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Omaha Magazine

At the Intersection of Art and Justice

Apr 26, 2023 03:10PM ● By Leo Adam Biga
Anthony Peña

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Dalton Carper’s 2020 photo captured then 7-year-old Zuri Jensen standing atop a truck with her face skyward and one arm raised in a fist of solidarity with Omaha Black Lives Matter protesters. Famed Omaha artist Watie White introduced fellow artist Anthony T. Peña to the viral image. Pena’s resulting poster and mural became synonymous with hope, catapulting him from obscurity to national recognition. 

“It’s amazing how art brings people together. We all make up this story of hope,” said Peña, 55, a Metro Area Transit bus operator. “The photo says so much. I wanted to use my First Amendment right to say something, too, but in a different way. At first my drawing was black and white. As I kept running through concepts, I added yellow. At first, Zuri wasn’t holding a sign. I saw where someone commented they saw hope in the photo, I thought it would be perfect for her holding a sign that says hope.”

The signed poster sold out, becoming a collector’s item—same for a T-shirt print. Proceeds of The Hope Project were shared with Carper, the Jensens, and Culxr House.

“It’s amazing how people react to the images. It feels really good that people gravitate to the message,” Peña said.

His experience proves recognition often comes when least expected.

“I guess it was just time. Before 2020 my artwork might as well have been nonexistent. The only place you could see it was on Instagram,” Peña reflected. “I would get likes here and there, but nothing substantial. Watie White liked one of my posts. I reached out to him to meet for coffee. I had a whole lot of questions and he gave me a lot of good advice on how to get my artwork out there. I took it—that was a real game-changer.”

Peña and White subsequently collaborated with Bart Vargas, Patty Talbert, and Ang Bennett on the 18-by-24-foot “Hope” mural in NoDo. The Jensens helped paint it.

“I was nervous. These artists are established and here I was, a new kid on the block,” Peña said. 
Winter storm damage in 2022 forced the mural’s removal. It’s being repainted while a new site is being scouted.

Previously, Peña drew exclusively for family and friends.

“My mom bought me sketchbooks, but I would always draw them up  and end up drawing on the walls, in books,” he said. “She didn’t get upset. She encouraged me.” 

A North High teacher urged him to pursue college fine arts studies, which Peña did at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“I didn’t finish because I thought I knew everything,” he conceded. “I didn’t really apply myself as much as I should have.”

His work’s stark contrasts and primary colors reflect pop art influences. The self-taught artist learned his craft from comic books, particularly the work of Marvel  Comics illustrator John Byrne.

“I loved his style,” Peña said, “the way he did action scenes, his characters’ facial expressions, his realistic depictions of the human body and anatomy.”

Peña’s own graphic novel project, “4 OUT OF 5,” imagines a near future when human cloning is big business. He’s both illustrating and writing it.

He’s held “making ends meet jobs” his entire adult life. 

“When it comes to loving your craft, you’re going to have to sacrifice a lot,” he said. 

He’s now a full-time artist with a commissioned portrait, mural, and logo projects, though he still drives a Metro Area Transit bus. Whereas before he created out of his apartment, he now has a Hot Shops studio downtown. 

MAT hired Peña to paint a veterans wall mural at its headquarters, and he’s among the featured artists in the Omaha by Design Art and Infrastructure Metro ORBT mural project. 

“It’s fun to be a part of something that big,” he said. 

His mural “Up in the Air/Escapism,” a take on daydreaming, adorns the 72nd and Dodge westbound ORBT station.

He finds it surreal seeing his art on public display, or reading about it.

“I do a double-take,” Peña said. “It feels like they’re talking about somebody else.”

He collaborated with Talbert on another mural, “Peace.” He’s also worked with several artists on a mural cube dedicated to Ukraine, plus a Lexington, Nebraska, billboard image he did for Nebraskans for Abortion Access.

“I’ve been very fortunate. For years, nothing, and since 2020 an incredible ride getting my work out there and people loving it,” Peña said.

White finds Peña’s continued growth “impressive” and “inspiring,” complimenting the artist’s “ability to find joy and meaning in his work.”

“My work is constantly evolving,” Peña acknowledged. “You don’t ever want to be stale or just be known for doing one thing. I’m really challenging myself to do different mediums and use more color.”

“I love the experience and atmosphere of being around other artists,” he said of his flourishing studio practice. “It’s my second home. I can go there to create. If I want to free my mind I can walk around and check out what other artists are working on.” 

In yet another personal milestone, last year saw Peña’s first solo exhibition at Benson’s BFF Gallery. 

“[My family is] so happy for me,” he said. “For years they pushed me to get my artwork out there. I never really had the confidence to do it.”

“Opening night, I felt like I was dreaming.”

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This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  
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