Sculptor John Lajba

Omaha sculptor John Lajba molds masterpieces around the world.



(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)


Omaha artist John Lajba always wanted to do something significant.

As a young man in his 20s, Lajba followed his parents’ work ethic, taking hard jobs such as washing dishes and processing mail. Eventually, he enrolled in the art program at Bellevue University. He had always been interested in art, and he had a talent for it. He didn’t need anyone to teach him how to create, but Lajba learned something very valuable at art school. “Some places can teach you techniques,” Lajba said. “But they taught me how to observe.”

Thirty years later, people see through Lajba’s eyes and experience his vision through masterpieces all over the globe. He has works in Poland and Japan, and his sculpture “Grey Eagle” is at the Pentagon. The U.S. Department of Defense sent Lajba fragments of metal from World War I and II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and Desert Storm. Lajba melted the bits into the bronze, fusing memories of those conflicts together in the memorial statue. He’s also created a bust of Bob Hope; Hope himself was at the unveiling. Lajba also created the likeness of late NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt that stands at Florida’s Daytona Motor Speedway. And the trophy awarded every year to the winner of the Daytona 500 – Lajba created it too.

“Most of my work isn’t in Omaha,” Lajba said. Luckily for us, some of it is.

Lajba created the World War II monument in Heartland of America Park at 8th and Farnam streets. It depicts a returning soldier with children, the well-known Rosie the Riveter, a family with a folded flag and a boy gathering scrap metal for the war effort, all in bronze. Lajba also is responsible for the sculpture of Chef Boyardee that stands in lifelike form outside of ConAgra Foods’ downtown Omaha campus. Lajba completed the sculpture in 2011 using photographs of the brand’s namesake, Ettore “Hector” Boiardi, who died in 1985, to recreate his likeness in bronze.

Lajba has a following of thousands in Nebraska, and they dress more like the sports fans they are than art aficionados. Many may not even think of the artist, but they’ve posed with what is Lajba’s best-known home-state sculpture.

In 1999, Lajba sculpted “The Road to Omaha,” the iconic bronze sculpture depicting four elated baseball players in joyous celebration at home plate. It was originally installed at Omaha’s beloved Rosenblatt Stadium, but it was removed in March 2011 before Rosenblatt was razed. The College World Series of Omaha, Inc., which owns the sculpture, took the opportunity to have Lajba refurbish it. In April of the same year the bronze was rededicated at the northwest corner of TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, much to the delight of visitors and players here at the home of the College World Series.

 

AN ANCIENT BRICK building in Omaha’s Old Market area is this artist’s arena. It was once a lawn and garden shop, but now it is a labyrinth of rooms and passages, overgrown with what is perhaps the strangest collection of items ever assembled. Nobody could even imagine this conglomeration of pieces and parts, most of it study material for various sculptures Lajba has created or one day will.

On one shelf there’s a 1959 Air Force helmet, used for a bronze depicting the heroic World War II pilot James Doolittle that is displayed at the Air Force Association in Arlington, Va. Next to that is a man’s torso with no head. Above that rests a heavenly angel, right next to a medical school diagram of the human skeletal system. There are ladders and scaffolding and a tractor, mannequin heads and several rows of theater seats from an old Grand Island opera house that Lajba rescued just before they were to be destroyed. “You would think a museum would want those,” Lajba remarked.

An old Jeep Commanche pickup occupies one bay of the Lajba building. It’s missing the steering wheel, headlights and grille and is multicolored due to past rounds of bodywork. The seatback is gone, having been tossed in the bed of the vehicle with everything else that Lajba refers to as his “Island of Failed Hobbies.” “I’ve always wanted a hobby,” Lajba said. “And I’d love to restore this beast, and the other one over buried there, but I’m too busy with everything else I’ve got to do.”

The outside of the building is less colorful. Lajba hangs no sign. He doesn’t have a website, or business cards either. His commissions come through word of mouth or from people that like a Lajba sculpture they’ve seen somewhere else and track down the artist.

“When I sculpt, I always start with the face,” Lajba said. “I try to discover what the person is thinking. And I think of them as a friend, visiting me through the sculpture.” Lajba is currently working on the figure of an Air Force pilot who was shot down in 1961. “The world was tumultuous then,” Lajba said. “I think of our world at that time. I listen to that music of the anti-war movement to open a door to that time.”

The pilot was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and the Smithsonian Institution sent one to Lajba to study for the creation of the sculpture. “It isn’t something you hold carelessly,” Lajba said. “You don’t let your friends try it on. There is honor in it.”

All that Lajba has to work with is photographs of the pilot declared missing in action long ago. But when it is finished, the fallen hero’s family will be able to see him for the first time in more than half a century. “I’m looking forward to his family looking him in the eyes and saying, ‘Hello.’”

Bringing memories back to life and creating them to endure forever is all in a day’s work for Lajba.

How significant is that? 

Check out more of John Lajba's work at publicartomaha.org.


(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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