In her studio and storefront located within the NoDo district of North Downtown Omaha, Julia M. Illustrates is creating waves with unique illustrations that go beyond mere aesthetics.

Julia McGuigan, the creative force behind the brand, and her designs reflect not only artistic dexterity but also the diversity of the Omaha community.

The inspiration for Julia M. Illustrates was sparked during a study abroad experience in San Jose, Costa Rica, where McGuigan stayed with a host family and created art every day. Throughout her time in San Jose, she encountered the captivating works of a local illustrator, Priscilla Aguirre, and her shop named “Holalola.” Struck by the beauty of illustrations highlighting the provinces of Costa Rica, McGuigan found her muse and realized the potential of creating similar representations for her own community.

“I thought, ‘Wow, somebody needs to be doing this where we live. What a cool way to highlight the attractions or the most memorable pieces of our communities,’” McGuigan recounts.

McGuigan’s journey began with neighborhood illustrations, starting with Dundee and expanding to encompass various communities like Little Italy and Field Club. She began selling her work at local makers markets in 2015, and from there it evolved into a full-time job.

For each illustration, McGuigan starts with a pool of reference photos that she gathers from the internet or takes herself, depending on the desired perspective. These explorations not only contribute to her artistic process but deepen her connection with Omaha’s rich history and architecture.

After the research phase, she puts pencil to paper. In the final stages of the project, she works with pen and watercolor to capture all the fine details that allow the piece to come to life.

McGuigan distinguishes herself through a meticulous attention to detail in each of her pieces, a characteristic that sets her apart from her peers. Delighting in the art of surprise, she often embeds subtle easter eggs within her designs.

For instance, when tasked with creating a commemorative piece for Midtown Crossing’s 10-year anniversary, she thoughtfully inserted depictions of herself and her husband enjoying a picnic in Turner Park. A careful examination of her Dewey Park illustration reveals the charming presence of her dog, comfortably seated in the lush surroundings. In the portrayal of the Old Market, one can spot her old friend skillfully skateboarding past La Buvette, while in the Millwork Commons design, Jack, the district’s beloved UPS driver, is captured giving a treat to a fortunate pup on his usual route that passes by her studio.

“I add just a little something that people wouldn’t initially catch just by looking at it,” McGuigan beams.

Her attention to detail is part of a deliberate effort to make each piece a reflection of the community it represents. Her art is not just about capturing landmarks; it’s a celebration of the community’s heart and soul, an ode to the individuals who make it feel like home. McGuigan’s illustrations become visual narratives, telling stories of Omaha’s neighborhoods and creating a sense of pride and connection amongst residents.

Nostalgia also plays an important role in each series and project that materializes in her studio. When older generations interact with her work, they’ll often share stories about what Omaha used to look like when they were young.

Ultimately, her designs are a catalyst for community building. McGuigan expresses her excitement about the mission to “build community within Omaha and the surrounding little neighborhoods and areas,” with her illustrations acting as bridges, connecting people through shared memories and local landmarks.

The storefront, which also doubles as McGuigan’s studio, plays a pivotal role in this community-centric approach. Initially a small solar paneling office, the storefront evolved into a vibrant space where art meets the community. Julia hosts workshops, pop-ups, and events, contributing not just as an artist but as a facilitator of community engagement.

For McGuigan, owning and operating Julia M. Illustrates is a balance between inspiration and business acumen. She navigates the balance with meticulous planning and organization, skills honed during her time as an educator.

Her teaching background, where planning was key, seamlessly translates into managing the multifaceted aspects of her art business.

“I try to balance the creativity by mixing in a marketing email, maybe making some graphics, or whatever admin work needs attention,” she explains. “It can be hard because some weeks, I’m not even drawing at all.”

McGuigan’s disciplined approach allows her to embrace both the joy of creation and the demands of running a successful business, and her prior experience as an art teacher provides immense gratitude and perspective for where she is today.

“When I was teaching, I never got to make my own art,” McGuigan reflects. “Now, I can’t wait to get to the studio, and I just feel so grateful to do what I love. Not many people have that feeling or opportunity.”

Her attention to detail is part of a deliberate effort to make each piece a reflection of the community it represents.

As a commitment to doing what she loves, McGuigan made a deliberate choice to delete her Instagram account at the close of 2023. This intentional shift away from social media is rooted in a desire to alleviate the pressures associated with constant content creation and consumption, a burden that had started to encroach on her creative space and personal life.

“Dropping the app has been a weight lifted off my shoulders and I want to inspire others to do the same if they feel it is affecting their mental health too,” McGuigan encourages.

McGuigan is open about sharing this decision, expressing her desire for people to discover and engage with her work through her website and by subscribing to her mailing list.

In reflecting on Julia M. Illustrates, McGuigan believes her work significantly contributes to instilling a local sense of pride in Omaha, particularly among first-time encountering tourists and international students. She enjoys showcasing the diverse neighborhoods and educating them about distinctive landmarks that define Omaha.

“I hope that they see how Omaha is a really cool, up-and-coming city,” McGuigan boasts.