Stories from middle America

Deborah Kass

Deborah Kass,  feel good paintings for feel bad times. Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans.

I turned thirty-two in August. That event bookended a summer full of conversations with my good friend, Amanda. We kept coming back to the idea that we were feeling a bit stagnant personally (though not necessarily professionally) and would bounce ideas about ways to push ourselves creatively.

After a couple of bourbons, we developed elaborate plans to visit Puerto Rico, complete a yoga retreat in Bali, or take a road trip across the United States.

That birthday, and those conversations, have sparked a maddening desire to challenge myself scholastically. Something that forces me to grow and learn about the world, meet new people, and better understand art and its history. I thought about going to graduate school, but I really don’t want to have student loans screwing with me until I’m fifty.

Instead I’m thinking more like an Eat, PrayLove moment, minus the pasta (and, hopefully, the self-absorption).

I have a new goal: visit as many art galleries and museums, and talk to as many artists and makers, in as many cities (including Omaha) as I possibly can over the next two years. Kind of like an independent study, where I’m developing my own curriculum and can go at my own pace. And hopefully share most of these experiences with other people.

I’m not referencing my age because I think I’m old. I love being in my thirties. My birthday, however, was the catalyst toward this weird realization that I’m an independent adult. And a very fortunate one, too. I’m in a position where I might have a friend or family member who I could stay with in another city. Or I could have an opportunity to work on a project somewhere new and exciting.

After years of networking I have developed some fantastic relationships with people who could put me in positions to meet other fantastic people. I can spend my budget how I choose and don’t have to care for anyone else besides my dog. I understand that it would be harder to do as I please if that weren’t the case.

My mother and I recently took a lovely trip to Santa Fe where we visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. I’m marking that as a start date for this endeavor. (I almost used the word journey there. Don’t worry. I gave myself the side-eye and tried to make a less clichéd diction choice.)

Birdhouse is working on a fun project in New Orleans and a couple of weeks ago I ventured down south to work on it. While there, I was able to attend Art for Art’s Sake with my friend and project manager, Amanda.* I’ll share more about that soon.

Finally, today I’m headed with Amanda (from the first paragraph) and another Jessica to California. We’re making stops in LA and San Francisco. The LACMA and the Legion of Honor are on our agenda.

Now I need to get packing.

*Because if you are an American female born in the 1980s, there’s a good chance that your name is Amanda or Jessica.


When I asked COOP’s editor and founder, Jessica McKay, to discuss the books that have impacted her life, I fully (yet foolishly) expected titles on interior design, gardening, and food.

A quick scan of the five titles below shows just how wrong my thinking was.

“When I began narrowing down my list, I felt incredibly overwhelmed,” Jessica says. “I’m a person who loves a lot of stuff. More specifically, I’m someone who loves pop culture. And inevitably, as I started thinking about my list, the books assumed other meanings. My selected titles crossed over into music, art, television, and movies.”


On Life’s Many Lessons
The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

This is one of my favorite books. It’s surreal, funny, and reminds me how we’re just little nuggets in this overwhelmingly vast universe.

If you can get past the absurdity (which is the entire point), Adams also brings up some pretty important concepts. You have to ask the right question to get the right answer. Sometimes you randomly find yourself in very important roles and should try to do your best. And, most importantly, don’t panic.

The movie is not awesome, just in case you were thinking, “Yeah, I totally know that story.” Nope. You would be wrong. It’s actually a shame; the cast is pretty spot-on. Read the book. Then read the rest of the trilogy (in all five parts).


On Personal Growth
If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! by Sheldon B. Kopp

This book is not for the faint of heart. It’s pretty heavy-handed at times and feels much more like a New Age textbook on psychology than a light-hearted bedtime read.

I read this in college and it hardly stayed with me. Recently, however, I decided to read it again. Partly because I loved the television series, Fringe, and the character of Peter (played by Joshua Jackson, also known for portraying the adorable Pacey from “Dawson’s Creek”) referenced it. And also because I really was looking to find a few answers to life’s many questions.

The conclusion is that only you can guide yourself through personal growth. In other words (and to tie-in some pop culture), “the force is with you, always.”


On Fitting In (Or Not)
The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd

Chip Kidd is a famous graphic designer best known for his book covers. This is his first novel which is loosely based on his own experiences attending art school at a state university. Since I read this while taking art classes at New Mexico State University, it seems pretty clear why I found this relatable.

While it’s certainly not the most amazing book of all time, it is enjoyable and will feel familiar to anyone who didn’t quite fit in with the art school kids.


On Life’s Soundtrack
Songbook by Nick Hornby

I honestly feel like I have a soundtrack to my life, and it sort of freaks me out when I meet other people who don’t. All of my closest relationships have been with people who feel music is a powerful communication tool.

Nick Hornby is obviously a great writer (High Fidelity, About A Boy). But the way he curates his life playlist and relays its transformative powers is enviable.

While I may not echo the entire playlist, Rufus Wainwright’s cover of his father’s “One Man Guy” makes Hornby’s cut. And it’s easy to see why. All at once it is haunting, truthful, and strangely optimistic.

Bonus points: Listen to Loudon Wainwright’s “The Days That We Die.” It’s an observation on how sometimes it really is more important to be kind and forgiving than right.


On Romance
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Duh?! What woman didn’t imagine herself as the strong-willed heroine whose humor and stubbornness attracted the handsome Mr. Darcy? It’s high-brow chick lit. And I’m certainly not above a good romance from time to time.

Side note: I am easily entertained by most things zombie; however, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith is terrible. Steer clear of that shit.


I met the gentlemen from hutch just over a year ago. Birdhouse had been asked to help stage a press tent for the Maha Music Festival last summer, and while we were brainstorming interesting furniture stores to tap into, I remembered that hutch had just opened up at Midtown Crossing. They had great pieces and were also incredibly helpful with our project.

We all immediately clicked.

And after a few more pop-up event collaborations, I realized they were very much my people. Fast forward a year, now hutch is moving to a much bigger space at Midtown Crossing and Birdhouse is moving in with them!

Birdhouse will have a separate design studio within the 4,300 sq ft space where we’ll continue to operate our full-service firm. We will also help curate and vignette the main hutch showroom. (Which is going to be so much fun because hutch is bringing in some fantastic new furniture options!)

We’ve all decided that growing our businesses separately, but in close relation, is a way we can continue to inspire and challenge each other to give Omaha an amazing resource for furniture, art and design.

We had a little Q&A the other day and shared our motivations and excitement about this step forward.

COOP (Jessica): I know why I wanted to collaborate and move in with you fellas: our services are very complementary, we have similar tastes in furniture, art and design (yet, different which makes it fun!), we work together really well, we all are very interested in making our community a better place and you guys are super weird so we’re constantly laughing together.

But, why did you both want to cozy up to Birdhouse?

hutch: I think it’s really easy to tell why we wanted to partner together on a professional level, but that’s not even what’s most important. The gals at Birdhouse are true class acts, with style for days. We also inspire each other in a really fun way. From the first event we ever worked on in the summer of 2013, it already felt like we were a team. It feels really good to be able to continue that chemistry, and fuel both of our business ventures.

COOP: Obviously, we’ve chatted about the look and feel of our new digs and each company plans on bringing our individual vibe to the space. For example, Birdhouse will have a separate studio within the space that might be designed differently than the main hutch showroom. How do you think that will accommodate our customers and clients?

hutch: Style constantly evolves between every person, culture and time period. It’s a form of expression that can be found in fashion, design, architecture, writing, dance and every other form of creativity. It’s very important to showcase what style is important to you. Our styles seem to come together in a really exciting way. We hope Omaha uses hutch + Birdhouse’s Swiss army knife of quality products and services to complete their living spaces.

COOP: Why do you feel Omaha is a good market for our shared venture?

hutch: Omaha is budding with talent and creatives, who all seem to want to support each other. By collaborating, we hope to create a brand where we all can form and showcase all of our talents together. There also has been this momentum shift happening in Omaha, and nationwide, with an emphasis on local, found objects and Eco-friendly materials. We believe that Omaha’s big city/small town vibe is the perfect place to mold this concept.

COOP: Birdhouse has always worked with fine artists and makers because we believe in the value of their goods, providing clients with original pieces, and investing in people! I think sometimes the people behind-the-scenes get lost in a fast moving, mass-produced world. Learning about artists’ creative processes and understanding the time it takes to create pieces is a really important step to start supporting them more in our city.

Why do you want to work with local artists and makers to sell their pieces in hutch?

hutch: Since day one, hutch has striven to support our community of creatives and makers. There is amazing talent here in Omaha; talent that in our opinion, needs to be showcased and supported. All made objects have a story, and we like that.

COOP: Finally, and it’s the most important question of all; how much fun did you have going to the Sleigh Bells concert together?

hutch: Infinity.

Photo by Joshua Foo

Over the years I’ve practiced yoga sporadically, but it never became a consistent part of my life until last year. I was going through some pretty difficult personal issues and my best friend (a seasoned yogi) recommended that I take some classes. She thought it would help me focus on my inner strength and create balance in my life.

My friend was absolutely right! I hate to sound cheesy, but following a dedicated yoga practice (2-3 times a week) has completely changed my emotional well-being. There is something insanely empowering about feeling your body become stronger and support itself in so many poses. I’ve learned to breathe into my uncomfortableness and have faith in myself. I’ve started “letting go of the things that no longer serve me.”

After reconnecting with Stefanie Monge, she invited me to a community yoga class she holds every Monday night ($5 donation) at the Sweatshop Gallery. I love the vibe in the space and the lack of pretension.

Stefanie, the founder of Welcor Enterprise Yoga, is passionate about her teachings and it is contagious. Thankfully, she is starting a little series on COOP, with motivational ideas for mindful living.

Learn more about her story, in her own words below.


At 27, I was head of PR and Marketing for a tech start-up. I made great money. I had a ton of friends. And I was totally unhappy. At the time, I thought I was living the life. But I wasn’t living at all. I was too busy chasing after what I didn’t have and worrying about things I couldn’t control. I was constantly going, surrounded by people so I could drown out the inner voice that kept telling me there was something more waiting for me.

That voice grew louder as I began to practice yoga more regularly. I got back in touch with who I really was and what I really wanted out of life. I started to practice mindfulness – simply paying attention to what I was doing and my surroundings.

I realized that when we move through life awake instead of just going through the motions, we see that the universe is constantly sending us cues. Pointing us towards our next move. Giving us the courage to take chances and follow our dreams even when the outcome seems uncertain.

This ultimately led me to quit my job, sell almost everything I owned and buy a one-way ticket around the world. I never could’ve dreamed the adventures that awaited me over the next 2-years traveling and then returning to start a business.


Studying yoga and meditation in India and Nepal I learned that these are inclusive, not exclusive, practices. I learned that the physical poses in yoga (asanas) are merely a preparation of the body to sit in meditation. I learned that anytime we devote our full awareness to whatever we’re doing we are practicing mindfulness, a form of meditation.

Most importantly, I learned that yoga and meditation aren’t reserved for the fit, flexible and calm, but are meant for everyone. We just have to start from wherever we are today. And know this is called practice for a reason.


Meditate in 2-Minutes A Day

The breath is a powerful tool to help us begin to practice meditation. Sit with closed eyes and observe the air as it flows in and out of your nostrils. Know that it’s normal to feel distracted. As your mind starts to wander, gently guide your awareness back to the breath without any judgement.

Set a timer for 2 minutes to start. You can extend the time as you get more comfortable. Practice in the morning, before bed or anytime you need to take a break. Happy meditating! Namaste.

Photos by Bridget McQuillan.

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