Art Program in Omaha Makes Beautiful Connections on the West Papio Trail
Currently about 17.5 miles (without spurs), the West Papio Trail connects a collection of neighborhoods and cities on the edges of metro Omaha, from west Omaha southeast toward Millard, La Vista, Papillion and the Bellevue area, passing by the Bluestem Prairie Preserve and a handful of community parks while hugging close to the West Papillion, or Papio, Creek much of the way.
At its south end, it links with Omaha’s Keystone Trail, connecting the West Papio to the backbone of the Metro Area Trails System’s 120-mile paved trail network.
The latest connection on the West Papio Trail brings with it the latest additions to a community-wide effort to spread public art along the Omaha-area trail system. Both can be found beneath a bridge that crosses heavily trafficked Harrison Street. On one side, some 17 characters stand atop one another’s cartoonish shoulders on a set of three bridge piles. On the other side, a runner and cyclist keep pace with a roaring locomotive. Both were created by artists who work with the Kent Bellows Mentoring Program, a nonprofit collaboration run by Omaha’s renowned Joslyn Art Museum.
Katie Temple, manager of the Kent Bellows Mentoring Program at the Joslyn, said that over 40 murals have been installed in Omaha public spaces throughout the program’s history. One benefit, she said, is that graffiti tends to decrease in the areas surrounding the installations. Another is that the public art program provides not only an outlet, but also a paying job, to talented street artists “for work they love to do.”
Artists Dan Crane and Hugo Zamorano worked with teams of area high school artists on the murals. Crane and his crew created the set of characters, “Papio Trail Critter Totems,” which include a speed-walking frog, train-hoisting redhead and sunglasses-wearing sun. Zamorano and his students designed “Transcend,” which—according to Zamorano—was an effort to connect the trails present and future to its past as a portion of the transcontinental railroad. (Read a feature story on the West Papio Trail and its history as a former corridor along the transcontinental railroad in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Rails to Trails.
Zamorano’s connection to the Kent Bellows program runs long. Before he got his art degree at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and became one of the program’s mentors, he was one of the first students to participate in the street art program developed there by former Kent Bellows Education Coordinator Weston Thomas.
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"Street art was a natural form of expression for a lot of these kids," Thomas told the Omaha World-Herald in 2010, when Zamorano was a high school senior in the program. "I knew at that point that there was a need for some kind of graffiti program."
Zamorano was one of those students. Prior to joining the program, he was excelling in art class but in need of other outlets. Police caught him tagging a building. Soon after, his art teacher offered to help set up an interview with the Bellows program. Zamorano was interested in part because he was on probation and “it was a good way to be out of being locked up at home.”
At first, Zamorano honed drawing and painting skills through the Kent Bellows Mentorship Program. As the street art element grew within the program, he became one of the first to work on murals there. “I feel like it prepped me not only artistically—with spray paint and a lot of other mediums I was able to use there—but (also) collaboratively, being able to work with other people,” he said.
Zamorano’s works can now be found throughout the Omaha area, and you can hear him talk about his evolution as an artist on TEDx Talks. (“The first time that I picked up the spray can, it was something different,” he said in his talk. “It changed my life completely.”)
With “Transcend,” he said he began the project the way he does with all public art projects. He sought information about the history of the area, learning generally about the transcontinental railroad. And he asked his students what statement they want to make as well. That research and those conversations led to the pairing of locomotive and racer and cyclist.
“I tell them this is a public piece of art, so you want to consider that, but this is a chance for you to speak your voice or say what you want to the rest of the world,” said Zamorano.
To view a map of all the public murals created through the program, go to the Kent Bellows Mentorship Program website.