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Omaha Magazine

Spinning a Thread Into a Life: Ruth Ciemnoczolowski's Colorful Tapestry

Nov 01, 2021 10:46AM ● By Sara Locke
Ruth Ciemnoczolowski among costuming mannequins

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

As an artist, mother, and friend, Ruth Ciemnoczolowski has woven her life into a colorful tapestry. Each integral thread winds its way from her rural start through her world travels and home again. Her work has often been found in the spotlight, adorning starlets and Playboy Bunnies alike. Squeezing all of these wild and worldly experiences is a testament to her talent for creating something grand out of nothing, and making something grand seem like just another day at the office.

The first thing people notice when meeting the 63-year-old Ciemnoczolowski is her energy. It is high, it’s frenetic, and it’s looking for something beautiful to make. 

“I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Western Nebraska,” Ciemnoczolowski recalled. “Living on a farm shoveling muck isn’t very stimulating, and I didn’t fit in. I went to a one-room school with an outdoor toilet, and all there was to do was read. By fifth grade, I’d read every book in the building, and through the book mobile I was reading 28 books a week.”

This hunger for knowledge and engagement found Ciemnoczolowski seeking higher education at UNL, majoring in English, art, and women’s studies. After graduation, she relocated to Omaha and comfortably moved into a career in clothing alterations. She used her talents to see the world, and to create new ones with each stitch.

“After college I became a Bunny sitter for Playboy International,” Ciemnoczolowski said. “I’d learned to sew at age 4, and here I was a women’s studies major making Playboy Bunny costumes.”

One bunny led to another, and soon Ciemnoczolowski was making a whole zoo of outfits for events at then-Emmy Gifford Theater. “I made a lot of animal costumes for children’s theater at that point. When you have a specific talent, people don’t understand you not being great at normal stuff. When they see me create, they think I’m brilliant, but when I try to do normal stuff…” she trailed off. 

Ciemnoczolowski set out on her own to find freelance styling jobs, as well as work among local film artists. She eventually landed tailoring gigs on a number of Alexander Payne pieces. “The film community is very small in Omaha—you get jobs by word of mouth.” This word-of-mouth resulted in her connection with Nic Fakler for the film Lovely, Still, for which she is credited as costume designer. “I did [the film] as I was impressed with Nic, who was so young when he wrote the script. I wanted him to have good costumes for his movie. He’s a great guy.”

She also holds an episode of HGTV’s That’s Clever under her belt. She won first place for an alternative wedding gown (a black cocktail-length gown with a cape) in the 2014 “Passion for Fashion” contest from the American Sewing Expo. 

Ciemnoczolowski has traveled the world on her talents, spending time living in Europe, visiting France through a 4H program, and spending her Decembers renting a home near the ocean in California to sew frantically with her long-distance friends. She has taught at National Sewing Conventions and written for the national Threads Magazine. Here, she teaches Theater Tech Appreciation, and is currently working as a cutter/draper for Omaha Community Playhouse. 

There, she finds herself just as surrounded by compassionate and creative people. As she names her many inspiring friends, mentors, and collaborators, she lingers on her admiration for her team at Omaha Community Playhouse, saying “The shop really celebrates diversity and body positivity in a way you don’t always find with fashion. And working with Lindsay Pape, I honestly really enjoy every day. I’ve never had a better boss.”

Before becoming Omaha Community Playhouse’s Costume Designer, Pape spent 14 years teaching Costume Design at Creighton. As she approaches her fifth season working with Ciemnoczolowski at OCP, she returns repeatedly to one word: talented.

“Ruth knows much more than I do about garment construction, every step of the way. From working out a pattern to choosing seam placement,” Pape said. “All of the details, closures, zippers, the hemming. She’ll take each of my designs and drawings, no matter how specific or vague, and bring me these beautiful, elaborate ideas to choose from. She’ll always add some interesting sleeve or beautiful details or trim. Even if I come to her with just a color or fabric or shape, she immediately has a million great ideas for what to do with them. She’s very collaborative, incredibly creative, and just terribly talented.” 

Ciemnoczolowski infuses love, wisdom, and inclusivity into all of her work, bringing cultures, customs, and curiosity to the stage. 

Visit omahaplayhouse.com for more information.

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

Photo by Bill Sitzmann