November 25, 2013
Ripping up one career, former architect tore into life of art
By Matthew Hansen / World-Herald columnist

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On the day things changed, Thomas Prinz was 45 years old. He was the loving husband of a doctor and a devoted father to three growing boys. He was a well-regarded but relatively small-time architect in Omaha. He was Nebraska Nice.

He seemed maybe the last person you'd expect to take his life's work, toss it into a trash can, light the trash can on fire, watch it burn and then start anew.

But this is exactly what Tom Prinz was doing, even though he didn't know it yet. It's what he was doing on the day, 14 years ago, when he set up a large canvas in his midtown Omaha home.

On the day things changed, Thomas Prinz was 45 years old. He was the loving husband of a doctor and a devoted father to three growing boys. He was a well-regarded but relatively small-time architect in Omaha. He was Nebraska Nice.

He seemed maybe the last person you'd expect to take his life's work, toss it into a trash can, light the trash can on fire, watch it burn and then start anew.

But this is exactly what Tom Prinz was doing, even though he didn't know it yet. It's what he was doing on the day, 14 years ago, when he set up a large canvas in his midtown Omaha home.

“I needed to do that,” Prinz says. “It was about inhibitions, having no inhibitions. It was a reaction against architecture. And it was an action. I was doing something.”

“Would you like to see it?”

“Your first painting?” I say. “You bet.”

Prinz walks or rather dodges his way through the cluttered second floor of his two-story Benson studio, a funky space where he used to design kitchen remodels and new houses that almost invariably didn't get built. Now the studio is crammed with dozens of pieces of finished and unfinished art. Some look like the pieces he has hanging on the walls of Creighton University, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and in several of the city's best restaurants. Some look like his pieces in his ongoing solo show: “Constructs,” which you can see at Gallery 72 through the end of this month. Some of the art strewn across workbenches, desks and the floor will soon sell for thousands of dollars.

Prinz disappears into a cluttered closet to look for his first-ever painting. I hear an alarmingly loud bang, and then another. “I thought I had it right here ...”

More banging noises. Prinz is either searching for the painting or fixing a toilet.

“Let me look one more place!” he yells out. A minute later he re-emerges, slightly out of breath. “I can't find it,” he says sadly.

Which seems somewhat fitting, because Thomas Prinz's story is the story of losing one thing — sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose — and then replacing it with something else.

In the 1980s Prinz figured he might work at a big architecture firm, wear a suit and tie to work every day, design important buildings. In fact, at one point he got hired by the firm of famed architect Frank Gehry. (The money dried up for the project Prinz had been hired for, and he never made it to his first day at Gehry's firm in Los Angeles.)

But by the '90s he tossed aside that idea by choice. He discarded it to work out of his Omaha home and take care of three young boys while his wife, Kate, worked as an ear-nose-throat specialist. He juggled career and family like so few male workers did a generation ago.

And then, as their children grew up, he found himself at an even more unusual crossroads.

Prinz was no slouch as an architect: His small firm won a prestigious American Architecture Award for a home project in 2002, and another in 2006 for the design of Prinz's Benson studio.

He worked with Randy Brown Architects on the 120BLO project, a one-of-a-kind office-­retail building at 120th and Blondo that Architectural Digest fawned over (Headline: “Omaha Victory”) but that residents of the area weren't quite so fond of. (This newspaper, in 1995: “Six out of nine people who walk into the store ask if I know what that weird building across the street is going to be,” said Vern Sanwick, a nearby store manager.)

But starting in 1999, when he made that first piece of art, Prinz grew more and more interested in art and less and less interested in his architecture day job.

And so he gradually did something about it. He slowed his architectural work. And then, maybe five years ago, he simply quit.

“There was no day I said 'That's it,'?” Prinz says. “It just kind of happened.”

Prinz read everything about art and art history he could get his hands on. He painted one painting and then another and then 100 more. And then he began to photograph those paintings, or scan them, manipulate them in Photoshop and then print them.

The result is art that some people walk up to and say, “That looks architectural.” Increasingly, other Omahans walk up to this art and say, “Hey, it's a Thomas Prinz.” Increasingly, still other Omahans walk up to this art and say, “I'm going to buy that.”

The result is that, at age 59 — 14 years after he started over — Tom Prinz just had the most amazing single month of his work life.

First he learned that the Los Angeles Center for Digital Art, in a juried competition, picked him as the digital artist with the best solo exhibit in 2013. It called his work “brilliant hybrid abstractions” and said they “occupy the space between painting and technology.”

Then the Briar Cliff Review, an esteemed literary journal, put a piece of Prinz's art on its cover. Then the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts used a Thomas Prinz work as the title piece for its 15th annual Art Gala. An image of his work went out on the gala's invitations to hundreds of people, including most of the city's biggest art collectors.

And then he opened his latest solo show, at Gallery 72. The works in this show are a series of digitized collages that Prinz can't stop making. That he can't stop thinking about.

“It's funny,” Prinz says. “I used to be working on a house and I'd be worry about the stairs being two inches off. That's what would keep me up at night.”

“Now I sit and I wonder 'Should it be yellow?' 'I like the tape sticking on that piece. Should I leave it there?'?”

Tom Prinz can't sleep much anymore, he tells me. But he's smiling as he says it, and I understand.

He can't sleep because things have changed. He can't sleep because he has so much work left to do.

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