One Street, One Sketch at a TimeOct 22, 2023 02:04AM ● By Carol Nigrelli
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
Those who say Omaha lacks a unique “vibe” are in for a surprise upon entering the Julia M Illustrates Studio & Gift Shop downtown.
The bright pink door of illustrator Julia McGuigan’s little storefront, nestled in an industrial area near Cuming Street, provides ample and engaging evidence to the contrary.
Large, framed prints of several Omaha neighborhoods, landmarks, churches, and buildings hang upon a wall. Those same images, printed from McGuigan’s original drawings, appear in a variety of sizes stacked neatly on two racks; they grace greeting cards, calendars, coasters, candles, coloring books with 40 prints, ornaments, T-shirts, tote bags, and stickers. She sells tea towels and magnets with a Nebraska motif and ceramic mugs celebrating the Omaha skyline. There’s even a 285-piece Omaha Map jigsaw puzzle.
“My drawings of Dundee, Morton Meadows, and Lauritzen Gardens are among the most popular, especially the cards,” said McGuigan, who also retails through her website, which she designed. “My 2024 calendar featuring 12 coffee shops keeps selling out.”
A long table in the middle of the store accommodates six white chairs; studio space for McGuigan to do her illustrations and hold the occasional workshop. Aspiring artists of all ages attend to hone their skills. The two-hour Urban Sketching Workshop has proven popular in the past, as have her lessons on color theory.
To fill the shelves completely and make the store more “gift shoppy,” McGuigan went outside her own portfolio and sourced items from other manufacturers. She carries paper products, coloring posters, “how-to-draw” books, baby finger paints, paint-by-number kits, pencils, and crayons—in other words, “things that I like to buy when I go to a gift shop,” she said.
For McGuigan, she couldn’t have drawn a better picture of how her life-long dream of becoming a self-sustaining artist would turn out.
She was born Julia Nichole Mason in 1991, a beautiful surprise to her parents who already had two sons, ages 12 and 10. As the baby girl of the family, she stayed close to her mother, who was both a hairdresser and an artist. She has happy memories of her mother’s art studio in the basement of their Papillion home.
“We were always crafting together or scrapbooking. She’d make ornaments for her customers,” McGuigan recalled. “That really influenced me because I was always around it.”
After graduating from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2014 with a degree in art education, McGuigan ventured abroad. She chose Costa Rica “because of its environment and being so bio-diverse,” she said. “I was drawn to its beauty.”
The four months she spent at the university in San Jose taking Spanish and Latin American architecture had a profound effect on how she would approach her own art.
“I was heavily influenced there by a local artist who sells prints of provinces of Costa Rica, and I thought it was brilliant,” McGuigan said. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, somebody needs to be doing this in Omaha,’ because I had never seen anything like it here.”
When McGuigan returned to the metro, she moved into The Rochester apartments on 14th and Izard streets in the heart of North Downtown’s art community. She began expanding her portfolio, sketching the buildings, landmarks, neighborhoods, and flowers around her, while teaching art in several schools within the Omaha Public Schools system.
Soft-spoken and gentle while maintaining an upbeat demeanor and sunny smile, McGuigan made friends easily among colleagues and parents. As her contacts grew, so did the opportunities to supplement her income. Eventually, she was commissioned to draw people’s houses. Ashley Walters, who lives near 90th and Pacific streets, was among the first to request her keen aesthetic eye.
“Julia actually did a watercolor of our home a few years ago and it’s beautiful,” said Walters, who was perusing Julia M Illustrates for the first time. “She visited our children’s elementary school and talked about art, which they all really enjoyed. I’ve followed her ever since on Instagram.”
Walters purchased a few items, including a T-shirt imprinted with an image of the Blackstone District’s Coneflower Creamery.
When COVID forced McGuigan to teach remotely, she decided it was a good time to pursue her master’s degree in illustration. She took online courses through the Savannah School of Art and Design; during the three years she spent toward earning her degree, McGuigan experienced several life-changing events.
In June 2021 she married musician and well-known Omaha guitarist Matthew McGuigan. He and his brothers, Billy and Ryan, have performed a successful Beatles interactive show for years, both here and on the road. She became stepmom to Matthew’s son, Lennon, whose namesake reflects Matthew’s love of all things ‘Fab Four.’ A year-and-a-half ago, she gave birth to baby Shawn, named after her late father. And as if her life wasn’t full enough, the opportunity to open her own store suddenly materialized at 1711 Cuming, in a space right next door to people who’ve been doing her printing for years.
“My husband said, ‘This is exactly what you need. All your inventory is in our basement and taking over our lives,’’ she recounted with a laugh.
With her landlords and friends at the adjacent Automatic Printing always looking out for her, McGuigan says she feels safe in an area with very little foot traffic. Still, she has other ventures in mind.
“I’d like to open a stationery store that showcases other artists and hopefully partner with someone so I can spend more time with my family,” she said.
Whatever the future holds for Julia McGuigan, Omaha and its surrounding communities will always remain in the picture—and a source of inspiration.