Benson artists set up on the street

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July 9th, 2012

Omaha, NE – A place for young artists, of every genre, to show off their work is now open on the streets of Benson.

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“This is where most of the activity’s going to be happening.”

Alex Jochim is a bartender, local artist and organizer of Benson First Friday. On a sweltering afternoon this past Friday, he opened the door, sweat dripping into his mop of curly hair, to what was a vacant storefront just off Maple St. in downtown Benson.

The room is dusty and smells a bit like… dogs. Which makes sense, the store used to be a pet shop.
“It definitely needs a facelift a little bit,” Jochim said with a laugh. “But we see it.”

Alex Jochim, co-founder of Benson First Friday, sets up a kissing booth he will man later in the evening to help raise funds for the event. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

Jochim leased the building so that he and a group of fellow artists could turn it into gallery space. Next door, he and co-organizer Jamie Hardy have already cleaned up a second space and turned it into, as a namesake, the “Pet Shop Gallery.” The gallery (2725 N. 62nd St.) is the starting point for the First Friday art walk.

“A lot of cities have a First Friday walk,” Jochim said. “It’s just something you can depend on; you don’t have to remember a date. It’s just First Friday, it’s happening. After a while, hopefully, the promo will go down. It just naturally feeds itself.”

The new Pet Shop Gallery is the starting point for the art walk and one of the few gallery spaces in Benson. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

Benson’s first First Friday kicked off in June. It’ll be a year-round event designed to showcase local artists of all kinds. While Omaha’s Old Market already has a First Friday of its own, Hardy said Benson’s will be a little more “cutting edge,” one that shows off the neighborhood as a burgeoning creative hotspot.

“We have such a good, young art community,” Hardy said. “We knew that we could do this here. And we have the support of the community.”

“Benson’s our neighborhood,” Jochim said.

Later that night, the Benson neighborhood did come out. The heat continued well after the sun went down, but dozens of people walked through make-shift galleries, while DJs spun records on street corners and fashion designers turned walkways into catwalks. A few blocks down, Jill Bunnimit manned an Artists Market, set up in another soon-to-be-restored Benson space: the Benson Theater.

“We pour our free time into making things that we just enjoy making,” Bunnimit said. “For me, it’s like they sit around in my house not doing anything.” Bunnimit referred to Etsy.com, an online marketplace for handmade goods, but said it’s too saturated to make an impact. “So it’s really hard to make sales because you’re not connecting with people,” she said. “And here, we have a unique thing, we’re all from Omaha. We all make things in Omaha.”

“Benson’s our neighborhood”

Benson First Friday kicked off in June, and is set to run each month year-round. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

The Artists Market featured clothes from a vintage clothing store a few blocks west, Lion’s Mane Vintage (6607 Maple St.), along with jewelry and paintings from artists around town. Bunnimit said open settings like this encourage less established artists to showcase their work – with a little more freedom.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect; it doesn’t have to be fine art,” she said. “That I think attracts a lot of younger artists, who maybe aren’t even formally trained, that just want to get involved with something.”
“It’s a little more freedom of speech here,” she said.

For now at least, that freedom of speech also involves a lot of kissing on the streets. Back at the Pet Shop Gallery, Alex Jochim donned an appropriately campy leather vest at a makeshift kissing booth. Along with selling t-shirts, it’s one of the few fundraisers the group has to keep the art walk going. So far, he said, the money was rolling in.

“Look at this stack,” he said, flashing a wad of dollar bills. “This is for a new floor.”

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