When looking at the impact BFF has had on Omaha today, you would not expect the organization to have such humble beginnings ten years ago. When BFF’s founders, Alex Jochim and JD Hardy, organized the first Benson First Friday, they weren’t anticipating the event to snowball into a tight-knit union of artists who would change the DNA of Benson for years to come.
It all started with a simple question between two bartenders in 2012: “Why didn’t we know that everyone in Benson is so talented?”
Jochim and Hardy worked together at a local Benson hot spot, Jake’s Cigars & Spirits, where they would naturally get to know the people who lived in Benson and were regulars at the bar. The people that they had grown to know and love over the years would oftentimes surprise them, revealing that they had extreme skills in sculpting, painting and more. Jochim, being a talented photographer, and Hardy, being a skilled installation artist, were perplexed as to why these shared interests never organically came up in their conversations over the years. And they thought it was a shame that these talents weren’t being celebrated in the community.
The issue was not lack of artists in the neighborhood; the issue was that there was not an ideal, accessible avenue for emerging and veteran artists to showcase their talents. There were some venues hosting art events, such as The Union for Contemporary Arts, but they were just getting their feet wet at the time. And Bemis Underground, a space dedicated to local artists, had shut its doors in 2011.
In the spirit of “be what you wish to see in the world,” Jochim and Hardy decided they needed to create that space for themselves, and rally local artists and business owners to host Benson’s inaugural First Friday.
Other than a few charming bars and businesses, the Benson neighborhood was fairly desolate in 2012. Walking down the Maple Street strip, it was easy to spot many empty storefronts. Benson was mainly a live music hub for Omaha with The Waiting Room, The Sydney, and Barley Street Tavern hosting live shows. Jochim and Hardy recognized an opportunity to use those vacant shops to host visual artist gallery shows, so they hit the pavement. They went into every business in Benson to tell them about their idea for an upcoming First Friday and let them know how their businesses could be involved.
“We were consultants on how they could turn these non-traditional spaces into amazing art spaces,” said Jochim.
They did their research. Jochim and Hardy visited other cities’ First Fridays events. They hit Kansas City in April and then Lincoln in May. By the end of May 2012, they felt that they were ready to launch Benson’s very own First Friday.
June 1, 2012 was Benson’s inaugural First Friday. To say the least, it was a hit.
The First Friday encompassed experimental gallery showings, a yoga session, a fashion walk with Paper Doll Vintage (now renamed as Lion’s Mane) and more. The fashion show held no punches for the debut; they stopped traffic on Maple Street and strutted down the middle of the turning lane, turning heads.
“I’ve always appreciated counterculture and things that stir the pot,” said Jochim. “That became a running theme for the whole thing; we would accept any form of positive energy. We wanted it to be all-encompassing and interdisciplinary.”
For the first First Friday, artists including Kim Darling, Sarah Rowe, and Caitlin Little, created an installation in the front room of the South Petshop gallery, which was a shining example of embracing counterculture and public engagement. The interactive exhibit was called Everyone’s Suspect. When visitors walked in the front door, they were met with unflappable people in white lab coats clacking away on a typewriter. Visitors had to provide a DNA sample—hair, spit, blood, snot, anything—which was tacked to the wall. Visitors were handed a report of themselves and the case files were hung on the surrounding walls. We know, pre-pandemic times were wild!
“I think the reason [the Petshop exhibit] is a big highlight for me is because immediately after the show, the owner of the space offered it to us to rent,” Jochim said. “That opened doors.”
After that, Petshop—which was originally home to an exotic animal store—became the headquarters of all BFF operations.
Ten years later, BFF is a tight-knit organization of local and regional artists. The majority of BFF’s DNA is made up of the hard work of volunteers who are passionate about building community through arts engagement. BFF has continually worked to expand its programming and has grown steadily to become the volunteer-driven, artist-run, DIY-trained powerhouse nonprofit that it is today. In 2022, BFF led and obtained Omaha’s first state-recognized Creative District for the neighborhood of Benson.
“I still learn something every day,” said Jochim. “Every day.”
Most of all, Jochim is incredibly proud of the BFF team and community. He says he thoroughly enjoys seeing artists develop professionally and seeing each one of them succeed. When this started ten years ago, he was not expecting to be a mentor for so many talented artists, but he says it has been one of the biggest highlights of his career with BFF.
As for the future, Jochim has big plans. Don’t count on him slowing down anytime soon.
“My five-to-ten year goal is to travel and help start this somewhere else,” Jochim reveals. “But we have to finish what we’ve started here. There are so many things to celebrate all the f*cking time.”
Saraya Vogel (they/them) and Seth Penn (he/him) see a major need for two things in Omaha: more champions of sex work and sex education, and a larger network of comic creators. Saraya is the founder of ZQ Productions, a local production company, and House of Quinn, a cabaret house self-described as “a home for the freaks, geeks, and misfits.” Seth is a talented comic artist and the founder of Bugeater Comic Collective, a newly-formed comic publishing company.
“We are here for the artists and the sex workers,” said Saraya.
The duo feeds off of each other’s endless creative drive. They are completely independent and successful in their own right, yet simultaneously lean on each other to make an unstoppable team.
In early 2022, Seth and Saraya decided their apartment space wasn’t cutting it as a work studio. They decided this was the right time to jump into a new studio space within Trudy’s, one of BFF’s newest shared studio spaces. In May, they packed up their gear and took the next step into their very own private studio space. The studio has plenty of personality; It’s painted all-black from wall to ceiling, originals of Seth’s art are hung around the room, vinyl records are playing and there is a big comfy couch to relax on in the communal center space.
This is their first time occupying a studio space; it was always a dream of Seth’s. The studio at Trudy’s gives them space to grow and focus on their number one goal: growing their companies and becoming full-time creators. Seth says the studio allows him room to explore and have his work take up a bigger space in the world.
Bugeater Comic Collective is currently on the hunt for a wide range of comic creators; anyone from illustrators to writers. Seth’s goal is to build an extensive directory of comic book creators in the area. He sees the comic artists and comic lovers in Omaha and wants to shine a light on them to create a larger local comic scene.
Seth is eager to host Bugeater meetings in the studio’s communal space. He wants comic book creators to have a central space to gather, collaborate, network and discover other comic creators’ work. As for the future, he has a few plans up his sleeve, including Bugeater-hosted art shows and comic release parties. Eventually, he’d love to partner with Omaha’s incredible comic shops, such as Legends Comics.
Saraya’s side of the studio is used for administrative duties, prep for shows, and House of Quinn meetings where they are able to gather with their kids (a term for the people they mentor within their House).
Saraya is determined to bring more queer- and sex-positive sexual education to the area: “A lot of [my work] is fueled with my drive for sex education — wanting to be an advocate for sex workers and performance artists in the sensual and sexual arts.”
If you have creativity with no structure, it can be hard to truly dive into your passions. This is what led Ben Matukewicz to pop the question to BFF: “How can I get involved?”
Ben, one of BFF’s executive board members, initially knew BFF in the way that many people are first introduced to it: BFF’s bread and butter, First Fridays. Although Ben had been a graphic designer and a filmmaker for quite some time, he was unsure of how he would fit into BFF’s network of artists. What began as Ben simply wanting more structure and experience in the creative field, turned into a love affair with a new community.
“My entire life changed,” said Ben. “Connection to people, connection to community, connection to the arts — I think that’s what BFF does best. It serves as a connecting point for all of it. Omaha needs that.”
Ben joined BFF in 2019, during one of its most transformative eras. Within the first year of his involvement with BFF, Ben transitioned from his role as an intern to an executive administrator. Soon after, the COVID-19 pandemic stormed in and challenged BFF to continue fostering a community of connection and creativity in new ways.
BFF didn’t seem to miss a beat, Ben says. One of the things he admires most about BFF’s spirit is that there is never any hesitation to shake things up or overcome an obstacle.
“BFF is full of people getting shit done,” said Ben. “Cultivating a mindset of always moving forward is probably one of my biggest takeaways. When you’re a part of this community, it’s always ‘what can we do to try to make this happen?’, and that has changed the way I think about everything.”
Ben was not always sold on the idea of continuing to live in Omaha past college age. He’s noticed a common question pops up among young Omahans: “When are you going to move out of Omaha?” That all changed once he got involved with BFF. A handful of his friends and family members have moved away, but Ben believes he’s found a community in Benson that he’s not sure he could find anywhere else.
Being integrated within BFF and Benson for over three years has opened doors to countless, unexpected opportunities for Ben. With the support of BFF and the connections he’s made in Benson along the way, he co-founded Aksarben Creative and, most recently, became the manager of Trudy’s, BFF’s newest shared artist space.
As for the future of BFF, Ben wants to bridge the gap between people who are involved in the Benson creative community and people who aren’t currently looking to Benson as a hub for community and the arts.
“I think there’s something for everybody here,” said Ben. “My personal mission is making the arts community more accessible. And really trying to make it so that people who may not be interested in the arts can still be a part of it and experience what is going on here. Benson is for everybody.”
To learn more about Ben and his work, please visit www.aksarbencreative.com. You can catch him at Studio 62 during July’s First Friday on July 1.
JP Gurnett, BFF’s Director of Communications, has always championed connection, community and being yourself.
Even before his time with BFF, JP carved a space for community and belonging in Benson. In the fall of 2017, JP teamed up with his friends to start inclusive gatherings for the queer community in Omaha. They wanted a place where everyone could bring their authentic selves and feel included, while also listening to amazing musicians and watching out-of-this-world drag performances.
JP wanted to have a presence in Benson that was purposefully queer, not something that just happened to have queer people attending. He felt it was important to plant a flag in the ground to let other queer people know they are loved and welcomed in Omaha. And thus, in the fall of 2017, Thursdays at The Sydney in Benson became a night for the LGBTQ community to gather, dance, connect and be themselves.
“We felt empowered,” JP said. “The Sydney has always been a place where you can come and be yourself. We thought, ‘We’re going to call it Queer Nite and we’re going to be who we are and not apologize for it.’"
Queer Nite started picking up steam in the winter of 2018, when word of mouth and Queer Nite’s Instagram account started catching traction. Originally, Queer Nite was the most popular amongst queer women, but steadily the rest of the alphabet army started attending the weekly events. Naturally, the events started attracting all walks of life: Gay, straight and everyone in between. JP says he’s definitely noticed people of all sexual orientations and identities who attend Queer Nite showing an increased acceptance of others.
“People have become more conscious of others,” JP said. “You can tell that everyone is making an effort to be more open.”
When Queer Nite started gaining popularity, Alex Jochim, BFF’s Co-Founder and Executive Director, took notice. Alex asked JP to collaborate on a few projects, and over time, Queer Nite naturally became closely intertwined with BFF. JP feels the collabortion between Queer Nite and BFF was the perfect culmination of two entities that spearheaded inclusivity and creativity in Benson. With Queer Nite becoming a part of BFF, there was a more purposeful and definitive space for the queer community within BFF’s programming.
“Queer Nite becoming a part of BFF really advocated for that explicit inclusion,” said JP. “Benson and BFF have always been a place where people are naturally accepted, but this took it a step further to make sure the queer community had a known space in Benson.”
Using his skills as an internet guru, professional educator with two Education degrees, and a stellar event host, JP strives to continually welcome all walks of life through BFF’s social media and events. When he decided to work with BFF on Queer Nite, JP took his mission of inclusivity and expanded it on a larger scale.
“At BFF I can just be myself and use my talents and skills in ways that I want to use them,” JP said. “When it comes to creativity, so many people limit themselves based on the reactions of others. That’s why I love BFF because we’re making things for ourselves and our community. We’re creating things that we’re proud of. And we hope others feel welcomed and enjoy it, too.”
JP grew up in South Omaha and still has a strong connection to it, but thinks of Benson and BFF as a second home.
“It’s always felt like a place where I could be myself and it’s also where my friends are now. We do the things we do here because we want to be here. At the end of the day, everything we do through BFF is about love and acceptance and celebration.“
If you would like to learn more about Queer Nite, follow their Instagram (@queernite). To get involved with BFF, please visit our volunteer page or attend the upcoming Volunteer Roundup on Saturday, April 16. Everyone is welcome!
Ang Bennett first got involved in BFF when they moved to Omaha from Des Moines over seven years ago. They wanted a way to get into the local arts scene in their new hometown, and they found that beloved space in a little town called Benson.
Ang has excelled in a lot of roles at BFF throughout the years; most recently, they transitioned from acting as the Inclusion Chair to taking on a larger organizational role as the Vice President.
Even though their role has shifted, diversity, equity and inclusion are still a huge part of Ang’s work — in fact, they say that it’s a part of their “every day.” Ang believes it should be a practice that is ingrained into every organization, no matter what role you play (and we agree!).
“How are we more actively engaging different demographics in the stuff we’re already doing? That is inclusion!” said Ang. “It’s not ‘we’re diverse, so we have only Black arts month and women’s arts month.’ Actively and consistently reaching out to people to invite them in is inclusion.”
Inclusion and diversity is an effort that Ang is excited to rally behind in BFF’s newest gallery, BFF Gallery. The new space—located right on Maple Street in Benson—aligns with the values of BFF: Advocating for Inclusion, Opportunity, and Unique Experiences. The gallery is set to be a beaming example of those values in action.
“It’s going to be a diverse group of artists,” said Ang. “It’s going to be emerging, established, all colors, all genders.”
Ang is eager to kick off this next adventure as the artist curator for the newly-launched space. They said they not only want to feature talented local artists, but they are considering bringing in regional artists to show their work as well.
“I’m excited to curate the shows. I love engaging with other artists,” Ang said. “I love finding them, looking at their work, helping them build their body of work, and showing their work.”
The ribbon to the BFF Gallery was officially cut on February’s First Friday and welcomed in guests to see photographs from the last decade of BFF history. The space will be used as an art gallery for the public, but it will also be home to other important BFF spaces, including a gathering place for volunteers and a studio space for artists.
When asked “Why BFF for all these years?”, Ang said they admire how untraditional the organization is.
“I think the way we digest art has shifted so much from these traditional galleries and spaces,” Ang said. “BFF is doing amazing work but it still has that grassroots feel. It feels like anybody can come be involved and anyone has access to the art, which is really important. Everybody should feel like they can access art.”
If you’re an artist who would like to host an exhibit at the new BFF Gallery, we’re eager to hear from you! You can learn more about Ang by connecting with them on Instagram and listening to their podcast, OmahArt!
Katera Brown’s love of photography was born when they strolled on foot around Omaha, phone in hand, practicing photography through the lens of their old Motorola. They quickly became immersed in capturing life around them and turned photography into a full-fledged obsession.
After mastering the way of the Android photographer, Katera was driven to bring their photography to a new level. After they graduated high school, Katera took a leap and purchased their first, shiny Nikon camera with the money they had been saving up since Freshman year. It was a love affair from then on out.
Excited to up their photography skills, Katera decided to join BFF in 2019 as a photography intern under the mentorship of Sarah Hill. It was here that they were able to have the opportunity to practice shooting a wide array of events. Katera was most excited to practice their low light shooting skills during BFF’s night events. One of their favorite recurring assignments is photographing their favorite part of BFF: the artist markets at First Fridays.
Now acting as the Lead Photographer at BFF, Katera uses their trained eye to capture the unique moments of what keeps BFF “good weird.” And there’s a lot of them.
Katera encapsulates the spirit of BFF during a gauntlet of First Friday events; The burlesque and drag performers dancing around The Sydney for Friend of BFF happy hours, the Bensonites cruising through BFF’s art walk, the electricity of the artist markets, the buzz of a mingling crowd at Petshop Art Gallery — and plenty other cherished occasions that would require a novel.
“I think BFF has gotten me out there,” Katera said, referring to having a larger photography presence in the community. “I got to make a lot of progress in my work through BFF.”
Katera’s growth over the last few years is impressive; Not only are they now the commanding photographer at BFF, but their talent and hard work has led them to opportunities in the larger Omaha community. They are most prideful of their photography in exhibits at The Union for Contemporary Art and Kaneko. And, most recently, they got the chance to check an item off of their bucket list: photographing Omaha Fashion Week. To put the cherry on top, Katera has now come full circle, acting as a teacher to new BFF photography interns.
Check out Katera’s work on Instagram @katera_eatsart and catch them snapping photos at upcoming First Fridays.
When Delaney Nordbrock joined BFF Omaha as an intern in 2019, she couldn’t have predicted that the following year she would be leading the charge to ‘go green’ in Benson. She first started volunteering at BFF as a videography intern, but her fiery passion for sustainability naturally transformed her role into something new; A role specifically geared toward keeping Benson healthy, sustainable and vibrant.
One thing you must know about Delaney is that she is an avid lover of all things related to nature. In fact, she’s a self-proclaimed “professional tree hugger” and is determined to work with plants for the rest of her life. She’s passionate about sustainability, the environment and herbal healing. And Benson. She loves Benson.
Benson is a place where thousands of people come to eat, shop, drink and gather. Because there are so many people walking the streets of Benson on any given day, it can mean a hefty amount of trash is discarded onto the ground.
As the trash cans overflowed and the litter piled up, Delaney recognized that environmentally-friendly practices were missing in Benson. She wanted to take care of the neighborhood and see it flourish so that the community could enjoy it. Partnering with her sister McKenna Nordbrock, Delaney pitched the idea of bi-weekly Benson clean ups with the BFF crew. And thus, the BFF Green Team was born!
“This is our home,” said Delaney. “I don’t live [in Benson], but it feels like a home to me. So, I want to take care of it the way I know how, which is through the environment.”
Every other Sunday, BFF volunteers began to meet at Petshop in Benson, BFF’s headquarters, to roam nearby streets and collect litter. The Green Team collects several trash bags full of litter each clean up, mainly consisting of aluminum cans, cigarettes, liquor bottles and straw wrappers.
Those who frequent Benson are taking notice of the cleanups, according to Delaney. When she launched the community cleanups in January 2020, it would take the Green Team hours to pick up litter in Benson. Now, since Benson residents have started to recognize the cleanup crew, Delaney notices less litter on the streets. She believes that since Benson regulars know the Green Team will be cleaning up trash on Sundays, they think twice before discarding trash onto the ground.
“In the grand scheme of things, picking up a couple of cigarette butts is not going to end climate change, but I think it at least sparks an idea,” Delaney said. “I love it when people stop us and say ‘you’re doing a great job.’ They get so excited about it.”
The BFF Green Team’s footprint isn’t limited to community clean ups; they regularly provide education about sustainability and the environment, create public art projects that add beauty to Benson, landscape and host community events.
As for the future, Delaney hopes to see the Green Team expand its footprint in Benson, to positively influence the neighborhood for years to come, and to continue to provide a way for people to connect and build community.
Delaney says that her experience with the Green Team has helped her grow as a person, pushed her out of her comfort zone, exposed her to a diverse group of genuine people and allowed her to meet some of her closest friends.
If you’re interested in volunteering for the BFF Green Team, we are always looking for new friends. No environmental background needed – everyone is welcome! Reach out to Alex Jochim for volunteer opportunities and follow the BFF Green Team on Instagram to stay privy of upcoming community clean ups.