, curated by Krug Park alum and Certified Cicerone Eric Brouillette, tasty bar food, prepared by Benson regular and chicken dad, Chef Ryan Kingkade. We’ll also have one of the best patios in the Old Market.

Much of our menu (which I’ve designed alongside Chef Kingkade) will be familiar — the usual suspects one finds in a bar: tasty burgers, chicken wings and tenders, sandwiches, salads and more. But I’m personally excited about our encased meats section of the menu. I admit it, I love hot dogs. There’s something so comforting, so nostalgic about eating a juicy, salty hot dog. Perhaps that’s the comfort and nostalgia I’m relying on when faced with the challenge of being the new kid in town.

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Sara with LOCAL co-owner Charlie Yin

I’m confident that LOCAL will have something for everyone. Whether that means a sunny spot on the patio holding a glass of your favorite double IPA, a seat at our bar with a basket of onion rings in front of you, or at a table with a flight of some of Nebraska’s best craft beers, I think this new kid is going to be one you’ll want to hang out with.

Matt Carlson

Photo via Mike DeKay for Grain & Mortar.

I certainly think one should have confidence in the work they produce, but if ego drives you more than authenticity, it’s usually pretty noticeable. So it’s always such a treat when really talented people also happen to be genuinely kind and gracious individuals as well. That couldn’t be more true when you’re talking about Omaha artist and graphic designer Matt Carlson.

I’ve worked with Matt on a couple of projects over the last few years. Most recently we collaborated on a set of limited edition prints for sale at the newly opened hutch store in Midtown Crossing. Fabulous to work with as well as an inspiring graphic designer at local studio Grain & Mortar, he agreed to do a little Q & A with me so I could introduce him to you guys!

midwest-made “Midwest Made” holiday letterpress coasters from Grain & Mortar.

COOP: Where are you from originally? Are you Midwest Made like your company boasts?

Matt: I am from Omaha. I’ve lived here all of my life. So yes, I am Midwest Made! My family has a lot of roots in the Midwest as well. So I guess it’s in my bones, baby! At Grain & Mortar, there’s this great sense of honoring these Midwestern values that we’ve grown up around or experienced from living in this area of the country. They (G & M) have been cultivating and crafting this really rich, industrial Midwestern aesthetic for many years, so it’s been fun for me to acclimate to that sort of vibe and experience how it permeates the studio and the work coming out of it. It’s pretty cool.

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COOP: What do you feel is the biggest difference between fine art and graphic design? It’s all art, but how does it feel working with a computer more than getting your hands dirty?

Matt: I think working on the computer is the biggest difference for me personally. I really have grown to love it, but for a while I thought that I would never get much out of it. Once I got to know the design programs that I now use everyday, it was a real lifesaver in terms of process.

I feel like I carry a strong background in drawing and painting into the design and illustration work I do, but yeah, the tactile experience of getting down and dirty with the materials is definitely gone. (For now at least!)

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COOP: How do you think you arrived at your personal style? Your illustrations and graphics have a fluid and somewhat quirky sense to them. Would you consider that accurate?

Matt: Probably just many years spent toiling away at different drawing and painting styles and experimenting with different materials. And being influenced from a young age by weird graphics and illustrations. Whether that be from skateboarding, cartoons, comics, pogs, streetwear, graffiti magazines, etc. In general, just a mix of ephemera from a lot of the subcultures I grew up on that had an influence on me. And I’ve always loved print… I just love paper and things printed on paper. So I get a lot of inspiration from found printed matter, and I think that has influenced my work in a lot of ways too. So yeah, I guess I would consider that accurate, that my work is “quirky,” but to me it’s just normal. I don’t see it as that weird, but I hear that a lot from other people, and I see where they’re coming from.

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COOP: What does your creative process look like?

Matt: Working in a design studio now, my creative process is a lot more collaborative and diverse in a lot of ways depending on the project at hand. Well, it’s a lot different now that I mostly work on a computer, but normally I try to force myself to do as much preliminary sketching as I can. Then I take a picture or scan it into the computer and start building out shapes and layers in Illustrator. Sometimes it feels more natural to just start designing on the computer and bypass any sketching, so that happens a lot too. I really enjoy texture and the surface quality of imagery, so adding that is usually an important part that comes toward the end.

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Limited edition prints styled by Birdhouse at hutch store. Photo via Dana Damewood Photography.

COOP: How did you arrive at the concepts for your limited edition prints featured at hutch?

Matt: Jessica reached out to me, and said she was looking for some local artists and craftspeople to create work for the new hutch store that was reopening in Midtown. I was really stoked about being asked to be a part but didn’t really want to show any old drawings or paintings at the time. So I thought it might be a great opportunity to do some screen prints.

We (me, Jessica, and Brandon) kicked around the idea together for a bit, figured out some of the logistics, and then I just started to think about the space and the type furniture and accessories coming out of the shop. That helped get the ball rolling in terms of style; sort of going for a more retro vibe that had some influence from midcentury modern graphics and design. I bounced some of my initial ideas off Jessica and just started working on the series. The idea for Still Life came first, and from there we crafted the idea that each poster would have the theme of “life” in it. We wanted there to be some overlap within the pieces, but collectively didn’t want it to feel so much like a “series.”

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COOP: Choose between these:

Beer or whiskey?
Matt: IPA. All. Day.

Leather or suede?
Matt: Leather

Punk rock or classical?
Matt: Classical

Pizza or hamburger?
Matt: Pizza. It’s just the best.

Money or power?
Matt: Definitely not power. So money!

Getting up early or staying up late?
Matt: Sleeping in.

That’s Matt Carlson from Grain & Mortar, everybody! Go check out his website at Plaid Mtn to see more of his fabulous work.

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Last weekend I made my way slightly south and hit up Kansas City’s First Friday events in their really rad Crossroads Arts District. I already thought Omaha needed a similar district (maybe develop Benson even more?), and now I’m one hundred percent convinced.

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Not my photo. Photo via Silly America.

The Crossroads Arts District has an interesting mix of galleries, pop-up shops, live music, complimentary booze and plenty of food trucks (including one with some funnel cake action) serving up the goods. And though I’m a lazy vegetarian (totally stole that phrase from Amanda), I was drooling, smelling whatever delicious meat scent was wafting my way from Town-Topic Hamburgers.

It was fun making my way through the lively streets crowded with an eclectic mix of people out supporting their community’s creative scene. I found the art a bit hit-or-miss (there was a lot to choose from), but there were a few artists and shows I found interesting.

I felt a little odd busting out my iPhone constantly taking photos, especially as a newbie to another city’s art game. But there were a few pieces I liked enough to brave the security guard staring at me while I clumsily attempted a decent shot.

Please enjoy my subpar photography skills.

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Brendan Cass. ‘Capri’, 2009. Acrylic on canvas. From Make Your Mark. 

Make Your Mark at the Kemper Museum featured artists from the Kemper Museum Of Contemporary Art’s permanent collection, and focused on the specific gestures and techniques employed to create their “signature mark.” I loved the color and movements in this exhibit. And I appreciated the concept that art, like other creative endeavors, is a lot about personal style.

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Also at the Kemper was a children’s exhibit from its Artreach collaborative program with the Center for Child Health and Development at the University of Kansas Medical Center. The program’s objective is “to provide opportunities for self-expression and communication through the visual arts.”

Children making art to feel good about themselves. Enough said.

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Sculpture by Ben Davis. Undergraduate thesis. 

Down in the basement of the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, I found an undergraduate thesis show of students graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute. Honestly, I thought it was some of the strongest work of the night. The room was a little gritty, and so was the art.

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Work by Peyton Pitts. Undergraduate thesis.

Overall, I really liked Peyton Pitts’ work. Her drawings and collages had a really cool tactile look and a crazy layered composition. They were a little like abstract puzzles where each piece alone had a little chapter, but all of them together told the entire story.

I’m looking forward to heading back to another Kansas City First Friday sometime in the summer. And hitting up a few Omaha and Lincoln Fridays as well.

It was a Monday, and Mondays are my day to work from home. Working from home usually equals me makeup-less in my PJs, sipping coffee at my computer. So you can imagine my surprise when I received a compliment from a stranger when I ran an errand to the post office on a Monday. In drop-crotch sweatpants, no less.

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“Can I give you a compliment?” the man asked. “You are beautiful.” Of course, that simple statement took my breath away, but it also sparked a whole lot of thinking. Thinking about my style, my life and my fashion.

I believe a stranger complimenting me on a day I chose a mediocre outfit is the direct result of small steps I’ve been taking lately to really, truly like the person I’m dressing. Purposeful steps to make my style so much more than fashion.

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Let me elaborate a bit. I’ve always been one to stay up on trends in the fashion world. Not too terribly long ago, I used that as a shield. You know, “if I have that particular dress I will feel better.” But at the end of the day, the dress never really made me feel better. It was a Band-Aid.

I’m not exactly sure what sparked things in my mind to align toward loving myself. But something’s changed my North Star. My point. My point is now to be wholly myself and live my life with the intent to be exactly that. So dressing myself has become a decision to express myself, not my fashion knowledge. I’m growing into a better version of myself and the need for that dress just isn’t there. Because my point is different.

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Life is good and hard and confusing and often frustrating, but what amazing discoveries it asks us to unfold. So I’ll be damned if I’m remembered for my outfits. I want to be remembered for the style with which I wore them.

I can’t sum it up any better than Caroline de Maigret in a recent Harper’s Bazaar interview:

“Fashion gets boring to talk about after five minutes, but style is so much more. I can go on about style for hours. Style is everything — culture, your personality and what you do — that’s what makes style. It’s who you are and how you want to be perceived by others.”

Photos by Amanda Rucker