The KANEKO exhibition is closed for deinstallation – The KANEKO library is open Thurs – Sun from 1pm to 5pm

Artist Panel Conversation: Opera Coat

past event

January 20, 2024

4:00 pm


West Entrance

Library doors on 12th & Jones Streets.


The Development of Opera Coat and Institutional Support for Artmaking Across Disciplines   

Join sculptor Lee Emma Running, and individuals from two institutions that supported the production of Running’s sculpture, Opera Coat.

Running was inspired to create Opera Coat as part of her 2022-2023 artist residency with Opera Omaha. She began working on the sculpture in early 2023 during her artist residency at Arts/Industry at Kohler Company and finalized the work at Opera Omaha in the latter half of 2023. This panel conversation will explore non-traditional collaborations and ways institutions support the generation of art in our community.

Opera Coat is on display in the KANEKO Library through mid-February 2024 and will then travel to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center for display in a group exhibition in July 2024 as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Arts/Industry residency at Kohler Company.


Lee Emma Running, Artist
Siara Berry, Arts/Industry Residency Program Director, John Michael Kohler Arts Center
Tanya Gayer, Associate Curator, John Michael Kohler Arts Center
Lauren Medici, Director of Engagement Programs, Opera Omaha


Enameled cast iron sculpture, embellished with copper and bronze.

“An object of beauty and mystery, inviting an audience to explore the complexity of the objects used in opera represented in the unique tailoring and particular plants.”

The coat sculpture is a direct cast, meaning each piece of the sculpture is cast exactly from the fabric. Before casting, the garment was turned inside out, exposing the part of the costume that is usually hidden from the audience, prompting a focus on what goes on behind the curtains and inside an opera company. The exterior fabric is embellished with botanical symbols, wild roses and deadly nightshade have been cast into the iron. The space inside the garment is empty, allowing the viewer to imagine their own body inside the opera coat.

Opera Coat is the culminating creation of Opera Omaha’s 22/23 Artist in Residence, Lee Emma Running. Visit Exhibition

Artist Statement

I was invited to be an artist in residence with Opera Omaha for the 2023 season. I would observe opera production during rehearsal, backstage, and from multiple vantage points in the audience. I began by investigating the myriad of handmade objects and garments that create the world the opera singers inhabit. Artisans construct objects to fit the pitch of a stage, and garments are re-tailored for specific bodies, at a specific time. I’m a sculptor, and my work often focuses on the properties of a given material. A garment built with seams designed for alteration had broad resonance. What if not only garments but cities, systems, and culture were designed with change in mind? 

Early on, I spent an afternoon in the costume collection of the opera, looking for a coat. The room was filled, floor to ceiling, with garments printed and woven with botanicals and metallic threads. I found a tailcoat that had different linings and complicated shoulder seams. Turning it inside out revealed the evidence of how it was made, and I knew that I wanted it to inform my sculpture. 

In January of 2023, Kohler Co., in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, granted me a dream residency in their Arts/Industry Foundry program. This residency invited me to create art using the processes of enameled cast iron sinks and bathtubs. This was an incredible resource, and with the support of the foundry associates and Arts/Industry technician, I knew I could cast the Opera Coat in iron, at full scale. 

I learned about how the coat was made by taking it apart. Remaking this garment in iron presented an opportunity to embellish and change the material’s surface. To do this I used enamel, which begins as powdered glass. 

By enameling the coat, I created a shiny surface that would be stunning from the stage. My work has always referenced the local natural world, and I filled the coat with botanical symbols of love and death from opera. I traced wild roses and deadly nightshade directly from specimens in the Nebraska State Herbarium that I then leafed with a thin layer of copper to catch the light. 

Les Bruning’s Foundry in Omaha, where the Opera Coat was assembled, cast the seams in bronze. The experts at Kaneko installed the sculpture, and Opera Omaha Staff designed the lighting. 

Many hands and minds have supported the ideation and fabrication of this sculpture. By turning this coat inside out, we see not only the evidence of the tailors who constructed the original garment but also the specificity of the material of raw cast iron, the detail captured in the bronze seams, and the weave of the fabric. Inside the coat the glass and copper surface of the enamel is luminous. I desire that this sculpture reminds us of the many hours, hands, craftspeople, designers, experts, and dreamers at the heart of cultural production.

Lee Emma Running

Lee Emma Running is an artist creating arresting sculptures with roadkill animal bones, kiln-cast glass, and precious metals. She also fabricates monumental public installations on windows. For the last 15 years, she has been using this work to engage audiences in conversations about the impact of human-built systems on the natural world. Lee is a 2023 Resident in the Arts/Industry program at Kohler and a 2022/23 Artist in Residence with Opera Omaha. She was also a 2017/18 Iowa Arts Council Fellow. Permanent installations of her work can be viewed at the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, the Bernheim Arboretum, and Upper Iowa University. Her work has been featured in exhibitions at the Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, IA, National Taiwan University of the Arts, Taipei, Taiwan, Form and Concept Gallery, Santa Fe, NM, and PACE Gallery, Council Bluffs, IA. She has also been a speaker with TEDx, Omaha. Lee was a Professor of Art at Grinnell College from 2005- 2021 and holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, and a BFA from Pratt Institute. Her work is represented by Olson-Larsen Galleries.

Riverside Chats

Lee Emma Running on ‘Opera Coat’ and Exploring the Natural World Through Art

Listen Now

Related Programs

Support Kaneko