Saddle Creek | Big Harp | Reviews


White Hat

Author: Kevin Coffey
06/17/2012 | Omaha World Herald | | Feature
Max and Willa Presnall's dad doesn't clock in. He doesn't work in an office. His co-workers don't meet in the cafeteria for lunch.

Nope. None of that. When Derek Presnall heads to work, it's to play keyboards, write lyrics, sing songs and dance in a band.

During the day, Presnall stays home with Willa, 2, and Max, 7 months, while his wife, Jamie, works as a teacher. At night, he heads out to play, practice and write with his band Icky Blossoms, which is preparing to release an eponymous album on Saddle Creek Records and embark on a tour.

Presnall's not alone in his non-office job. With its ever-growing arts community, Omaha is home to many young dads who balance fatherhood with work in music, theater and the arts. Differences in careers aside, fledgling fathers in the arts have the same experience as fathers everywhere. They'll celebrate Father's Day today, they work hard and they love to spend time with their families.

Of course, being a dad means they have less time to hang out after a concert or during band practice. Presnall said band practice used to be mostly socializing. Now it's different.

"It's completely focused," he said. "It's like, 'I'm here. Let's start working.'"

Artists also find that being a dad influences their art, even if they're not painting portraits of their kids or writing songs about them.

"The first thing that happens when you become a parent, you have instantly (gained) a profound respect for all parents everywhere," said Hesse McGraw, father of Lars, 2, and chief curator at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art as well as an artist. "I feel like my life is richer because of it, and because of that, it affects the way that I think about things critically and conceptually."

Being around lots of artists hasn't changed what Lars is into, said McGraw, whose art has included photography, video and sound installations. Lars is obsessed with trucks and toys and the types of things any 2-year-old loves.

But given his dad's career, Lars probably always will be surrounded by artists, galleries and studios, which will change how he thinks, McGraw said.

"He seems to have a good sense of wonder and seems to be intensely curious. My wife and I hope that those qualities will lead towards an appreciation of art."

Like any parent, artists can find it hard to explain their careers to their children.

Presnall showed his kids clips of his other band, Tilly and the Wall, on "Sesame Street." Though she's seen him play music at home, Presnall's daughter didn't really understand.

"I'd explain I'm in a band. It was still a very abstract concept," he said. "She got to come see (Icky Blossoms) perform. It really clicked then. I think it's one thing for Dad to play keyboards on the kitchen table compared to Dad performing on a big stage at the park."

Now Willa wants nothing more than to play guitar, sing songs and get on stage, just like her dad.

Chris Senseney, singer and guitarist in Big Harp and a former Omahan, balances a full work day with being in a touring band and having a family.

His job involves an hour commute, but after a long day, he still finds time to play music and play with his children, Twyla, 2, and Hank, 4.

"He does a great job," said his wife, Stefanie Drootin-Senseney, who also plays in Big Harp. "The best thing is that even if he's stressed out, he doesn't take it out on anyone else. He still helps me where I need help, and he's awesome with the kids."

During a recent studio recording session with another band, Senseney took breaks to call his wife and check on her and their kids.

"He's so considerate," Drootin-Senseney said. "Everything he does is for the kids and I. He has a job for us. He wants success from our band for us. He is the kindest father and an amazing teacher."

Dads who are artists or musicians occasionally spend long periods apart from the family.

Presnall has a plan for that.

"I'm about to be on the road for about six months straight. You make do, you know?" he said. "We're planning on having Jamie and the kids come out for some weeklong stints. If I could see them every two weeks, we're good."

While in Los Angeles for more than a month recording Icky Blossoms' coming album, he spent time every night on Skype with his family.

Senseney has another, more uncommon approach: He and Stefanie take their children along, usually with a grandparent.

"We're planning a European tour in the fall and they're gonna come. We've decided that we're gonna tour with them, and if we can't bring them, we won't tour," said Senseney, who works for an online music company in addition to the band. "As they get older, it may change, but for now, they're part of our crew."

A lot of Senseney's friends wonder how they do it, but after the first couple of days on the band's first trip, the kids got used to it.

He and his wife described it like a long vacation. The children get to play in the car, the band plays onstage and the whole family spends time together. It's similar to when Hank was first born and both Senseney and his wife were in full-time bands. They didn't have day jobs and spent most of their time at home with the baby.

Senseney has brought the children on the road enough that Hank often tells people "we're on tour" even when they're on a regular family vacation.

All of the dads we interviewed agreed that the biggest change they faced as artists after fatherhood came in time management and scheduling.

Presnall, an admitted anti-scheduler, said he had to learn how to plan, schedule and map out his time.

"Every minute that I have is, 'I can work now,'" Presnall said. "Art is such a weird thing. You don't realize how much time it takes to make art. It's really, really hard to do."

Presnall's a full-time musician, so he works at home during the day. He wrote many of Icky Blossoms' songs with bandmate Nik Fackler, keeping track of his kids at the same time.

Before kids, Senseney said, his time for making music was unstructured. He'd go weeks without working on new material or take several days and do nothing but play. Now he takes any chance to play music.

"It forces you to focus a little bit and not waste time," he said.

Senseney said his songs aren't often autobiographical, so he doesn't write about his children, but being forced to focus on his songs in between playtime, naps and other activities has made his songwriting better.

Despite the challenges, none of these dads would choose different work. And they won't push their kids into art.

Presnall thinks his kids should be whatever they want.

His parents weren't artists. His father worked for IBM and his mom stayed at home to raise the family. Though they thought music might be just a phase, they've been extremely supportive, Presnall said.

"It's a real job and a legitimate thing to do to be an artist," he said. "My parents are hyper-supportive. They come out on tour with us."

McGraw joked that he and his wife have some careers in mind for Lars out of self interest: a chef, or an architect.

"Those are the skills we wish we had," he said.

But they're content with their current path. Many of McGraw's artist friends have praised him for bringing up a child surrounded by art.

"An artist sent me a note after he was born that said this was a note of congratulations 'Thank you for contributing to the continuity of the conscious world,'" he said. "I really kind of loved that, because being involved in art and having a life in art really structures the way that you look at the world and the way you ask questions."
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