There are 71 bikes, 51 light bulbs and 89 hearts in Lincoln, thanks to the passion of Liz Shea-McCoy.
Shea-McCoy is the woman behind the well-known public art projects that have added fun, spice and color to Lincoln’s landscape, and raised money for good works.
It all started with a 2001 trip with friends to Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, where Shea-McCoy happened to see the no-smoking J. Doe sculpture, a human form that was part of Omaha’s public art project, near Central High School.
At the next Lincoln Arts Council meeting, Shea-McCoy talked about how this kind of a public art project would be a great thing to do in Lincoln.
“And they all said, ‘Go for it, Liz.'”
First her committee needed a theme for the project. Chicago, the first city to do this kind of a cookie-cutter art project, had cows. Omaha did a human figure. St. Paul, Minnesota, had an assortment of hometown boy Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon characters.
Many people suggested corn. But Lincoln is urban, so Shea-McCoy wasn’t sure corn was the best idea.
One night on the news, Shea-McCoy saw a ribbon-cutting for one of Lincoln’s bike trails, with individuals of all ages participating.
“Lincoln has one of the top trail networks in the nation. There’s a lot of enthusiasm for biking in the city. I like to bike. Everyone can identify with a bike. And that was it,” she said.
The idea behind 2003 Tour de Lincoln — which raised more than $500,000 for the Lincoln Arts Council, the artists and other art-related charities — was born.
Shea-McCoy and her husband, Mike McCoy, like to bike and have taken biking vacations in Spain and Italy, where they pedaled 35 to 50 miles a day.
Lincoln was the first community in the country to use a bike as the foundation piece and the first to make a figure out of steel rather than fiberglass.
“That made sense, because a bike is a machine,” she said.
Shea-McCoy, an artist herself, made three bikes with a little help from welding students at Southeast Community College in Milford. She also made two light bulbs and a heart in the later projects she orchestrated for Lincoln and the state of Nebraska.
Shea-McCoy is passionate about her projects, about art, about her community. She’s passionate about many things.
“I’m a community advocate. There are a lot of beautiful, sophisticated kinds of public art. But so many people love something they can identify with. A bicycle, a light bulb, a heart. I like grass-roots projects.”
In her youth she was passionate about athletics. Then Liz Weyhrauch was a member of the Aqua Links, the synchronized swimming team at Lincoln High School, where that sport was about the only available one for a high school girl in the 1960s.
She lettered in field hockey, basketball and volleyball at Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Missouri, where she majored in physical education, because she wanted to make sure more sports and activities would be available to girls.
Shea-McCoy changed her major when she realized she would also have to take science and biology and learn formulas — “all that left-brain stuff.”
“I couldn’t get out of that curriculum fast enough.”
Shea-McCoy transferred to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and earned a degree (with distinction) in elementary and special education.
Twenty years ago, when her children were attending Irving Junior High and Shea-McCoy was president of the parent-teacher-student organization, she spearheaded a campaign to get traffic signals at the school after three students were hit by cars.
It took meetings with city staff, student activism, letters to the editor and testimony to the City Council, but the city did install flashing lights on Van Dorn Street.
“If I believe in something, I’m going to fight for it,” she said. “I am so passionate. And I care about everything and everyone.”
Shea-McCoy brought that passion to her public art projects.
Reporters know a message to “Please call Liz” means she’s hoping for another story. Friends, who are also donors, walk the other way when they see her coming, she jokes.
And in the middle of an interview for this story, Shea-McCoy made one more pitch for another story about the Nebraska 150 sesquicentennial heart project.
“People want to know where the hearts (now privately owned) are placed. Some aren’t going to be placed until spring.”
But Shea-McCoy promised sometime next year she will send information to the Journal Star about where people can see the hearts that are available for public viewing.
And after the story appears, you can be sure she’ll call or email a thank you.
The public art projects have made her better at asking and better at saying “thank you,” she said.
“We just don’t say ‘thank you’ enough.”
Shea-McCoy’s own contribution, a red, white and blue patriotic heart, grew out of her heritage — her dad, Bob Weyhrauch, father-in-law Harlan McCoy and husband are all veterans — and her own love of her country.
Whenever she’s taken trips abroad, Shea-McCoy said she returns with a renewed sense that “our country is a gift.”
Shea-McCoy’s heart was purchased by Dara Troutman, chief of staff at the University of Nebraska Foundation, because of its patriotic theme.
Troutman’s dad graduated from the United State Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, and made the Navy his career, and she is a “proud Navy brat.”
The heart is displayed outside Troutman’s Lincoln home as a memorial to her father, who died last year, and symbolizes to Troutman the “love of family and duty to serve.”
Shea-McCoy came to art later in life, after training to be a teacher, marrying, becoming a mom to two girls. “I was a late bloomer,” she said.
As a kid she took piano lessons and sang in the church choir. But it wasn’t until she was in her early 20s that she found her creativity needed an outlet.
Shea-McCoy and a college friend were living in North Carolina in an apartment with no TV and nothing to do, so they bought art supplies and started painting.
Eventually Shea-McCoy earned a master’s degree from UNL in textiles and started on a doctorate. She was a graduate teaching assistant and a single mom when she decided she didn’t need another degree, she needed to make some money.
She got a tax number, became an artist-in-residence for the Nebraska Arts Council and began working as a freelance textile designer.
Though she earns some money from each public art project, it is a labor of love. Shea-McCoy spends hundreds of hours soliciting artists, recruiting donors and finding businesses willing to share outdoor space for a sculpture, promoting the project and putting out the inevitable, metaphorical fires.
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The owner of the company that made the fiberglass hearts for the latest project spent six months in jail for air pollution violations, but all the Lincoln hearts had already been manufactured.
“I love to do everything. It is a curse,” said Shea-McCoy.
In addition to the Lincoln projects, Shea-McCoy has orchestrated “An Enchanted Arboretum” in Nebraska City with more than 70 trees, including 25 six-foot trees designed by professional artists and high school students, plus more than 45 smaller trees designed by younger students.
Picking the sculpture idea for the 25-year anniversary of Lighthouse, an after-school program, took some finesse.
Lighthouse staff had their hearts set on a public art project using lighthouses, which made sense in Maine, where it had been done.
Shea-McCoy came up with an alternative idea — a light bulb that would symbolize great ideas, learning and creativity.
The 2015 Illuminating Lincoln project raised $250,000 for Lighthouse and the artists.
The heart idea had been bubbling for a few years. Then Shea-McCoy found out about Nebraska’s 150th celebration. It was a birthday party in the Heartland that created a perfect combination. Nebraska By Heart was the result.
Her artwork carries the name she had when she first started making art — Liz Shea.
In her professional life, she is the hyphenated Shea-McCoy to honor her husband, a family practice doctor, who still works part time.
Together they have four children, four grandchildren and a very full life.
They met at the Cornhusker Ski Club, a family organization she discovered while channel surfing one lonely night, eating graham crackers and wondering, “How can I meet people, get friends.”
She describes McCoy as a Renaissance man, and she’s not sure he got a word in edgewise during their courtship.
McCoy admits he is a more analytical, or left-brained person, but with a great appreciation for artists like his wife and their creative talents.
McCoy has been involved in Shea-McCoy’s art projects — “writing, editing, moving objects, driving vehicles and acting as a gofer.”
And Shea-McCoy says her husband is a patient advocate, a voracious reader who exercises on a daily basis and eats a balanced diet.
Her eating habits are a bit different. When the couple first started dating, she said, “He asked me to come to his office to check my cholesterol level — how romantic.”
A six-page resume is a testament to Shea-McCoy’s full, eclectic life, from serving on numerous boards, teaching an assortment of classes, orchestrating more than a dozen fundraising projects and winning a half-dozen awards. Plus, she is an associate member of the Burkholder Project, where she shows her art.
“She is a very, very creative person and very wonderful about giving her time to things she really believes in,” said Anne Burkholder, a stalwart of Lincoln’s art community.
Right now, Shea-McCoy said she is not contemplating another project.
“But if the right person and right idea came along, I just might consider it.”