Bellevue West alumni shares story of artwork



[flagallery gid=31]
Photos by Grant Harrison

It was a sunny, warm day for March 2. I had a noontime interview rapidly approaching, and my body was tight, coiled like a spring, apprehensive for the coming dialogue. Thoughts be-bopped their way around my head like some frantic jazz tune. What to say? What to do? Shoot, I missed the turn. A quick U turn–too quick with snow not yet melted. The anti-lock brakes kicked in. I gradually regained control, speeding the opposite direction, pulse pounding doubly now from my tardiness and brush with catastrophe.

I hurried into the Starbucks off 120th and Center. Scanning around, I quickly found her. It wasn’t hard; I had done my research and her outfit matched the description perfectly: a blue Superman stocking cap, a red and black Superman shirt, an Omaha Rollergirls sweatshirt.

She sat there, smiling. Her tattoos hidden from sight, piercings taken out for our interview.

I pulled out my $20 audio recorder, shifted in my seat, and began, stumbling over the first few lines of my meticulously typed, not-so-well folded sheet of interview questions.


The story behind the story

If you’ve ever strolled through the western side of Area 1, you’ve probably noticed one of West’s two murals: a Native American themed snapshot of Nebraska’s history and cultural heritage. It’s the only one of its kind, other than the mural located discreetly in the ROTC room. Unlike other high schools, West doesn’t have many static pieces of student artwork displayed.

The story of that mural begins with the story of a friendship. Throughout all four of her high school years, Nicole Drehmann was a student of Barbara VanWassenhoven, who taught at Bellevue West from 1989 to 2003. A friend, mentor and teacher to Drehmann, VanWassenhoven became close with Drehmann during her time at West.

“I had her in occupational studies, and I got to know her really well,” VanWassenhoven said. “I actually have a picture of an airbrushed elephant in my living room that she did for me. She kept carting it around and I finally said, ‘Can I buy that from you?’ and I did.”

After graduating Bellevue West in 1997, Drehmann returned four years later–this time, to devote a work of art to an old friend.

“After she graduated and [teachers] had moved into that west wing area she said she’d like to come up and paint a mural on the wall,” VanWassenhoven said. “She knew that I really liked buffalo. So she decided to do something revolving around Native Americans for me.”

The theme was perfect for Drehmann as well, who was likewise drawn towards Native American culture.

“It was a very beautiful community, that they all shared the same things: of survival, of being [self sufficient], of being true,” Drehmann said.

So, in the summer of 2001, the young artist embarked on her mural project, enlisting the help of friend Heather Mollitor to paint. Though Bellevue West provided the paint supplies, part of their mural would depict a young Native American girl. Needing a model, Drehmann turned to future Bellevue West student and granddaughter of VanWassenhoven, Isabelle Paik, for her model.

“[Nicole] had some pictures of Izzie when she was little–she was only three. She took the pictures and did it from that,” VanWassenhoven said.

Stroke by stroke, day by day, Drehmann and Mollitor worked to interweave an amalgam of culture into their canvas of brick and mortar.

“I remember working with her, getting up in the morning, going to school, doing that. It was like a 50/50: I came up with the concept of what I wanted; and she was more into, knew a lot more about airbrushing than I did,” Drehmann said.

After weeks of summer painting, the mural was brought to life on August 12; the pair had finished.

Across from rooms 154, 155 and 156, the artwork rests comfortably between two floor to ceiling windows. Blue, green and purple gases swirl around stars and Native American dream catchers; tears in the cosmic scene rend the mural open, revealing a young Native American girl and a buffalo. Images of the centuries-old drama between man and beast spring to mind.

At the forefront of the mural is the bison. A powerful symbol in native cultures, the rugged beauty of the buffalo commands respect and admiration, influencing everything from religion to art. Drehmann, even as a young child, was fascinated.

“I remember going on long car trips throughout Nebraska, traveling to Colorado, and I remember seeing my first buffalo out in the prairie. Just take away the roads, take away everything, and just imagine yourself here in the 1700’s and having to hunt for your own food. That pride of once you got to that buffalo; it’s that pride of hunting your own food,” Drehmann said.

But Drehmann also wanted to commemorate the natural beauty of the area.

“Before Wal-mart, before the highway was created, that used to be all cornfield. I remember looking out of the window and just watching nature go by; and so that’s what I wanted to bring in to that mural,” she said.

Drehmann also worked on the school’s other mural in ROTC room 616, which she completed while still in high school. Painted on the western wall of the room, the scene depicts the Earth as viewed from the moon, a theme fitting for the aeronautical and space exploration done by the Air Force.

“That was an easy A for that semester,” she said.

Flash forward more than a decade and the mural remains much the same. Drehmann’s perception of her work, however, has shifted with the passing years.

I showed her a couple photos of the mural I had taken on my phone. She gasped, her face illuminated with the joy of recognition, the memories flooding back to her. And then she cringed.

“That’s so horrible,” she said. “I see flaws throughout the whole thing.”

I asked her if she was coming from a critical perspective.

“If you tell that to any artist they’ll tell you yes; they don’t like looking at their old stuff.”

So while the murals endure as constant features at Bellevue West, the people involved in their creation have invariably changed, though arguably none more so than the model for the mural, junior Isabelle Paik.

More than 13 years later, the little girl from the mural is all grown up. Now Paik is an active student and volunteer in the Bellevue community, having worked with the Henry Doorly Zoo, Fontenelle Forest and the Humane Society for several years now.

“I help [the zoo] do education for the public and then last year I worked with the hoofstock animals,” Paik said.

Though she has connections to the art world–she’s not only been featured in a mural but has enrolled in art classes for the past five years–Paik hasn’t given the mural much thought, instead focusing on her various extracurricular activities.

As for Drehmann, she’s continued pursuing her love of art, defying gender roles, illustrating comic books and launching her own website.


The journey of art

Even back in the days of high school, Drehmann strove to make a name for herself as an artist. She didn’t want to be known for “the cutesy stuff”; she wanted to be the “top dog,” to be recognized for her work and her style, as unique and contrarian to high school mores as they were.

Her wish soon came true, and she was the “top dog”; although this name was often synonymous with the controversial nature of her art work–not wholly bad for an artist trying to separate herself from the traditionals norms of female artists.

Several of Drehmann’s drawings were of dark, morbid or obscene topics, especially those depicting rape, revolution and manslaughter.

“Some were controversial, others were your normal; but I really enjoyed trying to push everybody’s buttons,” Drehmann said. “I did one of the Holocaust. Something about human tragedy really intrigues to the point where you have to ask yourself, ‘How could this have happened?’”

Another particularly controversial aspect of her works was her use of nudity.

“I wanted to learn more about human anatomy so I would draw nude figures. Nothing indecent, it was just very peaceful,” she said.

Needless to say, her no holds barred approach to art wasn’t always received with open arms at Bellevue West.

“There were several times where some of my stuff was taken down. And of course, my parents would get a phone call. When you’re in high school and you’re not 18 yet you get in trouble for a lot of stuff,” she said. “I didn’t think like a high schooler; I thought like a college student.”

Even then, Drehmann was crafting an image of herself, creating a portfolio of banned works and developing her repertoire. Soon, she was out of college and in the world, creating pieces like her 2001 mural at Bellevue West.

Less inflammatory than Holocaust paintings, Drehmann has a passion for serene nature scenes and derelict sites. For her various photography shoots, Drehmann travels all over the Midwest–including Montana, South Dakota, and even Tennessee–capturing the hidden beauty in scenic and forgotten locales.

“I actually just got back from Kentucky photographing [an] asylum down there. You find beauty in everything. Where people pass by and disregard it, you find beauty in it,” she said.

Indeed, one of Drehmann’s most memorable shoots was out in nature, photographing the sandhill cranes.

“I would camp out for days on end to get that one particular shot. And when you get that beautiful sunrise coming up and [the Sandhill Cranes] are nesting or doing they’re thing, it’s beautiful,” Drehmann said, noting two of her influences that inspired her, Ansel Adams and David Mangelsens.

Sometimes, simply getting away from it all can be the most precious form of beauty, one that is often intangible to a discipline as visual and palpable as art.

“You step away from all the goings of everybody with their iPod and it’s just you and nature,” she said.


The business of art

But outside of those rare moments of serenity and isolation, Nicole Drehmann is, like most other people, intertwined with society. And, as an artist, this means taking her art passion and turning it into a lucrative activity.

In 2012, Drehmann launched her website, N Drehmann Photography, where she posts roller derby action shots and photos of remote places both natural and man made. In conjunction with the site, she promotes her business via social media platforms, like her Facebook page which has 279 likes as of March 18.

But the website wasn’t her first or her most recent venture into the professional art world.

Working with Marc Longbrake, program director for the Omaha Film Festival, Drehmann did the storyboarding and artwork for “Balance,” a comic published in 2009, sold by Krypton Comics, and produced by start-up company Echo Factory Productions, a film and comic studio based out of Omaha, NE.

Another one of her projects is with the Omaha Rollergirls, an all-female roller derby league that competes with two teams–the Omaha Rollergirls All-Stars and the Omaha Rollergirls AAA–on the regional, national and international level. As an “unofficial/official” photographer for the not for profit organization, Drehmann captures the competition, the athleticism and the rugged strength of the derby girls.

“It started out as a small project and now … my main focus is on roller derby, specifically for women. I’m doing a huge project piece where I’m traveling throughout the Midwest from all the way up to North Dakota down to Texas photographing these ladies,” Drehmann said. “I’ve been hit. I’ve had my camera flying out of my hand. I find that’s more exhilarating.”

Nowadays, she has a new idea on her plate: “2125” is the working title for a comic concept currently under development. Looking to have the first prints out by summer or early fall when she plans to release it, Drehmann is self-publishing the work, acting as co-writer and illustrator.

“The start up cost is usually the hardest as sometimes you would need to come up with several grand to have prints made of the book,” she said.

With a broad educational background and project experience, Drehmann has worked in filmmaking, illustration, comic books and photography. But while she doesn’t bring in enough to support herself solely off an art career–she works a “sit down” job to supplement her income–the artist in her never rests; and even at work she catches herself doodling or daydreaming of heroes, villains, and her insatiable appetite for creation.


Nicole the person

As we wound down our hour and a half interview, of which there had never been a dull moment or lull in her engaging stories, she paused, sort of looked unsure at me, and then asked if I needed any photos of her art.

I readily agreed.

She flipped open her unassuming black notebook. Page after page, a new universe sprang into existence. Iron Man, Hellboy, collisions between the universes of Marvel and DC tore through the boundaries of their realms and flew into the pages of her notebook. I was in wonder.

When you first meet her, 34-year-old Nicole Drehmann likely isn’t what you expect.

“When people see me face to face [for the first time] they’re shocked. I am covered up in tattoos; I gauged out my ears; I have piercings everywhere; I have scar modifications … these people that come to me and ask for service and they’re expecting a dressed up girl,” Drehmann said.

And in fact, many people don’t even expect her to be a girl. N Drehmann is her purposely chosen ambiguous business name, so as to avoid gender bias and reign in more customers for her photography, film and art career.

“Women kind of get that stipulation that we draw cute things. That’s something I did not want to be known for at all,” she said. “When I started selling my work and put it under an anonymous name, such as N Drehmann, I noticed a lot of people thought I was a guy. I found if [I] have a name that looks like a man, I sell a lot more artwork.”

While some may judge a comic by its cover, it’s in the panels that the story lies, as any avid comic fan would testify to. And in just a glimpse of her life, a single conversation, I got the impression she isn’t a by-the-books kind of person. She’s creative, marked by a unique quality, a sense of individualism and courage in the face of opposition; but there’s also a passionate side, driven by what she loves, unafraid to say and create what she believes in.

“I’m one of those people, I don’t hide the truth,” she said.

Though she doesn’t get her super suit dry cleaned in town, zoom around in the Batmobile, or have a history of radioactive spider bites, like any real super hero Nicole Drehmann isn’t afraid of standing out in the crowd, being herself, and pursuing what she loves.

“This is who I am; I like it,” she said.

Grant Harrison
Commentary Editor