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Capitol holiday tree ornaments show diversity, history of state

November 20, 2018

Nebraska artists have paid tribute to the people, places and history of the state with newly designed ornaments for the holiday tree that goes up each year in the Capitol Rotunda.

The ornaments’ designs feature Nebraskans from Malcolm X to Chief Red Cloud to Willa Cather, and places from the South Omaha Stockyards to the State Fair to Nebraska waterways. Their designs range in mediums from paint, mosaic, collage, sculpture, metal, fiber and glass.

Liz Shea-McCoy worked with Nebraska first lady Susanne Shore to invite artists to submit their designs for ornaments. They could submit up to five designs, which were 11 inches by 5 inches, in the shape of the state.

Of the 316 proposals submitted by Nebraska artists across the state, 166 designs were selected. A public display of the ornaments is scheduled for 1-5 p.m. Dec. 2 in the Capitol Rotunda, and many of the artists are planning to attend, Shea-McCoy said.

MJ Hansen, a 19-year-old art education major at Nebraska Wesleyan University, got the inspiration for the ornaments he submitted from the Dreamland Ballroom, a premier night club of the past that offered big bands and live jazz in Nebraska. The ballroom was on the second floor of the historic Jewell building on North 24th Street in Omaha.

The Dreamland Ballroom featured performances by touring jazz and blues legends, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington and Lionel Hampton.

Hansen is originally from Kansas City, but is living in Lincoln to attend Wesleyan. He submitted five sketches, of which two were chosen.

“I’m really interested (in) the relationship between music and art,” Hansen said. “My goal is to make artworks you can hear or that give a sense of sound.”

Nebraska artist Tammy Miller of Milford created three ornaments: “Migration,” “Abstract Corn” and “The Land Belongs to the Future,” based on a quote by Willa Cather.

“The project was inspiring as it gave voice to artists,” Miller said. “Each piece was a treasure and a tiny window into the very private soul of an artist and their interpretation of Nebraska.”

Aakriti Agrawa, who is originally from India, created two ornaments: “Early Survival” and “Celebrating Diversity.”

“I’m so excited to have the honor to create two ornaments for the state’s holiday tree and share my unique art style with Nebraska,” Agrawa said. “Being from outside of Nebraska and having this opportunity is perfectly representative of the welcoming nature of Nebraskans.”

A number of the ornaments featured animals, from prehistoric giants to buffalo that roamed the state, to those at the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.

Artist Michelle Hrbek honored the herds of buffalo that roamed freely and the south central Nebraska county that paid tribute to their existence.

She also paid tribute to one of the top zoos in the nation, Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. She drew a primate, giraffe, elephant and butterfly. She also featured the state’s Wyuka Cemetery, drawn from the sculpture of an angel on the grounds, and on the back of the ornament a small painting of the chapel’s stained glass window.

Anna Alcalde of Lincoln dedicated her offering to the more than 600,000 Sandhill cranes that settle on the Platte River Valley each spring to feed and rest before resuming their northward migration.

The artist also painted “Nebraska, the Good Life,” a colorful swirl of icons and memories from her grandparents’ farm by the Niobrara River. And she artistically recreated the Ponca Trail of Tears and Chief Standing Bear’s memorable courthouse statement, “I am a man.”

The statement, she wrote, is still applicable to current times and resonates in her soul today.

Richard Terrell of Lincoln looked to the agricultural heritage of the state with a black and white rendition of corn stalks.

“I am a city boy,” he wrote, “raised in the Chicago suburb of Bellwood, and am quite ignorant of agricultural processes and products, except the process of eating them.”

But corn is big in Nebraska, so he decided to fill the ornament with it, using a photo of corn planted in the garden area of Eastmont Towers, where he lives with his wife.

Jayden Arthur drew Sitting Bull to showcase the state’s Native culture.

Lisa Trout Kammerer honored the story of Nebraska native son Malcolm X and his connection to Nebraska. The background of the ornament uses the colors of the Black Liberation Flag because he was an advocate of Black Nationalism.

“His natural intellect, passion for learning, and hard work propelled him to success as an influential minister and powerful proponent of civil rights,” Kammerer wrote about the piece.

The holiday tree lighting ceremony for the public is scheduled for Dec. 9, but the Dec. 2 event will give people an opportunity to see “these beautiful Nebraska treasures, up close and personal, before they are a part of the tree,” Shea-McCoy said.

The new ornaments are in celebration of Nebraska’s next 150 years as a state, said Capitol Tourism Supervisor Roxanne Smith.

She and Shore had discussed the idea of continuing the celebration of Nebraska’s 150th birthday following the 2017 tree lighting ceremony, and the idea of creating new ornaments for the state’s tree was developed.

She chose Shea-McCoy, who had just completed the successful Hearts Across Nebraska Project celebrating the 150th birthday of Nebraska, to carry out the vision. They decided Nebraska should be the canvas for the ornaments representing all the various aspects of the state.

A Christmas holiday tradition, the Rotunda tree has been decorated with ornaments representing Nebraska’s 93 counties since the 1970s.

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