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Omaha Magazine

Place Mats to Portfolios: The Teacher Who Never Stops Learning

Aug 31, 2020 08:31AM ● By Tara Spencer
Joe Pankowski in front of Kent Bellows Studio

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Artists come to art in a variety of ways. For Joe Pankowski, it seems to have started on restaurant place mats. 

“I’ve always liked drawing a lot. It’s just a way to keep me busy,” he said. When he was younger, his parents kept the paper place mats he’d draw on at restaurants. He said many were car drawings, with “lots of swirly smoke coming out the back.”

While his parents cherished those earlier works, Pankowski said, “They didn’t know what an art kid was supposed to do.” Fortunately, his art teacher at Bryan High School, Karen Drickey, did. “She saw that I was interested in it and wanted me to do more about it.”

Regular readers will know Otis Twelve (aka Douglas Wesselman), who writes  the “Not Funny” column for Omaha Magazine. However, they may not be as familiar with Pankowski’s work creating animated videos illustrating Wesselman’s words. He created these shorts for the magazine for just over two years, and they remain on Omaha Magazine’s YouTube and Vimeo channels. 

“What was nice about the Otis Twelve stuff was I had this written down thing, and I could just…figure out how to make it animated.” A low-profile guy who is rather quiet and unassuming, Pankowski’s quirky animation was a perfect fit for the often absurdist tone of Wesselman’s column. 

While every video opened the same, with Wesselman stating the title of the column in his deeply resonant voice, each one was unique, taking their cues from the text. However there were often unexpected twists, such as in one video on barbecue that opens with a red heart pumping on a black background. 

Pankowski said his interest in creating videos didn’t manifest until later in life, when he attended University of Nebraska at Omaha to get his bachelor’s degree. He credits former teachers Russ Nordman and Jody Boyer with inspiring him in that area, and for pushing him to do more, adding that Boyer still sends him messages suggesting places to submit his work.

Boyer, who is currently an adjunct instructor in art and art history at UNO, said helping people is a part of her personality. However, she added, “He’s a pretty special person and he has an enormous amount of talent…I send him things to push him, because he’s also not someone to toot his own horn, so to speak.” 

Fortunately, he has people in his life who are willing to do that for him.

Nordman, a professor of media arts at UNO (and Boyer’s husband), also believes there is something unique about Pankowski. 

“With some students you see this sort of progression, as far as the concepts behind the art that they make, and you see this development of skill,” he said. But with Pankowski, “He was always at sort of an advanced stage…It’s like he came to us already thinking like a mature artist.”

While his conceptual side of creating has always been strong, the tools he’s used have varied. However, Nordman added, he is zeroing in on certain techniques and ways of doing things. 

Video is one area he may be honing in on. Though he is no longer making videos for this magazine, Pankowski is still interested in pursuing that avenue. He said ideally he’d love to create more animation videos. “Right now I’m trying to get a song from somebody and make like, a music video or animation for that.”

The 37-year-old hasn’t been without a sketchbook since high school, where drawing helped him concentrate in class. “It just kind of focuses me,” he said. “It’s kind of a meditation.”

That focus paid off. The Omaha native went on to get his master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Illinois and now teaches art at UNO, Metropolitan Community College, and Creighton University. 

Pankowski added working at Joslyn Art Museum’s Kent Bellows Mentoring Program to his schedule in January. He said he is new to mentoring in an official capacity, though he added that he believes he has helped guide his students through his experience as an artist. 

Boyer would agree with this. She said she thinks his students are responsive to him “because he doesn’t have a lot of artifice.”

“He teaches to the strengths of studio artists,” she said. “And he’s prolific—he makes a lot of stuff.”

Pankowski said Katie B. Temple, whom he knew from an Artist INC. fellowship through Amplify Arts, reached out to ask him about becoming a mentor at Kent Bellows. He said he was available at the time, and thought it would be a great way to be out in the arts community, something he isn’t always good about. 

“I wish I was more active [in Omaha’s art scene], and it’s been tough,” he said, admitting that while it’s been more difficult after having two children, he may also be using that as an excuse. “I know I need to get out more and interact with people. It’s not that hard, and when I do it feels better—just to go to art shows and talk to people.”

Pankowski said he likes helping other artists. “I like mentoring because I was once a young person who had great supportive parents, but who knew little about how to be an artist or even understood how artists make a living,” he said. “I had art teachers and college advisers that I learned from that directed me to where I [am] today. Without them I don’t know what I would be doing.” 

Now he has experiences he can share with people who are on similar paths. “It is reciprocal as well. Mentees become artists that I have a connection with now, and that leads to more opportunities.” 

Visit joepankowski.com for more information.

This article was printed in the September 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.