On the back of Nebraska State Bank in downtown Oshkosh, former bank president and longtime community member Bill Olson’s legacy lives on with each stroke of a paintbrush.
Art teacher Lauren Olson’s students have been busy turning what was once a blank wall into the town’s latest addition of public art – a giant mural in a vintage-postcard style that says “Nebraska” with each letter containing an iconic Nebraska scene.
Lauren (no relation to Bill) originally was going to paint the mural by herself but instead thought the proper way to honor Bill, along with his wife, Joyce, would be to make the painting a service project for her students.
“Bill was very humble and very giving, so when people were in need he would just give money and support and be under the radar and never take credit for things,” said Lauren Olson.
Jim Levick, current president of the Nebraska State Bank, on whose building the mural was being painted, could corroborate Lauren’s account of Bill’s generosity. Levick said that even after he retired, Bill Olson kept an office in the bank and dedicated his full-time energy to supporting the community.
The finished mural will be a fitting tribute to Bill and Joyce, and a beloved piece of public art for the community. But spend a day with the work in progress and you’ll see a second tribute in the works – one that’s about relationships, support, and highlighting what you have.
Bill was an early and consistent supporter of Lauren. He helped fund some of her first projects, and since then, nearly all of Lauren’s 50-plus community murals have been on her own time and made possible through donations and trading favors.
“It’s just fun for me, I love doing it,” she said.
While it’s always a welcome bonus to do paid work, she says she likes working in trades. It makes it less transactional and builds relationships in a way that you can draw from them later. She passes on the support to her students, highlighting their artwork in the paper every week, which builds the community’s confidence in their work.
Garden County High School tenth grader Taylor Fornander enjoys drawing the livestock which are a big part of her life, and is happy to be a part of this project, painting stalks of corn in the big letter ‘R’.
“Murals are a big part of Oshkosh and it’s really special that when we grow up, we can look at these and tell future generations that we helped with this,” Fornander said. “It just really represents Oshkosh.”
For tenth grader Montgomery Brown, the project helps him feel connected with the community to which he recently moved.
“I feel like I contributed to something, which gives me a bigger connection to the town. Especially since I’m new here, and gives me that connection I would have if I had grown up here my whole life,” Brown said.
“It’s a good opportunity to show what we can do,” said senior Zane Miller, who also serves as this year’s art aide. He enjoys experimenting with all kinds of art and says being a part of the mural project has opened the possibility of doing something like this on his own in the future.
As the students painted, evidence of pride in the project from adults was easy to find. People walking and driving by complimented the students on their work. Partway through the class period, it was noticed that some exposed wires at the top of the mural posed a potential hazard to painters.
Within 10 minutes, NPPD local manager Jason Krueger was on the job to cover the wires and was done well before the end of class. He noted the transformation in appearance the murals make in the community.
“You got old buildings, and now you have this to look at,” Krueger said.
Paint is one of the cheapest ways to improve a building, Olson said. She says she loves that with some paint and color, you can bring back life into a place that once maybe felt like it was dying.
“That’s what I really love about painting murals is bringing life back.”
The painted buildings become their own landmarks and highlight the strengths of the business community in Oshkosh, encouraging people to shop locally.
“There are a few empty buildings on Main Street,” Olson said. “But the ones we have, we really just have to showcase.”
The hazy, smoke-filtered sunshine of this Friday in western Nebraska serves as a subtle reminder that things aren’t quite as they should be in September 2020. But watching the students work together to transform a corner of their community, it’s hard not to be hopeful in the power of picking up a brush and getting involved.
“You don’t have to be a great artist to appreciate art,” Miller said.