Scattered around Josephine Langbehn’s studio on the second floor of Hot Shops, snapshots of history are found within black and white photographs.
As a child, Langbehn says she loved browsing through her mother’s and grandma’s old photos. The figures and backgrounds in the black and white stills captured memories from her family.
“I love the aesthetics and mystery of them,” Langbehn says. “All of my paintings are black and white because I love getting lost in creating all the shadings and the values in the contrast between the figures and the backgrounds.”
Langbehn dug further into her family’s history by collecting stories from her relatives and asked her mother “millions of questions” through the process.
“As my mom, she spent so much time taking care of me and my other family members,” she says, “but what about her stories? And what about my uncles’ stories? Or my dad’s? And the rest of my family? What did they experience in their life? That’s where it started.”
With the old photos of her family, she began bringing the images to life on canvases. Langbehn pulls the subjects out of the photos and leaves the background white. While white may seem empty, she says the space leaves a narrative question.
“It gives an opportunity for the subject matter to really pop,” Langbehn says. “There is so much noise in our world, we’re constantly inundated with information all the time. It’s nice to have space for your mind to wander and give time to reflect on the people who have come before us.”
Creating art from old photos has also brought healing to Langbehn during difficult times in her life. After the death of a close family member, she preserved his memories on a canvas.
“The piece of my Uncle Joe, when he passed away, that was my healing,” Langbehn says. “I did it as a way to pay tribute to him. I had prints made, and I was able to send them to my cousins, my mom and aunt and uncle.”
Langbehn’s passion for art blossomed at a young age. As she explored her family’s history, she also began experimenting with visual art. Langbehn says she began formal art lessons in middle school and stuck with it.
One teacher in particular, Astra Patterson, fostered a continued love of art for Langbehn as she got older. The impact art had on Langbehn led her to pursue a career sharing art with students. She taught art education in the Omaha and Gretna school districts for over 14 years. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. During her tenure as a full-time educator, she served as co-president of the Nebraska Art Teachers Association.
“It’s exciting to see how art education can be brought into a community beyond the classroom,” Langbehn says. “Kids that love art need a place to go.”
In 2022, Langbehn changed the course of how she taught art education to pursue art full-time. As a resident at Hot Shops Art Center, she balances her love for creating with her love of teaching. She now teaches classes at Hot Shops, the Omaha Homeschool Learning Center, The Creative Impulse and Metro non-credited classes. She also serves on the teaching roster of the Nebraska Arts Council’s Creative Aging Program and Artists in Schools and Communities program.
While scary at times, the transition was a learning curve for Langbehn. She says she enjoys continuing to teach art in the Omaha community, beyond the traditional classroom walls.
“This connection gives us this opportunity to communicate who we are,” Langbehn says. “I feel in this world we need to hear and learn about others. It’s great because you can just be pushing paint around and there isn’t a wrong answer. The process and results are immensely valuable as a learning tool and to our wellbeing.”
Through the transition, Langbehn also grew her art business. By having a space to share her work, she began to connect with others who wanted to tell their family’s stories.
“When we have open houses, oftentimes people will scroll through their phones and show me their own family photos, and it’s really sweet,” Langbehn says. “They begin telling me their family stories and sharing their own memories. My work and memories connect to theirs. Starting conversations or sharing a dialog through the visual arts, I wouldn’t hear these stories if I wasn’t sharing my work.”
One client commissioned Langbehn to create a painting of his grandfather as a Christmas gift for his mother.
“He sent me the video of her opening the present and it hit me,” Langbehn says. “It was a whole other level of emotion. She cried when she saw the painting of her father. It brought so many memories for her.”
While our time in the world is short, Langbehn says investing in pieces of history allows her to learn more about others.
“These little remnants of the past are often stuffed in a drawer, lost or damaged,” Langbehn says. “But that’s a token of someone’s life, someone’s memory. It’s interesting to pull those out of a shoe box or from the back of the closet and enlarge it and give a moment to reflect on those stories. It’s like we are bringing their legacy back to life.”