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Durham Museum to celebrate 40-and-40: Forty years as train station and four decades as museum


There was a time, not so long ago, when it seemed Omaha was hell-bent on tearing down its history.  All manner of historic structures were razed: the old United States Post Office ; the Fontenelle Hotel, a huge tract of warehouses in Jobber’s Canyon, the Medical Arts Building. Thank God more jewels were saved than lost: the Old Market district; the Orpheum Theatre, the Rose Theater; Union Station, Burlington Station, the Brandeis Building, Joslyn Castle, the Storz Mansion, the Mastercraft, Omar Bakery, the Livestock Exchange Building, St. Cecilia Cathedral and many more that have been protected, renovated, and repurposed.  Some of those survived narrowly escaped being razed.  It took agitation, activism, vision, and purpose by determined people to save some if not all of those treasures.  The tension between new development and historic preservation continues, as witnessed by the recent loss of the apartment buildings just east of Midtown Crossing and the Johnson & Johnson Mortuary on South 10th Street.  One of the most signifcant saves was Union Station ,which today goes by the name Durham Museum to reflect its adapted reuse as a museum charting Omaha’s and the nation’s history.  My new story about the Durham for Metro Magazine (/www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) explains how that building has now reached the same number of years, 40, in its role as a museum that it served as a passenger rail station for Union Pacific Railroad.  It is one of those grand structures, certainly  by Omaha terms, that never fails to mesmerize and impress me by its sheer size and grandeur.  My eyes automatically fix on the far upper reaches of that proletarian palace.  I never met or caught a train there, but I recently had the privilege of delivering a lecture there and I hope to have the opportunity to do so again in the near future.

 

 

Durham Museum to celebrate 40-and-40: Forty years as train station and four decades as museum
Dual milestone for historic landmark thriving in new use
Museum’s growth spurred by champion and namesake
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (/www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)Forty years. That’s the length of time the former Union Station in Omaha operated as a passenger train center and come 2015 that same Art Deco-style building marks 40 years as the Durham Museum.

It’s not often a grand public space celebrates a dual legacy with a shared milestone of service. From 1931 to 1971 millions of rail passengers passed through. Starting in 1975 the old Union Station became a cultural-historical venue that millions more have visited.

Much like the history it celebrates, Durham Museum was not built in a day. Neither was its home, Union Station. Union Pacific began construction on it in 1929, the year the Stock Market Crash triggered the Great Depression. The Gilbert Stanley Underwood-designed structure opened in 1931, the year when a congressional resolution officially made the “Star Spangled Banner” America’s national anthem.

As soon as Union Station closed in 1971 the site’s future lay in doubt. Its survival looked bleak the longer it sat abandoned and untended. Even after UP donated the place to the City of Omaha in 1973, most officials regarded it as a burden or albatross, not a gift. Many called for the “eyesore” to be torn down. Enter a group of preservationist-minded private citizens who formed the Western Heritage Society as a vehicle for reopening the former train station as a museum. If not for their efforts this monument to Omaha’s vigor may have gone the way of other historic buildings that got razed rather than saved.

Originally known as the Western Heritage Museum, the institution was resource-poor its first two decades yet managed to give new life to the old digs that had seen far better days. Most importantly it built a formidable body of artifacts related to early Omaha, including the Byron Reed Collection of rare coins and documents and the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection of late 19th century-early 20th century photographs. It also originated events, such as Christmas at Union Station, that became community traditions.

Durham executive director Christi Janssen admires the vision and fortitude of those angels, including Itey Crummer, Emi Baker and Ron Hunter, who made the old train station a museum.

“Their challenges were way different than our challenges today,” she says. “They were really fighting hard to raise money to turn the lights on essentially.”

 
Chuck to the rescue
Then, in the mid-1990s, the struggling museum that long postponed much-needed renovations and improvements for lack of funds was gifted with tens of millions of dollars through a Heritage Services drive. That campaign also brought the museum one of its greatest champions, the late Charles W. “Chuck” Durham, who grew HDR Inc. into a national engineering firm and became a major philanthropist.”Fortunately, Chuck Durham showed up with a keen architectural and engineering instinct. Walking into this Union Station Chuck could see beyond the collapsing roof, the peeling paint and the tarnished light fixtures and envision its magnificence with the right amount of money and the best of architecture and construction firms,” recalls Heritage Services President Sue Morris.

As an active museum board member Durham committed himself to helping it reach its potential and restoring the building to its former glory. His children note their father saw great value in the work the museum did and in the history the building represented.

Daughter Sunny Lundgren says, “He thought this is Omaha’s history and we need to preserve it and so the first thing he did was give money to this place and then he started knocking on doors and saying, ‘Do you know what an important building this is? It’s part of Omaha, we need to restore it.'”

“He led the charge in raising dollars from community leaders who responded generously,” daughter Lynne Boyer adds.

Among those Durham reeled in was then-Kiewit Corporation CEO Walter Scott. His support was recognized when the museum’s most iconic space was renamed the Suzanne and Walter Scott Great Hall.

“The building and I have something in common. We were both ‘born’ in 1931,” Scott says. “Many years later it was Chuck Durham who introduced me to its role as a museum. He convinced me to help him establish the museum’s relationships with the Smithsonian, Library of Congress and National Archives. Chuck had a vision for what the Durham Museum could become, and I think he’d be pleased to see the board and staff have realized a good part of his vision.”

Sue Morris says Durham was persuasive enough that the Heritage Services-directed campaign raised more than $30 million for the museum. The funds underwrote a major 1996 project that entailed constructing a new parking deck, installing a new roof as well as new mechanical and electrical systems and creating new office spaces, classrooms and permanent exhibits. The Great Hall was repainted and restored and interactive sculptures added. A 22,000 square foot addition was built over Track #1.

A new name and mission
In recognition of Durham’s efforts, the museum was renamed in his honor in 1997 as part of a general rebranding.”It’s always been centered on Omaha’s history and western heritage,” Janssen says, “but as the museum has evolved we have aspired to be much more than that. We want to be a gathering place. The events we host are a great way to celebrate traditions. Beyond Omaha’s history and its western heritage our mission is to share the nation’s story. We are a significant piece of that. We mirror the national story in terms of rail travel and the industry that built this community. So we have broadened our scope quite a bit over the years. Thus, we’ve been able to tap into a new audience.”

Janssen says “a very strong education focus now takes front and center,” adding, “We get into school classrooms, we host school field trips and summer camps down here, we offer a scholars in residence education series that is much sought after.” The museum does special programming around various history months, such as Black History Month (February), Women’s History Month (March), Jazz Appreciation Month (April), National Hispanic Heritage Month (September) and Native American Heritage Month (November).

The lecture hall is fully outfitted for distance learning. Presentations made there are regularly fed to classrooms, community centers and other sites around the nation. A mobile video camera unit allows educators to focus on various architectural details of the Great Hall, for example, as part of distance learning history curriculum.

“We continue to look for ways to engage people and to make the museum a presence wherever we can,” Janssen says. “We want people to realize it’s not just about the permanent and traveling exhibits, it’s about lectures, films, concerts, the Ethnic Holiday Festival, Christmas at Union Station, the authentic soda fountain and more.”

As the building transformed from dusty relic to gleaming palace once again and the museum grew its programming, attendance increased. In the first decade of the new millennium Chuck Durham contributed a generous match to new philanthropic gifts that funded several more infrastructure needs and the building of the Stanley and Dorothy Truhlsen Lecture Hall.

Public trust and uninterrupted growth
From that point forward the museum has seen its greatest growth in terms of attendance, membership and donations, Janssen says.”I think the thing that gets people to invest in us is a proven record and we have that now because of the growth we’ve enjoyed and the hard work we’ve been doing. We can get their attention because they see something happening here. They see we’re actually going to do what we say we’re going to do. That’s foundational for us – we never say we’re going to do something and then don’t. We’re intentional to always under promise and over deliver.

“But I think the thing that continues to get people excited about the museum is that everyone leaves with an appreciation for the history and the experience they find here. We are a repository of stories and we share those stories through our artifacts and our programs. We have been able to capture and retell those stories, and again this building speaks louder than words.”

With the museum’s finances stabilized and the institution becoming an affiliate of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution (in 2002), whose popular traveling exhibits show there, Durham was pleased by how far things had progressed and how bright the future looked.

“My father enjoyed watching the museum come alive with outstanding programs and exhibits which attracted large numbers of visitors from all over the city, state and country,” Boyer says. “It gave him a sense of great satisfaction to know the museum would continue to educate and entertain visitors of all ages for generations to come.”

Right up until his death in 2008 Durham, then wheel-chair bound, made a point of visiting the museum as often as he could.

“He enjoyed coming to the museum,” Janssen says. “Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that we had ice cream. He appreciated the opportunity to visit the soda fountain. He loved to eat a sundae.”

The Durham family remains involved. Lundgren formed the museum’s guild and served as its president one year. She supports various education efforts there and still volunteers at events. She says her family’s Christmas is not complete without visiting the museum.
Boyer enjoys taking her grandchildren there, saying, “When I visit the museum with them I view it through their eyes and gain an even greater appreciation for all it has to offer. It is an educational gem.”

Janssen says the Durham could not have blossomed without the generous support of individual members, families, corporations and foundations or without the committed work of board members, docents, volunteers and staff. She says the museum has been fortunate to have both good leadership and stewardship.

The Durham has become a major attraction – welcoming a record 204,000 visitors in 2013 and on pace to record a similar number in 2014. Its household membership base is over 7,000.

 

 

New directions and neighbors
That kind of support, she says, “just changes the way we can do business.” There’s no time to rest on laurels. “Our job is always to take it one step further,” Janssen says. “A big focus going forward is incorporating technology into the experience, both in digitizing our photo archive and in making our gallery exhibits more interactive.”

After years of being an outlier the Durham’s poised to be one of many anchor attractions along a revived South 10th Street. It can partner with such new neighbors as the House of Loom, the resurgent Little Italy district, KETV, which is moving into the restored Burlington Station, the new Blue Barn Theater and the coming Omaha Public Market. That’s in addition to North Downtown, the Capital District, the Old Market, Lauritzen Gardens and the Henry Doorly Zoo.

All of it, she says, speaks to “a new vibrancy” in the area. “It’s not just about us anymore. It’s about everybody around us. We can do so much more if we do it together and we become a destination corridor.”

Follow the 2015 anniversary events at durhammuseum.org.

 

Nebraska’s Film Heritage presented by Leo Adam Biga: Tuesday, Feb. 17, 6:30 p.m., Durham Museum

February 16, 2015 Leave a comment

Join me for-

Nebraska’s Film Heritage Lecture

presented by Leo Adam Biga

Tuesday, Feb. 17, 6:30 p.m.

Durham Museum

PLEASE NOTE: Reservations are required. Email reservations@DurhamMuseum.org or call 402-444-5071.

 

Here is how the Durham is promoting my talk:

 

 

 

*Nebraska’s Film Heritage
presented by Leo Adam Biga
Tuesday, February 17, 6:30PM
Stanley and Dorothy Truhlsen Lecture Hall, Durham Museum

Omaha author Leo Adam Biga highlights the story of Nebraska’s rich legacy in cinema. Several native sons and daughters have made significant contributions and established major careers in the industry, both on screen and behind the camera. To this day, Nebraskans continue to make their mark in virtually every aspect of the industry and have received many honors, including Oscar recognition. Many hometown products are regarded as leaders, innovators and trailblazers, including the Johnson Brothers and their Lincoln Film Company, Harold Lloyd, Fred Astaire, Darryl F. Zanuck, Marlon Brando and Joan Micklin Silver.

Leo Adam Biga is an Omaha-based nonfiction author, award-winning journalist and blogger. His 2012 book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film is a collection of his extensive journalism about the Oscar-winning filmmaker. Additionally, Biga is the coeditor of Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores and the author of two e-books for the Omaha Public Schools. As a working journalist he contributes articles to several newspapers and magazines. His work has been recognized by his peers at the local, regional and national levels.

*Due to limited space, reservations are required. Please call 402-444-5071 or email reservations@DurhamMuseum.org to reserve your spot.. Cost of admission applies and members are FREE.

SCHEDULED TOURS
Join selected scholars for a special tour and commentary of Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.
*March 7, 2015, 9AM and 11AM
Rachel Jacobsen, Executive Director, Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof Theater

*Due to limited space, reservations are required. Please call 402-444-5071 or email reservations@DurhamMuseum.org to reserve your spot. Cost of admission applies and members are free.

SPECIAL EVENTS
Hollywood Bootcamp
Saturday, March 28, 2015, 10AM-3PM
Bring your friends for a day of boot camp…Hollywood style! Walk the red carpet, learn expert tips in costuming and make-up design, star in your own movie and much more. Plus, get your own star on The Durham Walk of Fame!
Regular Museum Admission Rates Apply
Free to Members

Katharine Hepburn Movie Series
Now – March 30
The Durham Museum is proud to partner with Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof Theater for a series of movies that coincide with the costume exhibit, Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.

All screenings will occur at Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater (1340 Mike Fahey Street). For details and showtimes visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

Leo Adam Biga to deliver Nebraska Film Heritage lecture at Durham for Katharine Hepburn exhibit

January 22, 2015 1 comment

Leo Adam Biga to deliver Nebraska Film Heritage lecture at Durham for Katharine Hepburn exhibit
Join me at the Durham Museum at 6:30 pm on Tues. Feb. 17 for a lecture I am giving on Nebraska’s Film Heritage in conjunction with the Katharine Hepburn exhibit there. Kate had no particular ties to Nebraska, but she was an icon in an industry that included many fellow icons from this state. She famously worked with two of them, Henry and Jane Fonda, in On Golden Pond. She worked with another, Montgomery Clift, in Suddenly Last Summer. Her longtime lover, Spencer Tracy, won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in a movie partially shot here, Boys Town, about one of the most famous Nebraskans ever, Father Edward Flanagan, and his legendary home for boys. One of Hepburn and Tracy’s lesser films together, Sea of Grass, was set here.

My talk will touch on some of the figures from here, past and present, to have carved out successful cinema careers behind the camera and in front of the camera. These include household names and more obscure but no less important names. Far more Nebraskans than you think have made significant contributions to the industry or established themselves as solid working film artists. I will also discuss some of the significant films made here and premiered here. Additionally, I will highlight some of the legendary film artists who have passed through Nebraska. Finally, I will give props to some of the individuals and organizations that have enhanced the cinema culture here.

 
The lecture is part of my Nebraska Film Heritage Project that will ultimately result in a book.
 
Read more about the exhibit and the special programs scheduled around it, including my lecture, below.
 
I hope to see you at my presentation,
 
 
Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
February 7 – April 26, 2015
The Durham Museum is pleased to present Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen, an exclusive exhibition of Hepburn’s personal costume collection organized by the Kent State University Museum. The exhibit features more than 35 costumes worn in 21 films and 6 stage productions spanning Hepburn’s illustrious career. Among the items on display will be an ensemble of her signature tailored beige trousers and linen jackets, vintage posters, playbills, photos and other Hepburn-related artifacts, as well as stage costumes from The Philadelphia Story and Coco and screen costumes from Adam’s Rib and Stage Door. From classic Hollywood dresses to Kate’s personal “rebel chic,” the exhibition highlights how Hepburn’s sense of style influenced countless women and fashion designers. It helped to create the informal, elegant approach to American style seen on today’s runways. Come see how this true icon of American culture came to epitomize the modern woman of the 20th Century.
Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen is supported locally by Mutual of Omaha, Douglas County Commissioners, On Track Guild, Rhonda and Howard Hawks and the Dixon Family Foundation. Media support provided by KETV.
Pictured Left to Right:
Dress by Walter Plunkett, from the 1934 RKO movie The Little Minister
White satin and lace wedding dress by Howard Greer, from the 1934 production of The Lake
Design by Chanel, from the 1976 production of Coco
LECTURES
*Nebraska’s Film Heritage
Presented by Leo Adam Biga
Tuesday, February 17, 6:30PM
Stanley and Dorothy Truhlsen Lecture Hall
Omaha author Leo Biga highlights the story of Nebraska’s rich legacy in cinema.*Katharine Hepburn: Master of her own Image
Presented by Amy Henderson of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
Thursday, April 9, 6:30PMSCHEDULED TOURS
Join selected scholars for a special tour and commentary of Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.*Backstage with Kate
February 7, 2015, 9AM and 11AM
Jean Druesedow, Director, the Kent State University MuseumMarch 7, 2015, 9AM and 11AM
Rachel Jacobsen, Executive Director, Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof TheaterApril 4, 2015, 9AM and 11AM
Dr. Barbara Trout – Professor – Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design, College of Education and Human Sciences University of Nebraska-Lincoln

*Due to limited space, reservations are required. Please email reservations@DurhamMuseum.org or call 402-444-5071. Cost of admission applies and members are free.

SPECIAL EVENTS
An Evening with Kate
February 6, 2015
6:30PM Lecture, Reception and exclusive preview of the exhibit to follow
Join the Durham Museum’s On Track Guild and Honorary Chairs Gail and Mike Yanney for “An Evening with Kate.” Jean Druesedow, Exhibition Curator and Director of the Kent State University Museum will discuss the exhibit, collection and Kate’s life.

Tickets: $75

For more information or to make a reservation, contact the museum at 402-444-5071.

Hollywood Bootcamp
Saturday, March 28, 2015, 10AM-3PM
Bring your friends for a day of boot camp…Hollywood style! Walk the red carpet, learn expert tips in costuming and make-up design, star in your own movie and much more. Plus, get your own star on The Durham Walk of Fame!
Regular Museum Admission Rates Apply
Free to Members

Katharine Hepburn Movie Series
February 14 – March 30
The Durham Museum is proud to partner with Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof Theater for a series of movies that coincide with the costume exhibit, Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.
All screenings will occur at Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater (1340 Mike Fahey Street). For details and showtimes visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

Visit The Durham Museum Hitchcock Museum Shop, Old-Fashioned Soda Fountain and the Photo Archive for 10% off Katharine Hepburn related gifts, treats and photos as part of your membership!

Generosity at Core of Anne Thorne Weaver’s Life, Giving Back to the Community Comes Second Nature to Omaha Woman Whose Live-out-loud Personality is Tempered by Compassion and Service

April 21, 2012 4 comments

Omaha, a city with a very high capita rate of millionaires, is known for its unusually generous philanthropic community and while the names of a dozen or more major philanthropists here are quite familiar to anyone who keeps up with local news there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of other donors in the metro whose name recognition is far less despite the fact their support is every bit as significant as their more publicized counterparts.  Until assigned to do the following story on Anne Thorne Weaver I admit I never heard of her, which is understandable since I neither regularly travel in or report on the blue blood circles of Omaha.  It turns out she’s someone I and a lot of other Omahans should know about since she does a lot to support some of the very institutions that contribute to the quality of life here.  If her only claim to fame was signing checks, that would be one thing.  But it turns out she’s a vital, interesting person quite apart from her giving.
Anne Thorne Weaver

 

 

Generosity at Core of Anne Thorne Weaver’s Life, Giving Back to the Community Comes Second Nature to Omaha Woman Whose Live-out-loud Personality is Tempered by Compassion and Service

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in Metro Magazine

 

Anne Thorne Weaver has known privilege and pain but like a real-life Auntie Mame she views the world as a banquet to be sampled.

A giving heart

The adventurous traveler and enthusiastic hostess says, “I’ve had a really a good life. I’m one of these few people that would go back to the beginning and live it all over again.” The generous Weaver has spent her adult life volunteering with local service clubs and nonprofits in order to better her adopted hometown.

When most persons her age defer to the next generation, she’s still an active board member and patron with various organizations, including the Salvation Army, the Museum of Nebraska Art and the Nebraska Methodist Hospital Foundation. Her work on behalf of causes earned her the 2011 Junior League of Omaha Distinguished Sustainer Award and community service awards from the WCA and Methodist Hospital Foundation. On June 5 the Women’s Center for Advancement’s 25th Tribute to Women recognizes her community philanthropic efforts.

“It came as a big surprise to have been selected,” she says.

She’ll arrive at the program from her summer sanctuary in Okoboj, Iowa. As soon as the evening’s over, she’ll head straight back to her beloved lakeshore cottage. It takes a lot to get her to leave the retreat, where she’s known to throw a party or two. Not even weddings or funerals can pry her away, unless it’s a close friend or family member, “For this though I’m leaving Okoboji, that’s how honored I am,” she says.

 

 

An Okoboji sunrise, ©edithmyrant,blogspot.com

 

 

Plaudits are not why she helps others but if her example can spur others to follow her lead then she’s glad to be in the spotlight. By responding to needs she gets something in return more meaningful than any accolades. “When you give, everything is given back,” she says Besides, she adds, “I enjoy the people with whom I work a lot, I really do. I’m not going to do something if I don’t enjoy it. I only work on it when it’s going to be fun.”

Some of her favorite things

Knowing first-hand the critical difference volunteers make in fulfilling the mission of nonprofits, she says, “just imagine what this town would be like without volunteers. I mean, everything would be closed – the libraries, the hospitals…” She credits the Junior League for its volunteer training and placement activities.

Refined in many ways, she’s also never outgrown her tomboy nature and love of nature. “My big passion is the Humane Society,” she says. Still an “Iowa girl” at heart, she enjoys the simple pleasures of the state fair.

Her appreciation for both fauna and the finer things is seen in her Loveland neighborhood home, where art objects share space with pets. She’s devoted countless hours to supporting the arts. “I am on the opera board and the symphony board and I love them both,” she proclaims. A relative newcomer to the Omaha Community Playhouse board, she says, “I’m finding it really interesting.”

She previously volunteered with the Joslyn Women’s Association and the Durham Museum, whose original board she served on.

“Another one of my great loves is the art center up there,” she says, referring to Pearson Lakes Art Center in Okoboj, where she supports several things close to her heart. Nearby Spirit Lake is home to a favorite worship place, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. “I really love that little church,” she says. Weaver belongs to Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Omaha.

An inveterate seeker with a burning curiosity, Weaver’s extensive travels have taken her to Timbuktu, New Guinea, the Galapagos Islands and the Grand Canyon.

A helping hand

She likes aiding people get where they want to go, too. In her work with the Patriotic Committee of the National Society of Colonial Dames she helps award scholarships to Native American nurses serving reservations and helps send an essay contest winners to a Congressional Seminar in Washington D.C. “It’s a wonderful opportunity and a life changing experience for these kids,” she says.

She chaired the volunteer bureau Junior League Omaha once co-sponsored. For JLO’s Call to Action program she served on a team of ombudsmen. “We had to learn where everything was in Omaha that could assist people. If somebody had trouble or a dispute, we would tell them where to go to get it resolved.”

Her giving back is an expression of the saying that to whom much is given, much is expected. Born into a Mayflower family of self-made and inherited fortunes in Des Moines and Chicago, she harbors deep respect for American history and ideals.

Formative years

As a child she was immersed in history living at Terrace Hill, a circa 1860s mansion  with 90-foot tower overlooking downtown Des Moines. The home was once the residence of the Hubbell family, whose late tycoon patriarch, F.M. Hubbell, is her great-grandfather. The National Historic Place home is now the Iowa governor’s residence. She’s pleased it’s well preserved. “They’ve done a beautiful job on the restoration. It never looked that good when we lived there. It was just home.”

Terrace Hill

 

 

After her folks split she was shuffled between two sets of grandparents. “They were two totally different worlds,” she says. “In Des Moines I could wear blue jeans and men’s shirts. But in Chicago I couldn’t leave the house without wearing a hat and gloves and having my nose powdered.”

Her grandparents set a model for philanthropy she’s followed.

Despite being an only child, she recalls Terrace Hill as anything but lonely. She had the run of the place and its extensive grounds. Adventure was everywhere.

“It was just a wonderful home to grow up in. My cousin Patty and I spent a lot of time together. We’d run up in the tower and hop out on the roof. We just jumped all over the place. We spent quite a bit of our time in the pool. We were like fish.”

For company there were also the servants, “and I loved them,” says Weaver. “Two couples had been there 40 years, so they were my family. I’d take my meals with them in the dining room.”

A life well lived

Not everything’s been rosy. Growing up, her parents were largely absent. Her only marriage ended in divorce, though she and her ex remained friends. One of the couple’s four children took his own life at age 21.

Today, she’s alone but hardly lonely. She entertains at home. She attends social and civic engagements galore. There’s her volunteer activities. Breakfast with the girls. Doting on her pets. She goes on excursions whenever she feels like.

“I don’t know where the time goes,” she says.

Her bucket list includes touring the American West’s national parks and Ireland.

A matriarch in age if not spirit, she recently celebrated her Almost 80 birthday bash with friends in Des Moines. The progressive party moved from the botanical gardens to an art center to a country club to Terrace Hill.

“The joy to me is, they say you can’t go home again, but I can.”

As part of an unbroken lineage of service she feels responsible “to prepare whoever follows you to do an even better job than you have done.”

For Tribute to Women tickets  call 402-345-6555 or visit http://www.wcaomaha.org.

Timeless Fashion Illustrator Mary Mitchell: Her Work Illustrating Three Decades of Style Now Subject of New Book and Exhibition

January 7, 2012 5 comments

Fashion illustrator Mary Mitchell of Omaha is about to enjoy the kind of rediscovery few artists rarely experience in their own lifetime.  Selections from Mitchell’s 1,000-plus fashion illustrations, an archive that sublimely represents decades of style, are the subject of a forthcoming book and exhibition that will expose her work to a vast new audience.  No less a fashion icon than famed designer Oscar de la Renta has high praise for her work in the foreword to the book, Drawn to Fashion: Illustrating Three Decades of Style by Mary Mitchell.   The soon to be published book explores her work in words and images and is a complement to the same titled exhibition opening the end of January and continuing through the spring at the Durham Museum in Omaha.  My story below, which will appear in the February edition of the New Horizons newspaper, charts her rich life and career.  The story also reveals how her illustrations may have never been rediscovered if not for the discerning eye and persistent follow through of her friends Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Joichm.  You can see more of Mitchell’s work and order the book at http://www.drawntofashion.com.  A short video about Mitchell on the Drawn to Fashion website is narrated by Oscar-winner Alexander Payne, a family friend from the Greek-American community they share in common in Omaha. Clearly, Mary and her husband John Mitchell have made many good friends and it’s only fitting that her work of a lifetime is finally getting its just due on a stage large enough to encompass her immense talent.

NOTE: My profile of the aforementioned Anne Marie Kenny, a cabaret singer and entrepreneur, can be found on this blog, where you can also find my extensive work covering Alexander Payne.  Mary Mitchell’s reemergence as a fashion illustrator comes as the Omaha fashion scene is enjoying its own renaissance, and my stories about that burgeoning scene and its all-the-rage Omaha Fashion Week can also be found here.

 

 

Mary Mitchell in her studio, @photo Jim Scholz

 

 

Timeless Fashion Illustrator Mary Mitchell: Her Work Illustrating Three Decades of Style Now Subject of New Book and Exhibition

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in the New Horizons

 

Fashion illustration revived

Just as good art is timeless, so are the artists who make it.

Born in Buffalo, New York, fashion illustrator Mary Mitchell has seen art movements come and go through the years, but quality work, no matter what it is called or when it is en vogue, endures.

Much to her surprise, finely articulated fashion illustrations she made in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are finding new admirers inside and outside the world of design. Friends and experts alike appreciate how Mitchell’s work stands the test of time while offering revealing glimpses into the lost art of fashion illustration she practiced.

She worked as an in-house illustrator for an elite Omaha clothing store, “The Nebraska,” for four years. She then decided to become a freelance illustrator, which found her illustrating men’s, women’s, and children’s fashions for several leading Omaha stores. Her illustrations appeared in the Omaha World-Herald, the Sun Newspapers, the Lincoln Journal-Star and various suburban papers and local magazines.

When there was no longer a demand for fashion illustration, she moved onto other things. Her originals – meticulously rendered, carefully preserved black and white fashion illustrations – no longer had a use and so she put them away in her studio at home. Untouched. Unseen. Forgotten.

That all changed in 2010 when, suddenly, Mary found her work from that period the subject of renewed interest. It happened this way:

Two good friends visited Mary and her husband, John Mitchell, in Longboat Key, Florida, where the couple reside half the year. When guests Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Jochim asked Mary what she used to do for a living the artist showed a portfolio of her work. Kenny and Jochim were instantly captivated by Mitchell’s handiwork. The guests were so impressed that en route home they conceived the idea for an exhibition. The women formed an organizing committee and after many meetings and much planning, the right venue for the exhibition was found at the Durham Museum.

The resulting exhibition and book, Drawn to Fashion: Illustrating Three Decades of Style by Mary Mitchell, marks the first time and most certainly not the last that the artist’s work will be exhibited. The show opens January 28 and runs through May 27. Omaha-based Standard Printing Company designed and printed the book. The University of Nebraska Press is distributing it.

What so captured her friends’ fancy?

For starters, Kenny appreciates “the intricate detail and attitude, crafted in a superb drawing technique,” “the graceful lines” and “the exquisite flair” that run through Mary’s work. She adds, “The exhibit and new book devoted exclusively to her fashion illustration demonstrate her unique expression of a genre that is awesome to behold, highly collectable, and more relevant today than ever.”

Jochim, too, is struck by “the intricate strokes, down to the individual hairs in a fur coat, a herringbone weave, or the sparkle in a glittering evening jacket.” She said Mitchell “breathes life into the illustrations. The models in her drawings seem to all have a story to tell which makes you curious.”

Fashion designer icon Oscar de la Renta writes in his foreword to Drawn to Fashion: “Mary is a true artist, elegant and masterful. Her illustrations have enriched the experience of fashion in our time, and brought joy to the mind’s eye.”

Academics sing her praises as well.

Dr. Barbara Trout, a professorat the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design, which is contributing original garments for the exhibition, said Mitchell’s work “marked technical excellence through the fine articulation of garment details. Her ability to mimic the hand of the fabric, its distinct structure, and the projected movement allowed the consumer to envision themselves in those garments…Mary’s fine examples of illustration are truly a benchmark of their time.”

“Mary Mitchell’s fashion drawings reveal the confident hand of the experienced illustrator, one who brings to her work an editor’s ability to subtract and to refine, and an artist’s to enhance and to glamorize,” said Michael James, chair and Ardis James professor in the UNL Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design.

 

 

©Mary Mitchell

 

 

The rediscovery of Mitchell’s stunning cache of some 1,000 illustrations not only prompted the book and accompanying exhibition, it inspired the artist herself to create new fashion illustrations for the first time in years.

“I thought I probably would never have done any more fashion illustrations if it were not for Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Jochim. They showed so much interest in my work, it inspired me to start drawing in color, since all my work previously was in black and white to be printed in local papers,” said Mitchell.

Her new work now graces the book and the exhibit displays alongside her older work. She makes the new illustrations not for any client or acclaim, but purely for her own enjoyment and pleasure.

She throws herself into the work, creating without the burden of client restrictions or project deadlines.

“I get so excited about this that now I go down to my studio and work for hours to create another piece of art.”

She’s experimenting with other mediums, such as acrylic paints and watercolors, to draw fashions. Perhaps most pleasing of all, she feels she hasn’t lost her artistic touch. Her eye for detail, sharp as ever.

One should not assume Mitchell halted her creative life after the fashion illustration market dried up in the 1980s when clients and publishers abandoned hand-drawn illustrations for photographs.

No, her artistic sensibility and creativity infuse everything she does. It always has. It is revealed in the tasteful way she decorates her contemporary home, in how her hair is styled just so, in the stylish clothes she wears.

She is, as Jochim puts it, “a natural beauty” whose “graciousness and glamour” seem effortless.

Kenny said, “Mary lives and breathes art in every aspect of her life – her beautiful home, her elegant manner, her exquisite fashion illustrations, her glamorous style. Mary brings beauty to all that she touches.”

When fashion illustration was no longer a career option, Mitchell found other avenues of expression to feed her creativity, She became vice president of an advertising agency called Young & Mitchell, where she continued her graphic art. During this time she designed billboards, posters, and stationery logos, she called on clients, she made presentations, created television story boards and camera cards, wrote copy, and created advertising campaigns.

Her husband had bought several radio stations in Omaha and throughout Nebraska. The station general managers began asking Mary to create logos and to handle advertising for them. She then became a hands-on vice president with Mitchell Broadcasting Company. She created logos, designed all magazine and newspaper layouts, and bus signs for the stations, and handled creative projects for station promotions and concerts.

She seamlessly went from the intimacy of fashion illustration to the, by comparison, epic scale of signs and billboards.

“It was a different style of art needed for commercial advertising. I used to draw intricate, delicate drawings and now I was doing big, bold designs. Of course, that’s not fashion, it’s advertising, but it’s all a matter of design.

“It was a lot of fun. The people that worked in that environment each had their own personality – the DJs, the sales people, the managers.”

The passion of this accomplished woman would not be denied , certainly not suppressed. It is a trait she displayed early on growing up in Buffalo, New York as the only child of Greek immigrant parents, John and Irene Kafasis.

 

 

©Mary Mitchell

 

 

Where it all began

Born Mary Kafasis, she inherited determination from her folks, who ventured to America from Siatista in northern Greece. Her father arrived in the States at age 16 with $11 in his pocket. After a succession of menial jobs he worked on the railroad as part of a track maintenance crew. The work paid well enough but was miserable, backbreaking labor.

Her father and a buddy of his saved up enough to buy a candy shop. Greek-Americans up and down the East Coast and all around the U.S. used confectionaries and restaurants as their entree to the American Dream. She said her father was pushing 30 and still single when he wrote his parents asking that they find a suitable bride for him in the Old Country.

“My mom was from the same village in Greece as my dad. They married and he brought her back to the States, and she worked very hard with him in their candy store,” said Mary.

When Mary was about age 8 she spent an idyllic three months in Greece with her mother, visiting the village in which her mother was born and raised.

“It’s a beautiful little village surrounded by mountains. We stayed with my grandmother and I met all my aunts and uncles and I had fun playing with all my cousins. It was a lovely time.”

The small family carved out a nice middle class life for themselves. “My parents did well, but they worked long hours and very hard.”

Everything revolved around the family business located in South Buffalo. The family lived upstairs of the shop.

“My mom would hand dip chocolate candies, such as nut and fruit clusters. Dad would make homemade ice cream and sponge taffy. For Easter and Valentine’s Day they would make candy bunnies, baskets, and hearts and fill them with delicious chocolates and decorate them with colorful flowers and ribbons. My job was to fill the baskets and Valentine’s hearts with the chocolates.”

Summers and after school found her working in the shop. She began as a dishwasher before she was entrusted to wait on customers. Her penchant for drawing surfaced early on.

“I remember when I was little I would get a pad, colored pencils or crayons or paints and start drawing figures and designing dresses. That’s when I decided I wanted to be an artist. My mom was so encouraging. She also had me take piano and dancing lessons.”

Mary went to great lengths to pursue her art passion. “I was required to attend South Park High School. It didn’t have an art program, so after my freshman year I wanted to transfer to another school outside my district, clear on the other side of town – Bennett High School. It was renowned for its excellent art program. My girlfriend Shirley Fritz and I went to City Hall and obtained special permission to attend Bennett High. We really felt strong about it.”

Going to that far-off school meant waking up earlier and coming home much later. The extra time and effort were worth it, she said.  “My art teacher at Bennett was phenomenal. She had a great gift of teaching and got me involved in several national contests. I won national awards in poster design and an award from Hallmark cards for my design of a greeting card. I also designed the covers of two school year books.”

Then tragedy struck. Just two months before Mary’s high school graduation her mother died. “She had been ill for a long time and in the hospital. She was only 39.” Losing her mother at 17 was a terrible blow for the only child.

“I was scheduled to go to Syracuse University, but my dad would not let me go. He insisted I go to secretarial school instead of art school. He said, ‘You’re a woman, you’re going to get married, what do you need to go to art school for?’ It was an (Old World) Greek mentality. I know if my mother were there, she would have insisted I go to college and art school.

“He also said he would not pay for my tuition to college or art school. Luckily, my mother left a savings account in my name, so I used that for my tuition, and of course lived at home with my dad.”

She decided to attend the University of Buffalo in conjunction with the Albright Art School and graduated as a fashion illustrator. Her original intent was to be a magazine illustrator, but she was advised against that male-dominated field and steered into fashion illustration.

 

 

©Mary Mitchell

 

 

“One of the courses I took was life drawing, which teaches you the structure of the body’s bones and muscles. It’s very important to have that if you’re going to do fashion figures, to get the proportions and movements right, and to know how clothing is draped on the body.”

She learned, too, how elements like light and shadow “make a big difference” when sketching different fabrics and textures.

“After graduating I took my portfolio to all the department stores in Buffalo, where I kept running into resistance: ‘Do you have experience?’ ‘No, I just graduated.’ ‘Well, call me when you get experience.’

“So after several months of job hunting I took a job as a sign painter for the display department at a Flint & Kent department store, knowing that the fashion illustrator was pregnant and would be leaving in a few months. Lo and behold, they called me when she left and I got my first job as a fashion illustrator. I was in Seventh Heaven.”

 

 

©Mary Mitchell

 

 

New directions

Then John came into her life. They met as delegates at a Cleveland, Ohio convention of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, a service organization closely allied with the Greek Orthodox Church. Like her parents, John’s mother and father were from Greece, only from Athens. His family’s name, Mitsopoulos, was Americanized by his dad to Mitchell. His folks settled first in Kansas City before moving to the south central Nebraska town of Kearney.

John was a recent Georgetown University law graduate with an eye on practicing law in Kearney and plans for pursuing a political career. He wooed Mary from afar, the two got engaged, and in 1951 they married in Buffalo before starting a new life together in Kearney. Leaving home was bittersweet for Mary.

“Kearney in those days was a town of only 13,000, with no opportunities for me to work as an artist. With no family or friends, it was very difficult. So I decided to go back to school (at then-Kearney State Teachers College). I took two years of French, English literature, and psychology and during that time I would venture into the art department and talk to the art teachers. They said they needed more teachers and asked if I would join the faculty. I finally said yes and started teaching Art 101 and Art Appreciation.

“I was asked to design brochures for the college and I was also commissioned to redesign the interior of the student union.”

More interior design jobs followed in later years. Finally getting to apply her craft made her feel “a little better” about the move West.

While in Kearney Mary gave birth to her and John’s only child, John Charles Mitchell II, who is now a gastrointestinal physician in Omaha and married to M. Kathleen Mitchell of Red Cloud, Neb. They have two grown children, John Bernard Mitchell and Emily Suzanne Mitchell.

Meanwhile, her husband’s law practice flourished and his political career took off. He became state Democratic party chairman in the 1960s. It was a heady time.

“We got involved in local, state, and national politics. We got to meet Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy. When JFK came to Kearney for a political event we met him with our young son and he held Johnny. We met both Teddy and Bobby Kennedy. John was very close to Hubert Humphrey. It was a very busy and exciting time.”

 

 

©Mary Mitchell

©Mary Mitchell

©Mary Mitchell

Mary Mitchell’s halcyon fashion illustration days

Mary pined to work full-time and to have her own professional identity. John, by the way, “supported anything I wanted to do,” she said. The opportunity to fulfill her creative hunger finally came when the family moved to Omaha in 1968. Scouring the classifieds she saw an ad that read, “Fashion illustrator wanted, Nebraska Clothing.” A venerable clothing store then, “The Nebraska” was renowned for its quality brand name selections. She called, made an appointment to interview for the job, and got hired on the spot.

She enjoyed her four years with “The Nebraska” very much, but she reached a point where becoming a freelance artist made sense. She resigned from Nebraska Clothing in December 1971 and went into business for herself, calling her boutique design firm Mary Mitchell Studio. “Freelancing,” she said, “was the best career thing I did. It was a little scary at first, but people started calling me to design their ads and illustrate their garments. It was so wonderful to be independent and to work at my own pace. Each year kept getting better.”

Her client roster grew to include: TOPPs of Omaha; Goldstein Chapman; Herzbergs; Zoobs; Natelson’s; Parsow’s; Wolf Bros.; I. Eugene’s Shoes; Hitching Post; Crandell’s; The Wardrobe for Men, Backstage, Ltd.

 Being your own boss required discipline, which she has in good measure. With no one looking over her shoulder, she had to be a reliable arbiter of her own work.

“My general attitude is, whenever I sit down to create an ad or drawing I will try my best to achieve the attributes of the client’s business. I want it done as perfectly as possible.”

Creating a finished advertisement for a newspaper or magazine is a several step process. It begins with the client deciding the size of the ad, which determines its cost. Then the layout is made, the drawing of the garment is executed, and the ad copy written. Whether a suit, a dress, or a pair of shoes, there are usually instructions that go along with it. For instance, a client might want an 18 year-old look for one item and a 30 year-old look for another. A Girl-Next-Door vibe here, a sophisticated image there. A relaxed stance in one ad, a formal posture in another.

“The article was given to me to sketch and I created the look of the individual it would appeal to,” she said.

When doing fashion illustration ads, there is always a space limitation to work within, based on column inches. And, of course, there are always deadlines.

Once the parameters of the job were known, Mitchell arrayed the tools of her trade: pencils, pens, brushes, inks, paints, drawing paper. Her job then became animating the apparel and the figure wearing it to accentuate the fashion.

She started with a rough layout.

“There were two methods of drawing for reproduction at that time,” she said. “One used a fluorographic solution mixed with India ink to obtain various shades of gray and painting with a fine brush or drawing with a pen. The other used a No. 935 pencil to draw on textured paper to obtain various shades of gray to black. Different techniques produced different effects.

“If you have a dress with lace on it, you used a very fine quill pen, with a fine point. The way you handle the light and shade for materials and patterns depends on the amount of wash you use with your brush, dark to light.”

By mixing more water with a wash and by adjusting her brush stroke she approximated velvet, taffeta, fur or leather.

It’s all in the details, particularly in black and white.  “The more you show the detail the better the garment looks. You try to approximate the article as close as possible.”

Depicting the essence of a garment requires great skill.

“The skilled fashion illustrator must be able to reduce the architecture of a garment to its essentials while amplifying its hedonic appeal. This is no small task when the means she has to do this are a few marks of pencil or pen or brush on paper. She must interpret the designer’s stylistic signature, but to be convincing she must render with her own authoritative style,” said UNL’s Michael James.

The dynamic sense of flow or movement in Mitchell’s work, then and now, is intentional. “I don’t want it just to be a static figure, I want it to be active.” Besides, to show off the clothes in their best light, she said, “you’re not going to draw the body straight forward, you’re going to give it movement.”

A file of fashion magazines offer her ideas to extrapolate from. Perhaps a certain facial type or expression that catches her attention. Or the way a model’s hair blows in the wind. Or the way a hand is gestured.

“Fashion illustration figures are always elongated,” she said. “We were taught that the human figure is eight heads high but illustrative figures should be nine heads high or tall because that gives a more dramatic and elegant look.”

When she did fashion illustration for her livelihood she made a habit of studying fashion ads. “I certainly admired the Sunday New York Times fashion ads and those in the Chicago and L.A. papers as well.” Staying abreast of the latest trends meant she frequented local fashion shows. “I modeled, too, for some of the stores that I did ads for when I was thinner and younger,” said the still petite Mitchell.

As a freelancer she not only completed the artwork but the entire layout and the copy as well. All of it a very tactile, labor, and time intensive process.

“I would do the layout, then draw the article, type the copy, give it to a typesetter, and order certain fonts, and when I got it back I would cut it out with an X-acto knife and paste it up with rubber cement. It was the only way it was done then – no computers.”

From there, it went to the printer, and the next time Mitchell saw it, it was in print.

Then the industry changed and the services of commercial fashion illustrators like herself became expendable.

“Instead of retailers hiring a graphic artist to draw their clothes or their shoes or whatever, they began taking photographs. It was less expensive. And so they no longer used fashion illustrations. Not even in big cities like Chicago and New York.

“I would say it became a lost art.”

 

 

©Mary Mitchell

 

 

Reinventing herself

The timeless beauty and the scarcity of commercial fashion illustrations explain why they are collectible artworks today and featured in fashion books and on fashion blogs. The Fashion Illustration Gallery in London is devoted entirely to the work of master fashion illustrators .

Denied her fashion illustration outlet, she continued designing in a new guise as vice president and art director of Young & Mitchell Advertising and as vice president of Mitchell Broadcasting.

Mary said she and John sold their Nebraska stations, which included Sweet 98 and KKAR,, just “as the big boys started coming in, like Clear Channel,” adding, “We sold them at the right time.”

Another whole segment of her design work is interior design. John and Mary became part owners of Le Versaille restaurant and ran that for several years. They decided to change the decor and Mary redesigned it from a red velvet and mirrored interior to a black, green, silver, and white decor with large photographs of French vineyards.  She also designed the Blue Fox restaurant. She executed the concept and theme for the Golden Apple of Love Restaurant.

“It was incredible,” she said of these all-encompassing projects and the large canvas they gave her to work on.

Her home is another epic canvas she has poured her passion into.

“It’s indeed a pleasure to create your own space,” she said, referring to her chic residence that reflects her “contemporary” design palette. “I like clean lines and not a lot of frills. Basically black and white with some beautiful colors.”

 

 

©photo Jim Scholz

 

 

A well-designed life comes full circle

She and John have traveled to Greece several times. They took their son there when he was 11. The couple have remained close to their Greek heritage in other ways, too. They are longtime members of Omaha’s Greek Orthodox Church.

“I do speak Greek on occasion, and with my Greek friends, and so does my husband. We cook Greek foods for special occasions, as does my son and his family.”

After the sale of the radio stations in 2000, her life proceeded like that of many retirees, as she divided her days between travel, shopping, decorating, and spending time with John and Kathleen and their two grandchildren, John B. and Emily. She never expected the work she did way back when to be the focus of an exhibition and a book.

When still active as a fashion illustrator, it never crossed her mind to exhibit her work, she said, because commercial art was generally not considered museum or gallery worthy. That attitude has turned around in recent years. She is very much aware that the graphic art form she specialized in is making “a comeback” with young and old alike.

She has a collection of fashion illustration books and has her heart set on one day visiting London’s Fashion Illustration Gallery.

“I’d love to see it.”

Her illustrations might never have seen the light of day again if Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Jochim had not persevered and shown so much interest to exhibit them. Mary Mitchell is flattered by all the interest in this art form from so long ago.

There would be no exhibition or book if she had not preserved the original illustrations. She held onto enough that her personal collection numbers about 1,000 illustrations. It adds up to a life’s work.

The way she had carefully mounted the illustrations on framed and covered poster board panels and in portfolio books indicates the importance they have always held for her. Just as there was nothing haphazard in the way she created the works, she took great pains in preserving them for posterity.

Still, the illustrations would likely have remained tucked away in her home studio if not for the unexpected series of events that led to the book and exhibition.

Now, these valuable artworks and artifacts have a second life and Mary Mitchell suddenly finds herself the subject of renewed interest.

Harper’s Bazaar editor Glenda Bailey writes, “I love that Mary Mitchell brought such a high caliber of artistry to the local level. I was in fashion school in London in the 1980s, but when I look at the work of Mary drew for the women of Omaha at that time, her level of detail puts me right into the moment. To the casual viewer, Mary’s work appears effortless. But when you look more closely you see the precision and intention behind each brushstroke. She elevates each drawing to a tactile experience. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a Mary Mitchell illustration is worth a thousand rustles of silk and crisp snaps of tweed.”

Mary never expected such a fuss, but she welcomes it. The timelessness of Mary Mitchell and her art now resonate with old and new audiences. The rediscovery of her work should ensure it lasts for generations to come.

To view more of Mary’s art and to buy her book, visit www.drawntofashion.com.   For details on the Durham exhibition, visit www.durhammuseum.org.

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