Mighty Missouri an inspiration for artist

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July 13th, 2011

Omaha, NE – It started out as a trip along the Missouri, but the Mighty Mo’s flooded banks set this artist off course.

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Kjell Peterson is a transplant to Omaha. Originally from Olympia, Washington, Peterson moved from California to Nebraska to find a quiet, open space where he could concentrate on his artwork.

“Omaha really wasn’t on my map,” he said. “I guess I sort of naively was thinking I’d move somewhere in the middle of the country, where there’s nothing around. Like everybody knows, there’s nothing here, there’s just plains and grass. And it’ll be perfect because there’ll be no distractions, I won’t know anybody. I’ll just be able to sit here and make my art.”

Kjell Peterson starting to lay out his portraits of friends and people he met along the way. (Photo by Josh Korth)

But Nebraska was not as quiet as Peterson had guessed, particularly, when he turned to the state’s wildlife and rivers. Peterson had planned a boating trip on the Missouri, where he would canoe on a handmade craft down the river to New Orleans. But then the river flooded, in a massive way.

“As the time got closer to the summer, it was just looking worse and worse,” he said. “And I was talking to the Coast Guard, and they were saying oh, well, we’re not enforcing any closures, but we’d highly discourage you from doing anything like that, in a canoe.”

Peterson said he was drawn to the river, as a means to find himself in a foreign place. It’s a search for identity that’s reflected in his artwork.

“You can get into that river, and you can look on either side of you, and all you see is this forest,” he said. “And you can pretend that it’s all there is. I think it’s kind of a source for you to invent yourself.”

Though Peterson never made it down the Missouri, he has collected and created pieces that reflect his connection to the water, and his continued search for self. His work is on display in a new exhibit at the Bemis Underground opening Friday. It includes his handmade canoe, and photographs of people and places along some of Nebraska’s rivers.

Photos by Josh Korth

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