Liz Shea-McCoy likes to tell people that she wears three different hats: professional artist, art educator and public art director.
That’s a trifecta that has immensely benefited Lincoln. She’s helped transform the city with her public art projects. She’s helped others hone their artistic vision through her teaching with the Nebraska Arts Council. And she’s been an art professional for over 40 years.
But wearing so many hats can be challenging, she said. The biggest challenge is finding focus.
“I’m cursed with loving everything I do,” she said. “I love working with people and artists, teaching and creating my own work.”
But the recent stay-at-home orders has helped Shea-McCoy devote more focus to exploring her own art projects. She rents a studio close to her home, where she can spread out and get creative.
“In these tricky times I just wear my artist hat,” she said. “The timing was absolutely perfect.”
Right now, she’s working on collage, or assemblage art, which incorporates different elements into one piece. While her formal art education began with a master’s in textile design from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she later discovered a passion for transforming found objects into art.
“I look at all these little things I’ve found along the way and they each seem to have potential,” she said. “I’m inspired by fragments and I love old things.”
Shea-McCoy discovered art and teaching when she lived in North Carolina. After graduating from Lindenwood University in Missouri with a teaching degree, she followed a college roommate to Durham. They purchased oil paints for entertainment because they didn’t own a TV, and her first teaching job was in Wilton, a rural community 30 miles outside of town surrounded by tobacco fields.
“That was a great cultural experience for me, but then I missed the Midwest and decided to move back,” she said.
Most recognize Shea-McCoy for her contributions to Lincoln’s public art scene, her grass-roots projects that included colorful and whimsical bicycles, light bulbs and hearts. Her most recent project was “Serving Hands,” a collection of 39 six-foot hands auctioned off in October after a three-month display throughout the city.
“I seem to be a good fit to take these on because I’m an artist, art-advocate, community advocate, and I care about families and kids as an educator,” she said. “I also like to problem solve. Every day I wake up during these projects I wait for the phone to ring.”
Shea-McCoy was inspired to bring public art to Lincoln after a 2001 trip to the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. She and a few friends happened to see a J. Doe fiberglass human figure sculpture, part of Omaha’s public art project.
“The whole ride back to Lincoln I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great for Lincoln to have a public art project.’ I just saw the positivity these projects bring into our communities.”
But creating such big public art projects isn’t an easy task. It takes a special person – and Shea-McCoy is that person, according to Anne Woita, who served with Shea-McCoy on the Hildegard Center for the Arts board of directors.
“She has a fire in her belly and a drive to make a difference,” Woita said. “For her to do anything less would be to deny who she is.”
Woita, who helped found the Hildegard Center, first met Shea-McCoy in March 2010 at a coffee shop to discuss what she could bring to the non-profit arts organization’s cause.
The two worked on projects together such as a “Heroes Among Us,” which brought art opportunities to at-risk children.
“She puts the same effort into a tiny project affecting a handful of kiddos as she does with those massive community art projects that enjoyed by so many,” Woita said. “She is incredibly talented and has brought much joy and beauty to the world through her creations.”
Shea-McCoy now has decided to take a step back from being an art director and prioritize her own work as a professional artist. She aspires to have an exhibit ready by next fall and develop a website to showcase her work.
“I want to have an exhibit of my own work and have people pick out things they love that I’ve created from my own heart,” she said. “It’s really nice to come to a place in my life where I feel secure about my own work and feel it’s worthy at where I price it.”
Shea-McCoy, 69, loves to mark her improvement since her days as a college student dabbling in oil paints. She feels lucky to be able to continue her artistic journey while many of her peers face retirement and does not plan on slowing down.
“I’ve been working on a project and all of a sudden I get starving and my eyes get blurry because I’ve been focusing so hard on this project,” she said. “If I could go another 30 years, my work would only grow stronger.”
Shea-McCoy hopes to eventually sell to larger markets, including Omaha. However, she feels rooted in Lincoln, where every day she gets to see the public art sculptures she helped materialize.
“I still get phone calls from people saying, ‘Liz, I got a great idea for the next public art project,’” she said. “My legacy is really in this community and statewide.”