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Omaha Magazine

The Thrill of the Hunt: Omahans View Collecting Art As a Way to Celebrate Cultural Voices

Jun 25, 2021 04:45PM ● By Jeff Lacey
Russ Locke poses with indigenous art collection

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

In her article “Collecting: An Urge that’s Hard to Resist,” psychologist Shirley Mueller reported that 33 to 40% of Americans practice the art of collecting. The reasons that people collect things, however, are varied. Mueller explained that some people are motivated by the thrill of the chase; others are motivated by the chance to participate in the social network that’s created in the pursuit of a common goal; still others are motivated by the thought of being a part of history via the preservation of culturally important items. 

If Omahans Russ Locke and Glenda Stone were asked which of these motivations best defined their passion for collecting, they would have a hard time deciding. These Omaha residents and master collectors have been in pursuit of the treasures to be found at estate sales, antique shops, and thrift stores for over 30 years, and show no signs of stopping.

Locke and Stone, married for the past 10 years, partly trace the love of collecting to their childhoods. Locke grew up on the northern edge of Stanton, Nebraska, and remembers the magic of playing in creeks and discovering tools and arrowheads buried in the running waters, while Stone traces her love of collecting back to a single object: a mink poodle brooch. ‘‘My mother had a mink pin,” Stone explained. “It was so old-school. It had a chenille pipe cleaner element that I just loved. I would have to ask permission to play with it.” As an adult, Stone started collecting mink jewelry.  “A lot of the stuff dates back to the things we experienced as children, wanting to reconnect to that magic.” 

The element of adventure that treasure hunting offers appeals to the couple as well. They cite the thrill of finding something they had not seen, or didn’t know existed, as a major draw. As for the geographic limit to their treasure hunting adventures, Stone explained, “There isn’t any.” They love using antique shops, auctions, estate sales, and thrift stores as the lenses through which they learn about new places and people.

“Part of the fun is going into an antique store or thrift store in a different part of the country. You learn about a place from that. And then when you find something special, there’s your connection to that place.” Whether it’s discovering a priceless painting in an antique shop in Santa Fe, or coming home from a farm sale a couple hours away with a kitten hidden under their hood (they kept him, and named him Dexter), Locke and Stone are always ready for the thrill of the search. “Some people are just hunters and gatherers,” Stone explained.

The Art of Donel Keeler

Some collectors have items that are not only important to them, but to the culture at large. Some of the most important pieces among Locke and Stone’s collections are their pieces of Donel Keeler’s artwork. Keeler was a Native American artist from Nebraska who was an enrolled Crow Creek Dakota member with Northern Ponca ancestry. Keeler passed away in June 2020, but his importance as an artist has been acknowledged by many. The Donel Keeler Indigenous Arts Festival is held by UNO’s Office of Multicultural Affairs every November, and in 2018, Keeler granted the State of Nebraska permission to use his artwork on a license plate honoring Native Americans in Nebraska. Not only did Keeler gift the state with his artwork, he chose not to capitalize much on the honor, instead requesting that a lot of his proceeds from the plates be added to the Native American Scholarship and Leadership Fund.

Locke and Stone had always had a great love and respect for Native American art, so when they wandered into the basement of an antique store in North Omaha several years ago, two framed pieces of ledger art immediately attracted Locke’s eye. Locke didn’t know who’d made them, but he thought they were amazing. “Oh my God, I love these,” he remembers thinking. He bought them right away. 

“When I researched them, it got even better. I still get chills,” Locke explained.

The more Locke and Stone learned about Keeler, the bigger fans they became. They kept an eye out for Keeler’s work and then, at the 2014 Fort Omaha Intertribal Memorial Powwow, Locke and Stone had the opportunity to buy an entire lot of Keeler’s artwork—close to 30 prints. When they viewed the collection, they saw it as an amazing opportunity. According to Locke, “It was like a treasure chest opened.” 

The next year, they met Keeler in person, and their respect for the artist grew even more. “He was so nice, so personal. I could have talked to him for hours,” Locke said. 

Gretchen Carroll, the UNO Multicultural Outreach Coordinator at UNO involved in coordinating the Keeler Indigenous Arts Festival, explained that Keeler was often personable. “[Keeler’s] connection to the community and his style of art was special, and he was a special person. We named the festival after him because we wanted to remember him and his art. He was a friend to a lot of us here, and was a huge supporter of UNO and the students here.” 

While Stone and Locke love the style of Native American art, collecting Keeler’s work isn’t simply about pleasure. They see it as a way to participate in the preservation of important cultural voices as well. Stone, an artist herself, explained, “We enjoy being able to support Native artists, and we have a great respect for their heritage and the fact they are trying to express their heritage and way of life.”

Those who attend arts festivals and antique stores might bump into Locke and Stone on their next adventure. Chances are, the couple are keeping their eyes peeled for a Keeler. 

Visit unomaha.edu for more information on the Donel Keeler Indigenous Arts Festival.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.