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Omaha Magazine

A Snapshot on Canvas: Josephine Langbehn Teaches, Paints, and Dances Through History

Oct 05, 2020 10:19AM ● By Kamrin Baker
Josephine Langbehn and artwork

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A popular quote by Albert Einstein poses that a cluttered workspace equals a creative, genius mind. But Josephine Langbehn’s workspace is neat; a third of a studio space inside Hot Shops Art Center, a simple, subdued white wall highlighting a small supply cart topped with acrylic paint, brushes, and a small bag of almonds. A few paintings line the side of the room like beautiful, blown-up versions of the old photographs grandmas keep in boxes in their attics.  

Langbehn’s workspace isn’t cluttered, but it is full—of meaning, story, and intention. 

Her work echoes that style. Langbehn paints people in grayscale against stark white backgrounds. She is inspired by old photographs and the stories they contain within their grainy interiors.

“When I was little, I was always asking my mom to bring out photographs, really old ones from the early 1900s, 1920s, ’50s, you name it,” Langbehn said. “I loved them. The grayscales, the aesthetic of an old photograph, the white frame that goes around them. Even the thickness of the paper, I always thought was really cool—that vintage quality has always stuck with me.”

While the curious, collective quality of old photographs drew Langbehn in, the stories of the people in the images kept her imagination on a hamster wheel, and she began churning out immaculate, realistic grayscale portraits. 

Some have faces, others are odes to family members (a piece depicting three generations of women in her family adorns the wall as one of the sole hangings in her workspace), and all of them add a dimension to the similar pieces of film that exist in almost every American household.

“There is so much we can learn from others,” Langbehn said. “I took time to dig through family trees and gave a dialogue to those stories.”

Langbehn is a natural documentarian (she was a yearbook editor during her time at Benson High School), aching to learn more, to share more, and to expand her understanding of the human experience. Entering her 13th year of art education, she has taken her perspective to an array of middle and elementary school classrooms in Omaha Public Schools—and now Gretna Public Schools. 

“At first, my own artwork went on the back burner because I was so busy with lesson planning and relationship building in the classroom,” she said. “But it all connects.”

Langbehn has used her professional experiences to bring a more honest approach to the classroom, encouraging her students to write artist statements about their work, be able to discuss art, and come up with original ideas. 

“Middle schoolers are at such a special place of self-discovery, and the little kids are so excited to explore without judgement,” Langbehn said. “It just shows that art is self-expression, and you can have multiple answers that are all great answers. Nothing needs to look the same.”

Langbehn’s coworker John Balcer, a Palisades Elementary music teacher, said he works alongside Langbehn to collaborate on art and music curriculum for students.

“Her immersion in the Omaha art scene has had a keen impact on our students and influences how she teaches in her classroom,” Balcer said. “Josie works hard to help students realize that art is a powerful, living craft which carries so many far-reaching positives for all of us. I think Josie does a terrific job in teaching students that art is all around us, being made by all kinds of people just like the students in her classroom.”

Along with her in-school pursuits to bring art to life, Langbehn works hard to develop arts education with the Nebraska Art Teachers Association, which she has been a part of for nearly a decade. She finished her co-presidency with the organization in July this year and is on the board as a co-past president until July 2022. 

“This is a nonprofit that is advancing the importance of arts education in schools and how it increases the human potential,” Langbehn said. “Just being around other teachers who care to push for the best arts education is so rewarding. It’s an amazing community.” 

When Langbehn has a moment away from painting or teaching a future crop of artists, she is moved by another form of art: Lindy Hop. Langbehn and her husband, Brian, teach swing dance classes together at Omaha Jitterbugs and have traveled nationally and globally in Lindy Hop competitions. 

“I’m super introverted, and Lindy Hop has always been there for me when I needed it most,” Langbehn said. “It’s a level of self-expression, of being who you are, and all these people who swing dance, we can come together with this shared language.” 

While swing dancing has been an ongoing hobby of hers for about 20 years, she has been working on a piece to give back to that specific community. Langbehn has interviewed dancers of the Savoy, a ballroom with great significance in the founding of the dance, as it was one of the first integrated ballrooms in Harlem and normalized the Lindy’s roots as an African street dance. 

“Lindy Hop is a Black dance and understanding why the dance exists and making sure it is honored is really important to me,” Langbehn said. “It’s more than just this fun, happy dance. There’s a whole lot more to it. I want to take the time to really know that, to listen, to reflect on all of that through my art.” 

While telling the stories of others is at the crux of Langbehn’s work as an artist and teacher, she finds her groove in the action of creation. 

“There’s some stuff I don’t teach because art isn’t just about people who are in museums,” Langbehn said. “Art is alive. It’s real. People create it every day. My classroom isn’t just ‘We’re going to recreate “[The] Starry Night”’ because that’s not what it’s about. It’s about using your own voice and empowering children to use their own voice. Art teaches us about compassion and understanding others. We can’t live without that.” 

Visit josephinelangbehn.com for more information.

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