Back Home in the Fields of Comfort and Plenty


Back Home in the Fields of Comfort and Plenty

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared iin The Reader (www.thereader.com)

It’s not everyone that would leave a successful national food television career to do a start-up bakery in Omaha. Especially not when it’s your first entrepreneurial effort. Or when a recession is on and tight consumer spending makes the already daunting prospect of a new business even scarier.

But Christianna Reinhardt is used to going her own way. Her Sweet Georgine’s Bakeshop opened April 22 at the site of the former Benson Bakery, 6109 Maple Street. The gourmet bakery adds to the historic business district’s expanding cultural scene.

While she believes Benson is “becoming THE hip new place to be” that’s not what sold her on ditching a sure-thing for the uncertainty of a new venture with predawn wakeups, heavy lifting and 14 hour days. No, the history conveyed by the 1904 building spoke to her and her interest in baking “the way it used to be.”

“I get really attached to the history of things,” she said.

Consider her 2004 purchase at auction of an abandoned Carnegie library slated for razing in her hometown of Burwell, Neb. and her conversion of the two-story, 3,000 square foot brick edifice into a private residence and cultural sanctuary.

She worked as a Food Network programming/development manager in New York when a notice in the Burwell Tribune — a paper her parents once published and she subscribes to as a link to home — noted the library’s fate. She came to inspect it and found it sound. She made the lone bid on it. On breaks from New York she returned to fix up the circa 1914 library. Wanting to preserve its integrity she made minimal changes — restoring the original tin ceiling and wood floors and installing new heating-cooling-plumbing systems. She put in a high-end kitchen.

The project made her and the library objects of much curiosity. She left it open so visitors could pop inside for a glimpse or a reminscence. She understood. It was the town library for 88 years. She was the prodigal daughter come home.

In New York she missed what she’d put so much of her money and self into. She reassessed what she wanted to do. Food TV wasn’t it anymore. She left the network and the Big Apple for Omaha in early 2007.

“I thought long and hard about whether I was going to leave,” she said, “because I know it was the best job I was ever going to have in television and food. It was really hard to leave. Inside jobs there are so coveted that once you leave you never get back in. But I wanted to do other things. I wanted to feel like I was making some contribution to society. I wanted to feel like I had a life.”

Her eagerness for a fresh start in Omaha, where she did some food journalism, turned desperate when months passed without landing a job.

Driving by the closed Benson Bakery one day she spotted the “For Lease” sign out front and found her new calling. Even though she was born in Burwell and by age 9 moved with her family to Arizona, Benson runs through her blood. Her folks grew up there. Her grandparents lived there. The old bakery was like a family heirloom.

“I probably would not have done this if it weren’t for this particular space. It is the history of this space. This has been a bakery for so long and people miss it. It made a lot of people happy and I want it to become a neighborhood place that people kind of dwell in again. I feel really strongly about preserving pieces of history and culture and how they tie into the community.”

More than a small business owner she’s a resident homeowner in the Holy Name neighborhood just east of Benson.

She’s remade the bakery’s small retail front more open and inviting with smaller display cases, a few tables and chairs, sleek hanging lights, a new peach, sky blue and pale green color scheme and some old family photographs, including images of the bakery’s namesake, Georgine — Reinhardt’s late paternal grandmother.

During the makeover Reinhardt reverted to her Burwell ways and kept the doors open. Sure enough, people stopped by to share memories of the old place.

The large commercial kitchen, which resembles the galley and bowels of a ship with its oversized cooking equipment, prep tables, vents and ducts, provides ample room for her creative jags, which entail much pacing.

“I love the space. It’s huge.”

She even appreciates its limited, outdated wares.

“It fits really well with what I want to do with food. I really am inspired by baking the way it used to be,” she said. “Baking wasn’t uniform. Grandma didn’t have a proofing oven in her kitchen…I don’t want a $5,000 proofing oven that’s going to get a loaf of bread perfect every time. I want people to know how this stuff varies.

“It’s still going to be a good loaf of bread but it’s going to look different coming out of the oven on a 90-degree day then on a 75-degree day. It changes. Before it goes in the oven it’s a living culture, a living thing and the temperature, the humidity, the amount of flour, changes the whole thing. I appreciate those differences. I’m literally banking on the fact hope other people will, too.”

She hopes her artisan, hand-crafted approach is also embraced by customers.

Besides breads, Sweet Georgine’s offers scones, muffins, tarts, puff pastries, donuts, biscotti, brownies, cookies and whatever else strikes Reinhardt’s fancy. In season she’ll feature fresh fruits. Everything will be from scratch and contain local ingredients. She’s drawing on America’s melting pot of cultures for influences. Fresh brewed coffee is available.

Simple hot breakfast plates and grilled lunchtime sandwiches are also served.

Her life in food all makes sense now but she’s come by it in a circuitous way. After earning a philosophy degree from the University of Arizona in preparation for intended law school studies, she lost her zeal to be an attorney and went off to find herself in Portland, Oregon. She bartended in a nightclub before getting on as a production assistant with Will Vinton Studios, creators of the California Raisins and The PJs. She liked TV work and set her sights on the Food Network, where she could indulge her passion for cooking.

In the wake of 9/11 TV jobs in New York were scarce. Then a field producer’s slot opened on Tyler’s Ultimate, the show that served as her network entree.

To sharpen her largely self-taught culinary schools she talked her way onto the kitchen line at Bobby Flay’s chic Mesa Grill in New York. She also moonlighted as a private chef to monied Manhattanites. She was always learning. Part of her producing duties was spot checking the research staff’s work, which put her in contact with chefs. She pumped the pros for ideas.

All that was behind her or so she thought when she resettled in Nebraska. She intended marketing her library in Burwell as a culinary retreat but dropped that plan when she couldn’t affordably access gourmet ingredients. Suddenly she found herself stuck without steady work and a mortgage to pay.

So when a supervising producer gig came up on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives she jumped at it. She officed out of the Minneapolis, Minn. production company that delivers the show to Food Network. What was to be a two-month stint dragged on for seven months, by which time she remade her pledge to exit food television.

Back in Omaha she came upon the bakery and what she hopes is her permanent ticket out of TV food land. Whenever she needs a getaway she can always escape to her own personal Carnegie retreat.

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Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film screenings-discussions Recap/Looking Ahead closing session, Saturday, May 12


Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film screenings-discussions

Recap/Looking Ahead closes this sequence of classes

Saturday, May 12

9:30 am-12:30 pm

MCC @ DoSpace

Few filmmakers have accumulated a body of work of such depth and quality as Alexander Payne has in two decades. He’s given us much to think about already but he may only be at the mid-point of his career, which means there’s much more to come. It’s fun to recap what he’s given us thus far and to speculate on what might come next from him. We will sample scenes from his works, converse about what makes an Alexander Payne film an Alexander Payne film and discuss what we would like to see from him that we haven’t seen to date.

Instructor:

Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Must be 18 years old.

Register at:

https://coned.mccneb.edu/wconnect/ace/CourseStatus.awp?&Course=18APCOMM304+&DirectFrom=Schedule

 

Omaha Press Club to salute media mogul Cathy Hughes


Omaha Press Club to salute media mogul Cathy Hughes

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Nebraskans are about to get an education about one of their own they should know more about and embrace as one of the state’s greatest ever exports but very few outside of Omaha’s African-American community do. This exemplary product is Omaha native Cathy Hughes, founder and owner of two major media networks, Radio One and TV One, that she grew into African-American market empires. Hers is an entrepreneurial success story unlike few others and one that transcends color and gender. Think Oprah Winfrey but only more niche and you have an idea of just how big a deal she is and just what a footprint she has in a segment of the national media marketplace. Her personal net worth is estimated at half a billion dollars. Get the picture? She’s about to come on your radar in a big way, perhaps for the first time, because of a series of events feting and featuring her in her hometown the week of May 14-20.

If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of her before or why there haven’t been things named after her before, it may say something about how this predominantly white state has not exactly gone out of its way to recognize her or any other woman of color. As a whole, Omaha’s been guilty of the same, The festivities being planned around her are largely the effort of the African-American community here, though a broad spectrum of city officials and movers and shakers will be present for the street renaming ceremony and the Omaha Press Club Face on the Barroom Floor roast in her honor (see about the Press Club event by clicking below). Her omission, until now, as a generally known and acknowledged Nebraska Great is all the more vexing because she got her media start in Omaha, counted as her mentor Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown and has retained very close ties to the city and the black community. She has also been very generous with her time with this reporter and others from here and with other members of the community here. I will be doing a whole new round of writing about Cathy and her business and life journey in the coming months.

Oh, by the way, her mother Helen Jones Woods is a great story in herself as a member of the famed International Sweethearts of Rhythm during the big band swing era.

For those of you playing catch-up when it comes to Cathy Hughes, here are links to some stories I have done about her or that have extensively quoted her:

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/29/radio-one-queen-…-keeping-it-real

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/04/11/the-omaha-star-c…ack-woman-legacy

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/08/11/native-omaha-day…ng-like-no-other

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/12/04/news-of-omaha-st…ic-papers-future/

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/07/04/native-omahans-t…n-their-hometown

Here’s a link to my story about Cathy’s mother, Helen Jones Woods, and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm:

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/29/17/

 

The Omaha Press Club
Celebrates Its 157th
Face on the Barroom Floor 


 
Cathy Hughes

Friday, May 18, 2018

5:30 – 6:30 p.m.

Cocktail Reception

6:30 – 7:30 p.m.

Dinner

Hors d’oeuvres
Potato Leek Smoked Salmon with Goat Cheese and Bacon
Parmesan Onion Canapé
Salad

OPC’s Signature Thunderbird Salad

Entrée
OPC Tenderloin Filet Maytag Bleu and Béarnaise
Gouda & Roasted Twice-Baked Potato
Bacon-Wrapped Asparagus
Dessert
OPC’s Signature Bavarian Chocolate Mousse Gateau Riche
7:30 p.m.

The Roast featuring:

Roasters
Johnny Rodgers, 1972 Heisman Trophy winner,
founder/CEO, Johnny Rodgers Youth Foundation
and Face on the Barroom Floor (No. 102, July 2005) — emcee
Theresa Glass Union, AT&T, Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services (retired)
Elmer J. Crumbley, educational consultant/Minnesota Humanities Center, educator, Omaha Public Schools,
former principal, Skinner Magnet School (retired)
Dr. Blandina Rose Willis, educator/psychologist,
president, Humanistic Solutions, LLC
Al Goodwin, economic development director, Omaha Economic Development Corp. (retired)
Face Reveal

Artist Jim Horan

Dinner: $50 for Omaha Press Club members;

$60 for nonmembers

To RSVP for dinner:
Call the Omaha Press Club at 402-345-8008,

Email


(If you have special dietary needs, please notify the Omaha Press Club
when you make your reservation.)
Reservations must be accompanied by OPC member number or credit card.

Cancellations require a 48-hour notice.

Omaha Press Club
First National Center, 22nd Floor (adjoining the DoubleTree Hotel)
1620 Dodge Street, Omaha, Nebraska 68102-1593
Twitter: @omahapressclub
Parking Available in the Central City Parking Garage
(the garage just west of the First National Bank Building)

 

Free parking for OPC members in the Central City Garage from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.;

discounted parking available for nonmembers with ticket validation.
Bring your Central City Garage ticket with you to the club.
(No validated parking available in the garage attached
to the DoubleTree Hotel; however, self-pay parking is available)

 

KM3 reporter Maya Saenz living her dream


KM3 reporter Maya Saenz living her dream

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

KMTV Channel 3 news reporter Maya Saenz is living a dream that started as a girl in rural Colorado watching Telemundo Denver and KUSA NBC Channel 9.

Saenz ended up working at both stations before joining KM3 in 2016.

This youngest of three sisters is the only one not born in Chihuahua, Mexico, where the girls made tradition-rich  summer immersions.

Spurred by her immigrant parents’ (her father’s an entrepreneur and her mother’s a teacher) emphasis on education, Maya and her older sisters, Dulce and Nora, graduated from the University of Denver to pursue professional careers.

The family endured a life-changing event when Maya’s undocumented father got deported when she was 12. They moved to El Paso-Juarez to be near the border.

Saenz said, “We had a place in El Paso, but we spent 80 percent of the time in Juarez (on the Mexican side). I crossed the border every single day to go to school in the U.S. because I was too Americanized to go to Mexican schools.”

“My mother was too Americanized to teach in Mexico.”

Saenz didn’t let her unsettled status limit her from student activities.

“As inconvenient as this border barrier was I still had to prepare myself for college.”

When the move first occurred, she said, “I thought it was the worst thing that could happen to us. Looking back, i think it’s one of the best things. Our parents didn’t want us to lose those Mexican values. They wanted us to see them daily and the life we could have had had we stayed in Mexico.”

Having a father barred from the U.S. personally informs the immigration separation stories she covers today.

“l’ve lived it. I feel I can definitely relate when I interview people. That experience made me understanding of situations and circumstances that people from all paths of life face. It made me conscious that we have no idea what people are going through at home.”

Her father’s “restarted life in Mexico,” where he has his own business.

“It’s definitely been hard not having him here. You want your parents there for everything you accomplish.”

The Saenzes do stay connected.

“We’re a very close family. We’re on group text every day. I call my parents every single night on my way home from work. My father knows my day to day life, he knows what stories I do, he’s able to watch me on the evening news. He knows what makes me happy. Just the other day, he texted me, my sisters and my mom, saying, ‘I love you all and I live proudly for you four.'”

She finds relief talking to family after filing emotionally wrenching stories in which someone’s lost a loved one.

“You don’t want to go home and stay in that state of mind. Communicating with family helps to kind of shake it off.”

Though she’s clearly found her calling, in college Saenz needed assurance TV was the right path.

“I knew I had the desire and the drive,” she said, “but I didn’t know realistically if a young Mexican-American girl was going to be able to make it. I had this professor, Laressa Watlington, who had been an anchor for Univision. I grabbed onto her and bugged her about how do I get this and how do I do that. She opened doors for me.

“We actually ended up working together at Telemundo Denver after I graduated. I’m still very close with her.  She’s definitely a mentor in my life.”

The University of Denver made sense since her sisters preceded her there.

“Being Mexican-American, family is everything. Having to move away from my parents in El Paso, it was very important I be surrounded by my sisters during this culture shock experience. Having my sisters there really helped me get assimilated. I really needed that family support, leadership and guidance.”

Internships and jobs prepared her for her fast-track rise.

“I knew I just had to hustle and graduate and become successful like my sisters did.”

Moving forward, she said, “I definitely want to stay in news and to tell people’s stories. I just hope my platform gets bigger.”

Her career began in Spanish-language television. She set her sights on the English-speaking market in order to present Hispanic stories not being told there.

Upon finding she was “the only brown person in the newsroom” at KM3, she said, “I was like, wow. what a scary challenge but also what a great opportunity.”

She doesn’t like being the obligatory brown girl striking a blow for inclusivisty.

“Sometimes people don’t even pay attention to what you’re saying or the story – they just see you.”

On the other hand, her skin color and Spanish fluency allow her to get stories others can’t.

“I’m able to talk to people who may even know English but don’t trust other reporters. They trust me because of my background. As much as I’d like people to recognize me just for my work, I own being the Hispanic reporter.”

“Coming to Nebraska, I did not honestly think I was going to cover as many Latinos as I have. I feel like I’ve contributed to covering positive stories from the Hispanic community to where they feel they have someone they can count on.”

Her community outreach sees her emcee Latino Center of the Midlands, Women on a Mission for Change and Cinco de Mayo events, among others.

She knows young Latinos watch her with admiration the same way she did her TV news idols.

“I’m very conscious of the role I’m playing. In public, I make a point talking to Latino youth to them know, yeah, I’m a Latino reporting the news, and you can, too.”

Follow her at https://www.facebook.com/MayaSaenzNew.

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film screenings-discussions – “Downsizing” next on tap, Saturday, May 5


Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film screenings-discussions

Downsizing” next on tap

Saturday, May 5

9:30 am-12:30 pm

MCC @ DoSpace

If you didn’t catch Alexander Payne’s new film “Downsizing” or you did but weren’t sure what to make it, well here’s an opportunity to see one of 2017’s most interesting releases for the first time or to give it a go again.

Join me this spring for my Metropolitan Community College Continuing Education non-credit film screenings-discussions class:

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

Saturday mornings @ DoSpace

Through May 12

Register at:

https://coned.mccneb.edu/wconnect/ace/CourseStatus.awp?&Course=18APCOMM303%20&DirectFrom=Schedule

Payne ventured into new territory with “Downsizing,” his first big visual effects film. For it, he collaborated with a-name-above-the-title star in Matt Damon, who heads a large international cast, and re-teamed with old writing partner Jim Taylor. The late 2017 release filmed in Los Angeles, Omaha, Toronto, Norway and other spots has an original take on looming world crisis. It is a stunning visual and deeply moving emotional experience with an unexpected love story rooted in diversity. The foibles and dreams of humanity are given full voice and reign here in what is Payne’s most ambitious film to date.

Must be 18 years old.

Intrepid photojournalist Don Doll reinvents himself by adding video to repertoire of making images that matter


Intrepid photojournalist Don Doll reinvents himself by adding video to repertoire of making images that matter

©by Lei Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Giving Voice to the Voiceless
Since first picking up a camera in the 1960s while ministering to residents of Sioux reservations in South Dakota, the Rev. Don Doll of Omaha has become a well-traveled, award-winning photojournalist. The Jesuit priest is perhaps best known for chronicling the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people’s attempts to integrate traditional ways in nontraditional times. Two acclaimed books, Crying for a Vision (1976, Morgan and Morgan) and Vision Quest (1994, Crown), depict the suffering and resurgence of these Indian cultures through his haunting pictures and his subjects’ stirring words.

For a pair of National Geographic spreads he lived with Yupik Eskimos and Athapaskan Indians to record the daily rituals of native societies far outside the mainstream. For the Jesuit Refugee Service he captured the human toll exacted by land mines in Angola and Bosnia and the wrecked lives left behind by civil strife in Sri Lanka. For yet more assignments he went to Cambodia, Belize, the Dominican Republic and other remote locales to document the disenfranchised.

“I’ve thought of myself as giving voice to people who normally don’t have a voice,” said Doll, a fine arts professor at Creighton University, where he holds the Charles and Mary Heider endowed Jesuit Chair. “My work has generally been about other cultures — about how other people live and work. It’s been about telling people’s stories and breaking some stereotypes. As a priest, I’m formed by the faith I’ve grown into and one of the foundations of that faith is to have special appreciation for other people. And I think when you point a camera at someone it should be a loving look at that person.”

A master still photographer, Doll’s images are notable for their clarity, power and depth. Portraits, like the enigmatic ones for Vision Quest, are among his favorites. “I love making insightful pictures of people that reveal something of their character, but leave a question mark. I think any good portrait has a bit of mystery and ambiguity in it. Without raising that question, it becomes boring.”

A New Path
Major publications have long sought Doll’s talent, but he has remained selective about the projects he takes. Until recently, he used a 35-millimeter Leica to tell his stories. Now, at 63, an age when most artists slip comfortably into a safe niche, he is reinventing himself as a videographer.

While far from abandoning still work, he now mainly works in digital video and, along with writer Elizabeth O’Keefe, a former student of his who is publications coordinator for the U.S. Jesuit Conference, he is beginning to make waves in this new field. A story he shot and that he and O’Keefe edited and produced appeared on ABC’s “Nightline last year. The story, “Finding Ernesto,” grew out of a report the pair prepared in El Salvador on the efforts of Jesuit priests to reunite loved ones separated during the civil war there. A second story by the team — this one chronicling a Jesuit priest who is a kind of Martin Luther King figure in India — is being considered for future “Nightline” airing.

The El Salvador and India pieces are installments in a larger, multi-media documentary project by Doll and O’Keefe called The Jesuits: Two Thousand Years After Christ, which illustrates the Jesuit order’s mandate of working toward social justice and respecting other cultures. Additional stories for that project include a biography on Society of Jesus founder St. Ignatius, which sent the filmmakers to Spain and Italy last spring, and a look at the Jesuit presence on the reservations, which brought Doll back to his old stomping grounds.

How he came to photograph old friends in video after portraying them in stills is emblematic of his need to find new means of expressing himself and his faith. The ever-inquisitive Doll attended intensive professional workshops on Web publishing and DVD production. Part of his motivation to learn new forms was to introduce his students to Wed design, a class he has taught at Creighton, and to gain more personal expertise making CD-ROMs.

“I began to learn that just having pictures and type on a page is not enough. You also need sound and video. I saw people multi-purposing their material — interviews, photographs or whatever — and publishing them in different media.” Attracted by that idea, Doll incorporated his Vision Quest work, both the images he made and the sound recordings of interviews he conducted, into a CD-ROM but found many interviews unusable due to excessive ambient noise. “I resolved the next time I did any project the sound was going to be outstanding.” Under the instruction of veteran videographers Doll not only learned state-of-the-art audio but, much to his surprise, developed an affinity for making moving pictures.

Making Moving Pictures
Transitioning from the still to video format has meant learning a whole new set of techniques, realities and assumptions.

“Video is a storytelling medium. It’s more about the words than it is about the pictures. Before, I was making good pictures that almost supplanted the words,” he said. “Now, I’ve had to learn how to shoot a sequence — with a wide shot, a medium shot and a close up — and how to cover sequences and how to do interviews and how to put it all together. The guys who have been doing this for 20 years know a lot of tricks I certainly don’t. But I think the advantage I have is the compositional, lighting, and story skills I bring. I’m aware of every visual detail in the frame. I know how to layer a picture with meaning in every corner.”

Overall, he described as “exciting” his adventure in video. Gone, however, are the days when he could quietly insinuate himself into a scene and be an inconspicuous observer with only his small hand-held camera in-tow. Now, he lugs around a big, clattering batch of audio-visual devices that require more set-up, more cooperation, more planning.

For his first video project Doll chose a familiar subject — the reservations. Today, after completing several pieces, he feels he is hitting his stride. “I think I know how to shoot good video now. I’m getting some nice stuff. And I’m finally feeling comfortable editing, which is a whole other skill dealing with time and sound and pacing. The audio cut goes down first and then the pictures are dropped in, which is just the complete opposite of how I worked before. Have I found my voice totally in this new medium?  I’m not sure. But the beauty of digital video is that you hear people talk — in their own voice — with real fervor and passion. That’s a powerful tool for people who have something to say.”

Just Doing It
The new technology also allows anyone with the ability to bypass traditional media paths and produce Hollywood-Madison Avenue quality video on their own home studio set-up. Doll shoots with a Canon XL-1 digital video camera-sound system and edits on a dual processor Macintosh G4 (“my souped-up personal computer”) with Apple Final Cut Pro software. “We produced a program for ‘Nightline’ on it, and they were blown away,” Doll said. “Now, you can conceive a project or story or idea and, with a few thousand bucks, actually go out and do it. You can produce professional videos or movies or broadcast television programs. DVD technology is going to be really big. We’ll see a whole new generation of filmmakers.”

Currently on a leave of absence from teaching, Doll plans wrapping-up the Jesuit project (to be released as a DVD) by July and returning to the classroom next fall brimming with new ideas. “That’s how I’ve always done things. I teach for three or four years, then I take off to go do something and then I reflect on that and bring it back to the teaching experience. It’s a mutually enriching process.” As for new photo shoots, he said, “With this endowed chair I have the resources to go photograph anywhere in the world I want if I find a story I want to cover. I have the luxury of going where my heart is. It’s kind of sweet.”

Sculptor Benjamin Victor gives shape to Ponca Chief Standing Bear’s enduring voice


Sculptor Benjamin Victor gives shape to Ponca Chief Standing Bear’s enduring voice

 

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Sarah Lemke

Appearing in the May’June 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

 

In creating the larger-than-life likeness of Chief Standing Bear for the Nebraska state capitol’s Centennial Mall, sculptor Benjamin Victor felt communion with the late Native American icon. Victor was “captivated” by the principled ways of the Ponca leader, whose eloquent advocacy for his people led to a historic federal court ruling at Fort Omaha that declared the nation’s indigenous peoples to be legally “human” for the first time on May 12, 1879.

“He was a true servant-leader,” Victor says of his subject. “The things he wanted were very basic, inalienable human rights everyone should be afforded. He carried himself with dignity even through demeaning treatment. He had a higher moral code of ethics during a time when the laws were not moral. He had the courage to stand up for right through many injustices.”

Based in Idaho, the Boise State University professor and resident artist felt connected to Standing Bear through every stage of his artistic process—from preparatory research into the famous Nebraskan, through molding his clay form, to casting the Ponca leader in bronze.

“His story and spirit definitely were speaking to me,” Victor says. “As an artist, you try to get that voice through your artwork to speak to viewers who see it. I felt humbled to be working on it. In the sculpture itself, I tried to keep the spirit of Standing Bear alive as much as I tried for an accurate portrait. An accurate portrait is important, but to me a spiritual portrait is just as important. I hope it really inspires other people to study his life. If my work does that, then it’s a success.”

The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and Donald Miller Campbell Family Foundation commissioned the 11-foot-tall sculpture, unveiled Oct. 15, 2017. Then, over the winter, a pair of Nebraska state senators (including Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha) introduced a bill to replace the state’s two sculptures—of J. Sterling Morton and William Jennings Bryan—in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall with those of Willa Cather and Standing Bear. A donor, Donald Miller Campbell, pledged funds for a copy to be made of Victor’s Standing Bear work.

“To have him as a towering icon in the U.S. Capitol would be important. His story should be on the national scale. He should be known in every school,” Victor says.

The artist already has two works in the Hall. One is of Northern Paiute activist Sarah Winnemucca on behalf of the state of Nevada. Anything Native holds profound meaning for Victor, as his late step-grandfather was a member of the Juaneño—a coastal California tribe engulfed by Spanish missions.
“It’s always a big deal to me whenever I do a Native American piece that it’s done right and with purpose. I always think of my grandpa when I do them. He liked the images I created of Native Americans with a strong stance and with dignity. That really meant a lot to him. If he’s looking down, he’s really proud of this one.”

Victor’s second sculpture in the U.S. Capitol represents Iowa—Norman Borlaug, the father of modern agriculture’s “Green Revolution.”

Working from photos, Victor “modified” Standing Bear’s pose “to capture a hint of motion,” as if the chief were moving forward slightly. In an attempt to “capture every detail,” he created folds and the look of heaviness in the blanket draped about his subject. Ornamental details included intricate beadwork, a bear claw necklace, and peace medals. Victor symbolized the chief’s dual roles as warrior and ambassador by having him holding an ax-peace pipe.

The bronze is positioned in front of a wall carved with the eloquent words of Standing Bear on trial (as translated by Omaha Native Susette “Bright Eyes” LaFlesche): “That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”

The project selection committee for the state capitol’s Centennial Mall learned about Victor from George Neubert (director of the Flatwater Folk Art Museum in Brownville, Nebraska), who befriended the artist when he did a commission for Peru State College, where his bronze of a hulking football player adorns the Oak Bowl.

Although Victor originally hails from California, he developed deep roots in the Great Plains while attending Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he discovered his love of sculpture.

“When I picked up clay the first time in college, the medium just clicked for me,” he says. “I felt like the concepts I was trying to get across were very readily expressed in sculpture. I really like the physicality of sculpture, how you move the clay with your hands and manipulate it. I like everything about it. I also work in marble—so I do the subtractive process of carving, the additive process of clay work, and the replacement process of bronze.”

He was still in school when he landed his first big commission—for the Aberdeen airport.

“I had a family to support,” he says. “I worked at the YMCA part-time, took odd jobs, and went to school full time. I was on food stamps and rental assistance. We had nothing. To get the commission was really amazing because you can struggle your whole life as an artist and never get a commission like that.”

Soon thereafter came the Winnemucca project. Demand for his work has never ceased.

“I never thought I’d get the opportunity to make it on my own in my dream field and career,” he says. “It’s a true American success story. I still don’t take it for granted. Every day I get to do this, I feel very blessed. And then to do something inspiring like Standing Bear. What a dream commission to commemorate him and everything he stood for.”

Upon graduating, Victor was a Northern State teacher and resident artist before Boise State courted him.

“They gave me a beautiful studio space and gallery. It’s been a great home,” he says, adding that he maintains close ties with his former colleagues in South Dakota. “I’ve got so many friends there that are just like family.”

Back at his Boise studio, his studio life intersects with students, patrons, and his three children. Meanwhile, he continues to always keep his ears open to the spirits of his subjects.

Visit benjaminvictor.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

 

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