Art Hub

Neon butterfly wings flutter freely along one side of a rectangular building, a band of children laugh and jump rope on the other.

Drawing inspiration from migratory monarch butterflies, artist David Manzanares painted the red, yellow and orange background of his mural, “Rising Monarchs,” to emulate the colors of their wings. The elementary-aged group of children seen in the image are monarchs of another sort, Manzanares said, traveling from foreign places and making new homes like wandering butterflies.

Sometimes, Manzanares added, immigration feels as tiring as the game of jump rope depicted in the mural. It’s a visual that the Mexico native has experienced firsthand after living in Nebraska for just two years.

“The people jumping rope are to represent the ups and downs of when you are a migrant and you’re moving from place to place,” Manzanares said. “I’ve been through ups and downs and those feelings of getting adapted.”

Manzanares created his vivid piece on the side of the South of Downtown Community Development organization, a building that holds a community development program called the Art Hub. Community art organizer Kat Wiese said artwork like Manzanares’ can create a moment of artistry beyond the visual sphere.

“You can take something like a mural and use it as an opportunity for two neighbors to get to know one another and to add beauty,” Wiese said. “What you’re really impacting is the sense of safety and the sense of community pride.”

Since October 2018, the South of Downtown Art Hub has been organizing community art projects, classes and other unifying events to bring awareness and celebration to Lincoln’s cultural diversity. Much like the murals, these classes and connection opportunities aim to bring residents in the South of Downtown neighborhood a sense of security and connection in one of Lincoln’s most ethnically diverse areas.

“We have so many different cultures present in our neighborhood that it’s really just about celebrating and building understanding around cultural traditions and perceptions,” Wiese said.

Not far from the organization sits Everett Elementary School, a brick building with large, stone pillars. Wiese said the school consists of 40% Hispanic students — the highest percentage in Lincoln. Everett is part of the Art Hub’s focus area and the program’s staff makes an effort to reach out to those residents and listen to their needs through canvassing.

While going door-to-door throughout the district, Wiese said her team heard neighbors express a fondness of the heritage many of the immigrant residents share. On the other hand, some told Wiese and her team they felt a divide between the families next door who spoke a different language, even adding it made them feel unsafe.

“And a lot of times we’ll hear, ‘My neighborhood has a lot of diverse people. My neighbor speaks Spanish and I speak Spanish, and it’s really nice to be able to have a community where we share language,’” Wiese said. “And then in the same breath they’ll say, ‘but my other neighbor — I don’t know them, and I don’t feel very safe.’”

Wiese said residents’ perception of whether or not their neighborhood is safe directly correlates with how well the occupants know one another.

“A lot of times safety is linked directly to a lack of connection. And we’re seeing that again and again,” Wiese said. “I think in our neighborhoods specifically, there’s a gap between the perception of safety and the reality of safety.”

After listening to the community’s needs, Art Hub staff can assess which programs will be most beneficial. By creating opportunities for connection through the Art Hub and its events, Wiese and her team hope to unite its focus areas. This not only improves a sense of security, Wiese said, but pride among the residents for where they live. 

Oftentimes, community-building presents itself in the form of bilingual art classes — courses that provide a creative outlet for English and Spanish speakers alike. 

According to Wiese, these poetry, sculpture and painting workshops are a haven for neighbors of all ages, backgrounds and languages to participate in a culturally diverse and meaningful experience. All the while, participants are able to explore their creativity and identity.

While attending South of Downtown’s bilingual poetry classes, participants of all ages, races and languages are encouraged to create and share poetry with one another, often harboring discussions about identity.

Wiese recalled one poetry class in particular where she was able to see the power of voices in a community through confidently empowered neighbors of all races and ages. The class, she said, was a triumph.

“It was just beautiful to see all these residents really invested in the power of their own voices and sharing their ideas and their thoughts and the things that they loved,” Wiese said. “I don’t know that impacts for community building always have to be this grand gesture of building better infrastructure on some street with a bunch of huge buildings. It can also be a poetry class or investing in the voices of our residents.”

Sometimes the small gestures speak great volumes, Wiese said. Gestures like Manzanares’ mural of immigrant school children on the side of a community center.

Manzanares teaches bilingual art classes offered at the South of Downtown Community Development organization. As a resident in the South of Downtown neighborhood, Manzanares also makes sure to showcase his talents at Everett, where his three boys attend school.

Some children Manzanares met through teaching classes share his experience of the hills and valleys of immigration. The young, beaming faces of specific children were painted into the picture next to Wiese. In the painting, Wiese holds one side of the rope, offering them support with her outstretched arm and steady hand.

Encouragement administered through cultural artwork is significant, Manzanares said, and programs like the Art Hub create relevant experiences for exploring diversity and identity. Through his art, Manzanares said he’s able to find satisfaction in properly telling his story where syllables lack and sentences fall short.

“With art, we share some things that we feel. Sometimes words are not enough so we like to have the visual element … It’s meaningful,” Manzanares said. “I’m a part of the culture, but I’m also a part of the art.”

This article is part of a series on diversity. For the complete list, read the introduction.