Anonymous, Androgenous, Unique: Revisiting the J. Doe ProjectJun 23, 2023 01:03PM ● By Kim Carpenter
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
They arrived 22 years ago. One by one, 107 fiberglass sculptures appeared throughout Omaha. The anonymous and androgynous figures, or rather the project writ large, went by “J. Doe” and served as the metro’s first wide-scale public art project. Whether it was a “Jane” or a “John,” people couldn’t escape talking about the figures or, indeed, encountering them throughout the city. From Creighton University’s campus to Saint Cecelia Catholic Cathedral, Eppley Airfield to Fontenelle Forest—even a No Frills Supermarket—the temporary artworks dominated just about every public space, and the public discourse, throughout the summer of 2001.
J. Doe was the brainchild of Eddith Buis. Inspired by similar fiberglass community projects in cities like Chicago, Kansas City, and New York, the longtime arts advocate and educator came up with a novel approach in Omaha. Most urban areas had typically used animals for similar projects. (Zurich, Switzerland, started the urban craze with its “Cow Parade” in 1998). Buis, however, saw people as the main draw, and Omaha became the only city to use the human figure as the canvas for artists to interpret.
“We wanted to do humans, because Omaha is famous for its people,” she explained. “We don’t have scenery, but we do really have the friendliest people.”
Buis met with a committee of fellow arts advocates at the Hot Shops Art Center to get the project started and enjoyed a supportive, enthusiastic response from the community.
“It was pretty ambitious, but people jumped all over it,” she remembered. “We talked to everyone who made art in Omaha and got donations; we got so much support.”
Businesses like Lozier Corporation, Omaha Steaks, and Union Pacific Railroad played a major role in producing the J. Does, which towered over 6 feet and cost $2,500. As did local nonprofits such as the Rose Blumkin Foundation, the Omaha Community Playhouse, and the Omaha Children’s Museum. Individuals, too, opened their checkbooks to become patrons of Omaha’s urban art.
Ninety-five artists participated in the project, with some creating more than one sculpture. The roster read like a short list of Omaha creatives, including: Catherine Ferguson, Mary Zicafoose, John Thein, and Les Bruning, all of which were well-established, or well on their way. Ferguson landed the plumb role of designing sets and costumes for Opera Omaha. Zicafoose became a leading global textile artist. Printmaker and painter Thein, who died last May, was a beloved professor at Creighton University. Sculptor Les Bruning’s sculptures appear throughout the metro. Many more artists remained fixtures of Omaha’s local visual arts scene, while others have enjoyed success elsewhere.
Each artist brought their own inimitable imprimatur to their sculpture. For example, Trudy Swanson’s “Heart & Soul,” sponsored by One Pacific Place Shopping Center, depicted a bifurcated figure with a flare of twisting, twirling metal springing forth— emblematic of the positive energy people experience from their “hearts” and “souls,” and symbolic of an individual “bursting with joy.”
“This was my first public sculpture, and it was a big, exciting project to do,” Swanson recalled. “I was so excited it went somewhere where it was really seen and visible.”
Public response to the army of J. Does was overwhelmingly positive.
“The sculptures were pretty impressive. It was fun, people loved it, and it was pretty popular,” Buis remembered. “It was a happy project, and I think it put us on the map.”
The figures remained in place into September of that year before being auctioned off, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting the City of Omaha Public Arts Commission. Many corporate donors purchased the pieces they sponsored for display at their headquarters, while some private individuals bid on sculptures for their homes. (Buis recalled one sponsor who prominently positioned a J. Doe in her living room after winning it at auction.)
The project’s legacy served as a point of inspiration for more art in public spaces. One year after Buis’s project, the copycat J. Doe II appeared in Omaha with just over 50 sculptures scattered across Omaha. In 2003, Tour de Lincoln arrived in the capital with 150 miniature bicycles that marked the city’s first pubic art project. Artist Liz Shea-McCoy, who spearheaded Tour de Lincoln, said in the project pamphlet: “What I loved most about experiencing the J. Doe Project, and others since that time, was that one really feels the desire to explore that city, searching for the next sculpture and the next!”
Several more fiberglass “nexts” were yet to come. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Art oversaw a similar initiative by Alegent Health in 2007 with the O! Public Art Project, which commissioned 22 “O” shapes throughout the city. In 2016 the Nebraska by Heart project saw more than 80 heart-shaped sculptures installed throughout Lincoln to celebrate the state’s sesquicentennial. That same year, eight Horses of Honor— commissioned to memorialize police officers who died in the line of duty—made their debut in key Omaha public spaces.
Today, Swanson’s “Heart & Soul” is the sole J. Doe still on public display at its original site—near Trader Joe’s at 103rd and Pacific streets. It’s become so much a part of Omaha’s cityscape that the artist was delighted to discover it had become a location in the popular Pokémon GO mobile app game.
“My daughters were playing that game, and one of the PokéStops was my sculpture,” she shared. “They sent me the pic, and I used it to make my business cards. J. Doe strikes again!”
Augmented reality games aside, Swanson is pleased that her contribution continues to resonate with the public.
“I still run into people these many years later, and they tell me what the piece means to them,” she said. “It’s an old friend, an old piece of myself that’s still out there bringing joy. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.”