Archive for September 3, 2011

John Beasley and sons make acting a family thing

September 3, 2011 10 comments

John Beasley, the patriarch of Omaha’s First Family of Thespians, and his John Beasley Theater & Workshop, have been the subjects of many stories by me, all of which can be found on this blog. This particular story for The Reader ( looks at how Beasley’s two sons, Tyrone and Michael, haven’t fallen far from their father’s solid acting tree. John is an acclaimed television, film, and theater actor. Tyrone is a respected actor and director. Michael is emerging as a character actor force in television and in studio and independent films.

John Beasley and sons make acting a family thing 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (

As time goes by, it’s clear acting is a birthright with the Beasleys, that talented clan of thespians fast-evolving into the first family of Omaha theater.

John Beasley long ago made his mark on the Omaha theater scene, scoring dramatic triumphs in the 1970s and ‘80s at the Center Stage, the Chanticleer, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the Nebraska Repertory Theatre, the Firehouse Dinner Theatre and the Omaha Community Playhouse, among other venues. Now, having done the regional theater circuit and built a nice screen acting career, he’s returned to the local dramatic arts fraternity with his own John Beasley Theater & Workshop. Sharing space with the South Omaha YMCA in the La Fern Williams Center at 3010 Q Street, the theater’s become a showcase for African-American plays and emerging talent, including Beasley’s sons, Tyrone and Michael, who’ve shown serious acting chops themselves. Tyrone comes from a professional theater background and Michael is transitioning back to acting after a long layoff.

In a June production of August Wilson’s Jitney, the proud papa and his progeny led a rich ensemble cast on the theater’s small stage. John, as the hot-headed Turnbo, inhabited his part with his usual veracity and found all the music in Wilson’s jazz-tinged words. Tyrone, as the emotionally-scarred Booster, hit just the right notes as a man desperate to salvage his misspent life. Michael, as the decent Youngblood, brought an unaffected gravity to his character.

In a reunion of sorts, Beasley recruited Broadway actor Anthony Chisholm, with whom he’d done Jitney at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, for the JBT show. The Alliance is one of many regional black theaters Beasley honed his skills in and serves as a model for what he’s trying to create in Omaha.

Jitney broke all box-office records in the short history of Beasley’s theater and now he and his sons are poised to build on that success. They’re opening the 2004-2005 season with a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed A Raisin in the Sun, whose revival on Broadway last season earned kudos. Raisin, which Tyrone will produce and play a small part in, runs September 17 through October 10.

A Shared Craft and Passion
Although Jitney was the first time all three Beasleys acted together, John and Tyrone collaborated as producer and director on the JBT’s rendering of Wilson’s Two Trains Running in 2003. Tyrone co-starred with Michael in Two Trains. Years earlier, Michael portrayed Biff opposite his father’s Willie Loman in a Center Stage mounting of Death of a Salesman. The trio’s eager to work together more, but it’s not easy making their busy schedules jive, much less finding pieces with the right parts. While taking vastly different paths to the craft they now share, each articulates a similar passion for acting and its sense of discovery.

For John, who comes from a family of storytellers, it’s all about expressing and exploring himself through drama. His working process is direct. “The first thing I try to do is commit the words to my memory so that I can make them mine,” he said. “I like to do that early on, especially in the rehearsal process. I prefer to jump right into the character and to find the energy, the emotional nuances and the relationships. As an actor, you have to be willing to give and receive with your fellow actors. That way, if we’re playing opposite each other, we have something to react to and build off of.” Character development, he said, never really stops. “Even by the end of the run, you’ll never really fully realize the potential of your character. You just continue to look for things and to look for ways to grow.”

For an extrovert like John, to “come in blasting away and still have a lot” left over is one method. Another, is the more studied method used by the more reserved Tyrone. “I have a slower process,” Tyrone said, “where I first have to work on the words until they’re really embedded. Then, once I know what’s happening in the scene, I start to explore. So, it takes me awhile to get the little nuances.” Once he’s up to speed, however, Tyrone likes to “play,” by which he means improvise.

“That’s when Tyrone gets up there and looks for something new every night,” John said of his son’s ability to riff, which is something Beasley prides himself in as well.

Tyrone loved the experience of working with professional actors in Jitney. “You feel a lot freer when you have people up there who really know what they’re doing and are really seasoned at it. People that you can play with and play off of, and not distract them. It’s fun to bring something new and different and exciting every night. It was a real enjoyable experience in that way,” he said.

Spontaneity in acting, John said, is sometimes misinterpreted by the uninitiated as discarding the script and just winging it. But that’s not the case. He said in early rehearsals for the JBT’s production ofFor Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow’s Enuf, the mostly newcomer cast “came in with a lot of wild stuff. They were even making up lines and things, and I’m like, No, that’s not what I’m talking about. Within the words on the page you can find a new and exciting reason every night for your performance.”



Michael Beasley



Making It Your Own
For someone as accomplished as John, tweaking his craft is, as Tyrone puts it, “a lot more subtle, because he’s been doing it so long. When you get to a certain level, there’s only so much that you can do as far as the technique of acting. But with each character it’s different, and you have to approach each character differently and hopefully learn about yourself and see the world from someone else’s point of view. That’s what we, as actors, are basically trying to do — to show this character’s point of view, which may not be the same point of view you have. So, growth on a certain level comes from that, and he does that all the time.”

It’s dredging your inner self to find the right emotional pitch to fit the character and the dynamics of the scene. “We’re all trying to find the character within our own reality,” John said, “to make it an honest presentation as opposed to just acting.” “To make it our own,” Tyrone added.

“You have to think about it and feel it first before you can express the truth about it. You don’t just rattle lines off. Method actors call it being in the moment. And this is what we instill in our people,” John said, referring to the JBT workshops he and Tyrone lead that train its many first-time actors. “The first thing we tell them is, Get out of your head. Get away from — I did it this way last night and the audience really loved me, so I’m going to repeat the same thing tonight. Then, you never grow. If you want to do that head thing, you can go someplace else because we’re trying to set a certain standard here with believability.”

Tyrone said the goal is to achieve the kind of unadorned truth his father finds in everything from a classic soliloquy to a modern rant. “We’re trying to make it seem conversational, so that as the audience you’re like eavesdropping in on people just talking, not acting. That’s what we’re trying to get to.” John added, “It doesn’t matter what the script is. It can be Shakespeare or whatever, but you still bring that honesty to it. Another thing we teach is to try to find the music and the rhythm of a piece. It wasn’t until I learned the music of Shakespeare’s writing that it really flowed for me.” A key to August Wilson’s work, he said, is its jazz quality.

For Tyrone, the appeal of drama is “storytelling and trying to portray stories truthfully. Drama’s like holding a mirror up to life. I like paying attention to the details and colors of life. My job is to explore that and, using my imagination, to take it to the fullest.”

No two actors work the same. Even widely varying styles can mesh. John recalls working with the great Roscoe Lee Browne. “You know, he’s got this great voice and he uses the voice as opposed to finding an emotional base. The way I normally work is, I’ll come in and listen and then I’ll give my line as a reaction to what I hear that night. One night, Roscoe and I were working on Two Trains in Chicago. We had this thing where we’d almost compete. I had this great speech and then he had a great speech after it. And if I was OK, he’d step up his game, you know, and the voice would get deeper and the audience would be like, Wow. Well, one night we were both really great and Roscoe came off stage and said, ‘I know that was wonderful, but I know you’re going to fuck around and change it.’ And I said, ‘That’s what I do, man.’ So, we all do different things.”

An acting novice compared to his father and brother, Michael Beasley sounds as if he’s been paying attention to them, when he says of his own approach, “I’m still learning the process, but I try to get the words down as quick as possible, so that in the rehearsal process I can play with it and try to find the character. Each night, I’m still searching for my character and looking to grow my character.”

Tyrone saw Michael’s growth in Jitney. “Something I noticed with this performance is when he moved, he really seemed like he belonged in the space of the jitney stand. It felt like he wasn’t on stage as an actor, but there as that character.” John agreed, saying, “Oh, yeah, he’s come a long way since Two Trains. He’s learning. He does his homework. That’s the most important thing.”

Like Father, Like Sons
As the sons follow in the shadow of their father, they’re treading some of the very ground he once trod. Like his father before him, Tyrone’s performed at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. And Michael’s been signed to his first film by the same producer and casting agent, Ruben Cannon, who inked John Beasley to his first national acting jobs — the ABC movie Amerika and the ABC-TV series Brewster Place. Michael has a speaking part in the indie project, Trust, now shooting in Atlanta, where he resides. In another Atlanta project, The Diary of a Mad Black Woman, he’s doubling gospel playwright, actor and director phenom Tyler Perry, who co-stars as Madea in this film adaptation of Perry’s smash stage show.

John, a veteran of the boards and the bright lights, is the mentor and role model whose strong, centered, accessible presence is something each of his sons, or for that matter, any actor, aspires to. Despite some formal training, he’s largely a self-taught actor. He draws on rich life experiences — he’s been everything from a jock and jitney driver to a radio-TV host to a longshoreman and janitor — to inform his real-as-rain portrayals. He is, as the saying goes, a natural.

It’s been 20 years since this family patriarch made the leap from acting on community and regional theater stages to character parts on television and in feature films. His film roles include small but telling turns in the feel-good Rudy and the intense The Apostle. Even with such successes, the realities of screen acting dictate being an itinerant artist — going wherever the next gig takes you. That is, until he landed the recurring role of Irv Turner on the WB series, Everwood. Now that he has “a regular job,” he’s devoting much of his time away from the Everwood set to the south Omaha theater that not only bears his name, but stirs fond memories and renews old ties. The theater is the site of the old Center Stage where Beasley first flexed his acting muscles. Just as it celebrated diversity in plays by and about minorities, the JBT is all about alternative voices and faces.

In addition to occasionally acting there, John serves as JBT executive director and artistic director, and has directed shows, most notably its inaugural production of August Wilson’s Fences (in which Beasley starred as Troy Maxson). He and Tyrone also teach the workshops that are part of the JBT’s mission of developing a pool of trained actors the theater can draw on for future shows. That pool is growing.

For Jitney, Beasley brought in ringers in the figures of professional actors Anthony Chisholm and Willis Burks, but the rest of the cast was local. An indication of the talent here, Beasley said, is something Chisholm told him. “He thought this was a better cast than we had in Atlanta, and in many instances he’s right. I thought with the people we put together, we could have played that show anywhere.”

According to John and Tyrone, an ever expanding base of minority talent is being identified and groomed through the JBT workshop program. “I see young people coming in who are going to do very well. When they come out of my theater, I want them to have that confidence they can work anywhere.” “That’s exactly why we have the workshop — to give them the confidence,” Tyrone said. One JBT “graduate,” Robinlyn Sayers, is pursuing regional theater opportunities in Houston.

An Omaha Benson High School grad, Tyrone earned an art degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He did some modeling. Then, after getting hooked on acting at the Center Stage, he took private drama lessons in Chicago. Following in the footsteps of his father, Tyrone scored a coup when cast by the legendary theater director Peter Sellars in The Merchant of Venice at the Goodman Theatre. Blissfully ignorant of Sellars’ world-class reputation as an enfant terrible genius, Tyrone found himself acting with future heavyweight Philip Seymour Hoffman in a production that eventually toured Europe. “I don’t know how my audition would have went if I knew who he (Sellars) was. I might have been more nervous.” After Chicago, he attended California State University, Long Beach, where he acted with the California Repertory Company. “I also worked out of Los Angeles doing readings and worked behind the scenes as a film production assistant. That was a great experience.” After his father launched the JBT, he was enlisted in 2003 to help get the fledgling theater on “a solid foundation.”

Aside from that one time on stage with his dad in Death of a Salesman, Michael Beasley was hell-bent on a career in athletics, not dramatics. After making all-state his senior season at Omaha Central, he earned Juco hoops honors at McCook Community College before playing for the University of Texas-Arlington. He played more than 10 years of pro ball in the States and abroad, mostly in Latin America. Off-seasons, he lived in Atlanta, where he still makes his home with his wife and kids. Then, the acting bug bit again. His first post-hoops gig came as a last minute replacement — not unlike getting called off the bench in a crucial game situation.

“The way that went down is I was deciding to get back into acting when some people fell out of the Two Trains cast and Tyrone called and said, ‘Can you come up here and do this play tomorrow?’ So, I came up, and it was a great experience. It whet my appetite to pursue it further,” Michael said.

He admits to some trepidation acting with his father in Jitney, in which their antagonist characters wage a fist fight. “Everybody said, ‘You better bring your ‘A’ game.’ But it was great,” Michael said. “I try to absorb everything like a sponge and feed off the the stuff my father does to prepare. I’ve been able to draw on the experience I had in the play and bring it to the film projects I’m in now.”

John found it “real enjoyable” working with Mike. “He knew what I expected,” John said. “We had real good eye contact and we were able to play off each other really well, which became really important when we had to replace our Becker, Ben Gray, especially in the fight scene, which moves along pretty fast.”

So, was a life in acting inevitable for his sons? “I feel like I was definitely influenced because my father did it, but I feel like it’s chosen me more than anything. It’s a calling,” Tyrone said. “Of course, my father was an influence,” Michael said. “A lot of people think I’m in acting now because my father’s really successful at it, but our father never pushed us. It’s just something I chose. When I said I wanted to do it, he said, ‘Are you sure about that?’ It fills a void after basketball. I can’t play anymore at a high level, but with acting — the sky’s the limit. It’s something else to be passionate about. Besides, I’m not a nine-to-five guy. And I love the challenge.”

In John Beasley’s opinion, no one chooses acting. “It chooses you,” he said. And how much acting shop talk is there when the Beasleys get together? “We talk about it a lot. It’s part of our lives,” he said.

Looking to build on the momentum of Jitney, John Beasley’s commissioned noted UNO Theatre director Doug Paterson to direct Raisin. Paterson and company will workshop the play six weeks before it opens. Beasley’s also working with his agent to help round out the cast with name actors. “That’s a really good connection to have for putting some really nice ensembles together,” Beasley said. “We have a lot of talent in Omaha, but sometimes it helps to bring in some professionals. I think it’s good for the theater, good for the audiences and good for our actors here.”

Short story writer James Reed at work in the literary fields of the imagination

September 3, 2011 5 comments

James Reed of Omaha is one of those superb writers who goes under the radar of the general reading public because he specializes in short fiction that gets published in serious but sparsley read literary journals and anthologies, but he deserves a much wider following. I wrote this piece about James for The Reader ( some 12 years ago, when he was still teaching at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and editing its literary magazine. I first met James at UNO, where we were students about the same time. I ran the campus film series and he and his then girlfriend and now wife, Omaah Central High School teacher Vicki Deniston Reed, were regulars at our screenings of classic and contemporary American and foreign films. Like most writers, James has always worked a regular job to support his writing habit. Highly respected in the field, James has received the National Endowment for the Arts‘ prestigious Charles B. Wood Award for Distinguished Writing from Carolina Quarterly and and Individual Fellowship Master Award in Literature from the Nebraska Arts Council. His work has been a finalist in competitions for the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the Southern California Review Fiction Prize. His work was a semi-finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award.

James is a sweet man with a huge talent, and it’s safe to say that the vast majority of customers he waits on at the copy center he works at don’t have a clue he is one of the best living writers in the world. He’s far too humble to toot his own horn, so let me do it for him.


Short story writer James Reed at work in the literary fields of the imagination

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


“The clocks were faced with gold. Real gold. It dazzled the eyes. Houses might be black and white and as big as barns, with long slate roofs as if to weight them into the earth, but the clock towers shone like sunlight…They could be seen for miles. Towers, steeples, clocks, and inside the cathedrals, the walls seethed with gleaming saints. Angels older than America clawed toward heaven with empty, shimmering eyes.”
-from James Reed’s “The Time in Central Europe

James Reed hears the music in words.

An award-winning short fiction author and accomplished amateur musician, the 45-year-old Omahan routinely reads aloud his work to better catch the beats, measures, tones resonating in the prose. While hardly an unusual practice among writers, Reed’s highly developed musical sense (he is a clarinet player with the Nebraska Wind Symphony and Black Woods Wind Ensemble) makes him more attuned than most to the lyrical notes of a descriptive passage, an alliterative phrase, a sly metaphor, an active verb. For him, it’s all about maintaining and tweaking, where needed, the voice he’s chosen (or that’s chosen him) to tell a story. Like a composer, he gets the rhythm down until every chord, every inflection, every transition flows seamlessly into a unified whole.

How does Reed, a creative writing instructor in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Writers’ Workshop as well as fiction and managing editor of its literary magazine, The Nebraska Review, know when he’s reached the desired pitch?
“It sounds right,” he said in between swigs of coffee during a sit-down chat at the cluttered Review office in the Weber Fine Arts Building on the UNO campus. “I’m very aural…very attentive to sound and rhythm. I’m very voice-driven. I try to have a different voice for every piece and that pretty much is the guiding force. Whatever voice I’m using, whether it’s very formal or highly colloquial or a very flat uninflected voice, I always want it be settled. Is it working the way it should? Is it dead-on consistent? And if it doesn’t need to be consistent, when it moves do you believe the chord changes, the modulations?”

An example of a story where, as Reed puts it, “the voice ran the show” is “The Natural Order,” a morbid tale with a lonely, embittered old widow, Gwendolyn, as its gloomy narrator. Having lost everything dear to her, she sees her own sad end approaching in a neighborhood gone to the dogs:

“In the distance I hear woodchippers, the big industrial kind, and soon they’ll come down this street. Whole trees are being mulched. Most of them have been dead for years, and the neighborhood’s looking blighted. I’m afraid the city will just decide to make it official. Mr. Krendler’s old house already has been condemned…After Mr. Krendler died the place was rented to…maybe a psychotic, I think. He didn’t last long. I wouldn’t doubt he’s locked up or dead, the way he treated Mrs. Vacanti’s dog. I hated it too, the yappy little thing…but that young man twisted its head until he broke its neck…It was a noisy ball of fluff, but most of the dogs here are bigger. There’s one that looks like a horse…I’ve cleaned up uncounted messes from my yard…but the city wouldn’t listen. They just help who they want.”

According to Reed, “One day I wrote that opening sentence about woodchippers, ‘the big industrial kind,’ and from that moment on I had the voice I wanted. The more I wrote her (Gwendolyn), the more that voice made sense to me.”



Being true to the music of language is one thing, but just how Reed’s musicianship feeds his prose is somewhat ethereal. Experience has taught him not to discount it though.

He explains, “After college there was a period when I wasn’t playing (music) and I discovered I also wasn’t writing much. And when I finally picked up the horn I found myself writing again, so there’s obviously some link there. I write and read the way I do I believe largely because of the way I hear music generally, but particularly composers like Stravinsky and Mingus, whose work is dense complex stuff that leaps at a moment’s notice. Very complicated voicing. Enormous range of notes. How I hear fiction is very much a rhythmic mental sense of chord structure and of consonants and vowels colliding. That’s what I’m always trying to do — make it sound right. And some things never sound right to you.”

The discipline of practicing music daily as a youth, when he and his younger brother took horn lessons, steeled him for the rigors of writing every day. “For someone who’s going to be doing a very solitary job like being a writer, being a musician is great training because you spend hours and hours and hours by yourself mastering tasks. Like writing, it’s an extremely focused activity. I’m very good about writing even if I’m not in the mood. I highly recommend that. In class I tell students to think of this as your job. Some days on your job you’re great. Some days you’re just walking through the motions. The important thing is the process of doing it. If you don’t sit down and make yourself do it, it won’t happen. It just won’t.”

He works from a congested second-story office in the well-rummaged old clapboard house he shares with his wife Vicki Deniston Reed, a Central High School teacher, and their two young children, Anna and Jake. The small room, with stacks of books bulging from shelves and littering the floor, overlooks one side of Cascio’s Steak house and contains two desks, one for writing in long-hand,the other for his Mac computer. Within easy reach are his two horns — a B-flat and an alto clarinet.

Reed is a man of contrasts. He navigates the academic-aesthetic world while holding down a blue-collar printing job (something he’s done for years). He wears the utilitarian clothes and unpretentious demeanor of a working stiff, but his sonorous voice and capacious vocabulary clearly belong to the classroom or stage.

Among the discordant strains Reed or any writer must face is the rejection notice. You know the kind: ‘Thank you for the opportunity of reading your manuscript, but unfortunately at this time it does not meet our needs…blah, blah, blah…yadda, yadda, yadda.’ He’s heard them all before. To give aspiring writers a sober dose of reality or perhaps let them thumb their collective nose at the Philistines making publishing decisions, he’s affixed a collage of rejection notes to his UNO office window.

Getting stories published can take years. Some never see the light of day. Several Reed stories have appeared in major literary magazines (West Branch, Whetstone, River Styx, Tennessee Quarterly), but for every acceptance there’s far more turn-downs. So it goes. Undaunted by writing’s vagaries, he pursues a singular vision. His work has garnered attention though. One of his two collections, “The East Coast of Nebraska,” has been a finalist for top American literary prizes — the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. While neither this collection nor his other (“Insulting the Flesh”) has found a publisher yet, he takes the attitude it’s only a matter of time before they do sell.

Meanwhile, he’ll go on trusting his inner voice. It’s served him well thus far. He’s won writing awards from the General Electric Foundation, Creighton University, Carolina Quarterly and the Nebraska Arts Council. Not bad for someone who fell into writing shortly after he and his family moved to Omaha from his birthplace of Minneapolis in 1973. A 1979 cum laude graduate of UNO’s Fine Arts College, Reed then promptly left academia behind. Years passed. Then, in 1990, he returned as fiction editor of the Nebraska Review and at the urging of poetry editor Susan Aizenberg pursued post-graduate studies, earning a master of fine arts degree at Warren Wilson College in N.C. in 1995. In the two-year Warren Wilson program he discovered a passion for teaching and gained a rigorous analytical approach to writing.

“It gave me a way of working with students to break down things into ever smaller component parts and still have it be comprehensible enough to deal with the overall architecture of the piece. Teaching I like because get to watch students light up and figure it out and take themselves to a place where they wouldn’t probably have been before, and that’s enormously rewarding.”

He’s especially grateful to former Warren Wilson instructor Karen Brennan for pushing him to refine his work. “I tend not to be very fond of rewriting. She beat into me, against all of my impulses, the real necessity of being an attentive rewriter and being ever vigilant and ever willing not to settle just because you’re tired. I owe her a lot for that because I think I’m a better writer as a result.”

Additionally, Reed credits UNO Writers’ Workshop founder and director, author Richard Duggin, for his development. “Absolutely. I ran into him early and young. I learned more from him about how to think about writing than probably anybody. I owe him, and many other people owe him, an enormous debt for his being endlessly, tirelessly helpful and instructive.”

James Reed


In turn, Duggin says he admires Reed’s “particular attention to small details that authenticate the story, his eye to finding the appropriate image and his meticulous attention to character development,” adding, “To me, James’ stuff represents some of the best work being done in Midwest literature.” Noting the musicality of his prose, he also appreciates Reed’s “attention to the rhythms of the language.”

Reed’s sonata-like stories unfold in episodic turns, each taking the measure of characters and incidents in small incremental movements that variously diverge from and merge with the main theme until the whole is great than the sum of its parts. He is fond of constructing lattice-work layers of digression and subtext.

“I love details. I will cram stories full of details. Early on in my fiction I picked up on a military defense theory, of all things, called Dense-Pack. The notion goes that you can have so much stuff densely clustered in different places and have it be so mobile that it’s difficult to destroy. And I think of my own fiction as essentially Dense-Pack stuff. I mean it’s just loaded, as somebody once told me, with lots of bits of dead-end pipe. I’m not as concise a short story writer as I probably should be, but I like the sound of things to be a little busier than that.

“Even though my plots tend to be kind of wandering, I will construct elaborately baroque things. One thing I do is mess with your time sense. My structure tends not to be a straight-line, linear, chronological development. In some ways I think I’m trying to do in short fiction a lot of the things people do in novels.”

While conscious his dead-end wanderings are not always neatly resolved, these very detours help bring Reed’s explorations of human foibles, conflicts and passions to life. He delves into the private often dark thoughts, personality tics, quirky behaviors and strained relations of “average” people in “ordinary” straits, revealing an extraordinary panorama of social-emotional-psychic baggage along the way.

“I like fiction with lots of people in it and I like the people in my fiction to be interesting. But it’s not like I have people fanatically happy or in love in my stories — often they’re ferociously not.”

Brooding characters are abundant in “The Downside,” a story set in a law firm whose soul-killing politics and pressures drive an attorney into a downward spiral. For it, Reed drew on his years working in the printing office of Kutak-Rock. Reed, who views the world of work as a rich but largely ignored vein of material, says it’s surprising “how much real hatred there is among people” at jobs.

Conceding “I can be dark,” Reed adds, “I like my darkness with humor.” His sardonic sense is evident in the “East Coast of Nebraska” collection’s title piece, which portrays the absurd lengths a business associate goes to in hiding the truth behind his seemingly stalwart friend’s scandalous death and illicit sexual history.

Reed speculates the source of his own dark side may be the “startling” experience of touring, at age six, the Dachau death camp while his career Army officer father was stationed in Germany. He drew on that episode for “The Time in Central Europe,” an evocative rumination on the crossroads an American service family finds themselves in in Germany during the Cold War. The protagonist is a small boy who sees the immediate menace of the Berlin Wall crisis and the past horror of Dachau reflected in the oppressive architecture of the region and in the Hansel and Gretel fairy-tale he’s reading. The area’s shining gold-faced clock towers seem beacons of hope but ultimately only reflect the inferno. Together with the anxiety the adults around him exhibit, it is a deeply troubling time for the boy, just as it was for Reed.

Naturally, Reed felt compelled to describe it in fiction, but years passed before he was able to come to terms with it. During a return visit to Germany as an adult, he says, “all this memory poured out and I was able finally to write a version of that story that was close enough to get it out of my system.”

Growing up a military brat, Reed moved from state to state, even overseas. It was an “unrooted” existence, but one affording rich opportunities to see people and places he might not have otherwise. He attended 26 schools, lived in Alaska before it was a state and was in Germany when the Berlin Wall went up. The longest he settled anywhere was seven years in Virginia. A “smart, alienated kid,” he was a “voracious reader” from the time he entered school. His storytelling first blossomed in the form of cartoons and even a daily comic strip he created for his own amusement. Later, he began writing stories for classroom assignments.

Whether his stories reverberate deeply with own life or spring full-born from his fancy, they are rooted in careful observation. Everything is potential material. “Absolutely, everything,” he says. “Cereal boxes, the old lady carrying plastic bags, a guy slamming lug nuts off a tire.” Keen awareness is a writer’s duty or curse. In Reed’s case, also his pleasure. “I’m constantly trying to pay attention to what people say and do. To catch subtleties of nuance and behavior. I’ve always been entertained just watching people. I’m pretty much an eclectic sponge. I’ve got this great store of stuff in my head, so I assume I was always fairly observant, even as a kid.” When something strikes him, he jots down impressions or makes mental notes.

“Transit Info.,” a slice-of-life story about disparate city bus riders, grew out of a conversation Reed overheard on a MAT bus. “People were discussing the nature of heaven, and I sat and thought, ‘Well, who are these people who would all end up in the oddity of this time and place discussing the nature of heaven? How did this happen? How did we get here?’” Imagination filled in the rest. Similarly, “Customer Recognition,” in which a guilt-ridden stick-up man has a life-reviewing catharsis at the garage he’s robbing, came from Reed observing a service station attendant.


Nebraska Wind Symphony


A Newsweek article sparked Reed’s interest in Nikola Tesla, a brilliant if eccentric electrical engineer and inventor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The resulting story, “Mr. Tesla’s Thunder,” explores the effect this wizard-like man has on the residents of a pioneer town upon setting up shop there and conducting awesome experiments to harness lightning and broadcast electricity.

Reed’s diverse interests and fluid style make him hard to categorize. His many literary influences include the late Wright Morris (whom he dedicates a tribute to in the next issue of The Nebraska Review), Robert A. Heinlein, J.R. Tolkien, Alice Munro and Mervyn Peake (“The Gormen Ghast Trilogy”). Filmmaker Robert Altman’s fusion-like story and dialogue riffs are another inspiration for this certified film buff.

Like many artists Reed strives hard to make his craftsmanship invisible. To let his technique work unconsciously on the reader. He doesn’t get carried away with any grand designs, however. “There are writers who want to put the I-beams on the outside of the structure, but I definitely am of the camp that you spend all your time trying to make sure this is not real obvious. That you essentially fool them into believing something that isn’t there. But then again, they’re all just squiggles on paper. Let’s be real.”

Plenty busy these days, Reed is now “slogging away” on a short story and in the early research stages of a first novel. “In the spirit of a don’t-jinx-the-project impulse,” he’ll only say the novel’s historical theme concerns a musician’s exploits in the Old West, including playing in a band under the command of Gen. George Armstrong Custer at the time of the Little Big Horn. Yes, that’s right, “Custer’s Last Band.”

“It was a scene picture-perfect, like the cover of a story book, with shadows climbing the vibrant contours of the earth, sliding over forests toward a small village, until he saw across the brilliant hills a clock. He saw on its face the ancient flash of sunlit gold, the red gold fire of twilight. 
-from “The Time in Central Europe”

Young artist steps out of the shadows of towering presence in his life

September 3, 2011 3 comments

Legacy is a powerful thing, and when the shadow cast by a an older, highly accomplished figure looms large it can be a paralyzing specter of expectation to live up to for a young person following in those footsteps. In the case of the late celebrated realist figurative artist Kent Bellows, his larger-than-life presence in life and in death has not stymied the emergence of his talented nephew, Neil Griess, who is very much charting his own path as an artist to be watched. The following piece I did on Griess for The Reader ( appeared three years ago, fast on the heels of Griess, then a high school senior, winning the same national award his uncle Kent Bellows had won 40 years earlier. Now, Griess is a college senior at the University of Nebraska, where he’s a studio art major, and is once again making waves with his work. Griess, who like his uncle did creates elaborate sets for his hyper-realistic paintings, had a work selected for a show at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha in early 2011 and another of his works has been selected for a new show, The Fascinators, the inaugural Charlotte Street Biennial of Regional BFA/MFA Candidates at La Esquina in Kansas City, Mo. You can read a short piece I did about Neil’s famous uncle, Kent Bellows, on this blog.



©Neil Griess, “Site Measure” (2010), oil on panel



Young artist steps out of the shadows of towering presence in his life

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the The Reader (


If 18-year-old award-winning visual artist Neil Griess of Omaha feels pressure to live up to the legacy of his maternal uncle Kent Bellows, he doesn’t betray it. Work by Bellows, the late American master of figurative realism, is in major private/public art collections. We’re talking the Metropolitan Museum of Art here.

In 2005 Bellows died at age 56 of natural causes in his Leavenworth Street studio/home, now preserved by the Bellows Foundation as an education center. The Omaha iconoclast was a player in New York art circles via his association with the Tatistcheff and Forum galleries. His paintings/drawings sold out wherever they exhibited. Interest in his work continues high.

A May Westside High School grad, Griess has far to go to reach such status, but perhaps not as far as you’d think. With his parents Jim and Robin Griess and his Westside art teacher Shawn Blevins on hand at New York City’s Carnegie Hall on June 15, Griess accepted the Portfolio Gold Honor in the national Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which included a $10,000 cash prize. Griess, one of 12 Portfolio Gold winners from around the nation, trod onto the hallowed stage to accept the award. The presenter draped a large gold medal over him as the full, black tie-attired house applauded.

Forty years earlier Bellows won in the same competition. Other name artists have won, too, including Richard Avedon and Andy Warhol. The recognition brought Bellows scholarship opportunities at prestigious art schools. Griess too has been deluged with offers. Bellows studied at then-Omaha University. Starting in the fall, Griess will study at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln under realist painter Keith Jacobshagen, a friend of Bellows.

What makes the prospect of Griess’s future development alluring is that he works in the same style as Bellows did — meticulous realism. Their dense work renders persons, objects, settings in such rigorous detail that it draws viewers into an infinite space invested with meaning. With almost any Bellows, Griess said, “it feels like you can get lost in it.” Even up close, he said, “you can’t really derive how he did it.” The technique and the process are as invisible and ineffable as Bellows was enigmatic.

Griess said he’s always been drawn to realism. “Yeah, I always thought realistic work is the direction I would want to go if I continued art,” he said. He can’t exactly pinpoint why. “I don’t know. It’s interesting,” he said, “because you’re not trying to reproduce this object or this person…but more capturing it, I suppose, in a specific moment, a specific point in time.” Or as Bellows once put it in an interview, the goal is to capture what’s beyond the photograph to “what is actually happening…to capture the subject’s soul…the subject’s inner life.”

“And that’s something I wanted to try to do with the eight paintings for my portfolio,” Griess said. “I think if something’s rendered so fully and to its ultimate height, it feels like you can enter the work and like feel that draped cloth in a piece,” he said, referring to a Bellows print on the wall of his home, the image’s tactile realism begging to be touched.




Naturally, Griess aspires to reach the mastery of Bellows, but by no means does he intend to be an imitator.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve tried to emulate him, although in certain instances I was when I was like really young, drawing based off some of the nudes he had done,” a smiling, nearly blushing Griess said, wiping his soft brown bangs from his face.

He’d especially like for his work to attain the openendedness that Bellows captured. In a Bellows work no single prescribed meaning is imposed on the viewer; rather the image invites viewers to glean their own meanings.

“That’s a quality I want to develop myself,” Griess said.

The process Griess uses to create his own work, much of it completed in a small, well-lit downstairs home work space he calls “thrown together” but that is neatly arrayed with brushes, pencils, acrylic paint tubes, is in the vein of photo-realism. He first photographs his subjects and with the resulting image as a guide he uses a pencil to map out the canvas before painting.

“I always paint based off pictures (photographs),” Griess said. “I grid everything out. I take that approach. Laying out a painting you still need to draw. It’s an important skill for getting things right when you finally start painting.”

The artist applies a clear plastic grid over a printed out photo of his subject and with a pencil divides the surface into squares running the length and width of the image. He transfers his grid to a board, which is what he paints on these days. He begins by drawing the major shapes or forms contained in each square onto the board before applying brush to paint and brush strokes to board.

“I pretty much just figure out where one square in the picture would be on the board and then from that one square I go to the next one” and so on, he said. “I add the smaller details later.”

Griess shares many predilections his late uncle indulged, including a love of film, a fascination with the fantastic, a passion for creating elaborate sets or backdrops for his work, although to date Griess has only employed sets to stop motion animation, and an interest in action figures and miniatures. Then there’s the fact Griess is left-handed, just as Bellows was.

“A lot of things line up like that,” Griess said. “Because I know he’s done all this great work it’s kind of like me now trying to discover what things I’m interested in beyond his work…to decide what I’ll ultimately be doing in my art. Of course this is an influence I’ll always keep while doing it.”


©Neil Griess, “Untitled” oil painting



The art strain runs deep, as Griess’s maternal grandfather was a commercial artist and watercolorist, his mother is a watercolorist, one brother is a ceramicist/sculptor and another brother writes computer video game programs. “So I come from a long lineage of artists or creative thinkers,” Griess said.

Growing up, Griess was exposed to dozens of Bellows prints that adorn the walls of the family home. One of the nephew’s favorites, Nuclear Winter, is displayed in his bedroom. He felt drawn to Bellows as any adolescent would to a cool adult doing his own thing. “I admired him so much. He was probably the most charismatic, funny, interesting person that I know or probably will know,” Griess said.

The parallels between the two were obvious two weekends ago in New York City. It was the kid’s first time in the Big Apple, where in a whirlwind few days his path intersected with the path Bellows took in setting the art world on fire.

Just as Bellows attracted notice beyond his years, once cultivating Warren Buffett and his late first wife Susan Buffett as patrons, Griess, too, found himself the center of attention from older admirers at a post-awards dinner. The scene was the ritzy Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. There were congratulations, even autograph requests. “I got some very great compliments,” Griess said. Among the well-wishers was New York thespian Jason Butler Harner, who hosted the awards.

“He seemed very enthusiastic and impressed by my work, so that was great,” Griess said of Harner. “One of the guys that asked for my autograph said everyone was kind of talking about my work specifically, and that was nice. One woman actually came up to me and said my work brought tears to her eyes because of how young I am and I’m able to produce work like that.”

The plaudits began the night before, at Reeves Contemporary gallery in Chelsea, where selections of work by Griess and other Portfolio gold winners were shown. It was then, Griess said, that Alliance for Young Artists & Writers Chairman Dwight E. Lee “told me how much he loved my work.” At dinner the next night, Griess said,  “he gave me his card and said if I should ever want to sell art work I should contact him.” Westside teachers and others have expressed interest in buying Neil’s work.

“I’m actually selling paintings this summer,” Griess said. “I’ve sold one already, so I’m starting to learn how it feels to part with something.”

As if that wasn’t enough, the June 14 issue of USA Today reproduced one of his paintings to illustrate a Life Section story on the awards. “The one picture they chose was mine — my painting Pool Boy,” Griess said. “That was a really nice surprise. My dad ran up and down the floors in the hotel acquiring more” copies.

Pool Boy is one of many self-portraits and portraits Griess has executed. Portraiture was a favorite form for Bellows as well. One difference is that while Bellows was known for a dark, brooding nature that made him look severe if not downright scary, Griess has a sweet face and demeanor. That’s not to say there wasn’t whimsy in Bellows or his work or that Griess and his art is all peaches and cream.

The award, the praise, the contacts, Griess said, “are obviously great exposure for me and a great thing I can put on the resume. I would say it’s probably the best recognition I could have received operating within a high school.”

Griess submitted eight works to the Scholastic competition but gave little thought to winning, as he photographed his entrees himself and the images he submitted were less than flattering to the works themselves.

“Because of the fact I did not have great pictures of these paintings I submitted, I kind of dismissed the idea that anything would happen with this,” he said. “But then I got the call (saying he’d won) and I couldn’t really believe it for a good amount of time. I was basically sitting at home on a Friday night when I got this call out of the blue. I was pretty unprepared…Surprisingly. I think I handled it well, although afterwards I was like shaking in disbelief for 15 minutes.”

The artist created his winning series for Westside’s Advanced Portfolio class, which he said allows student artists rare autonomy in finding their vision-voice.

“Not many high school classes give you that much freedom in developing your own line of thinking for a series of paintings…I think it kind of helped me develop my own thinking for how I want to approach my art,” he said. “In the typical class you kind of just think in terms of the assignment and what they’re expecting you to see as the outcome, not how you would best display your own ideas or get your own point across.”

Griess hit upon the theme of high contrast at night, playing with different light sources. Some of the inspiration for what’s depicted in the work, he said, comes from Russian fairy tales — “I’ve always been interested in fairy tales” — and some of it comes from what was going on in his life at the time. His girlfriend, Erica, a film studies major at Northwestern University, is the subject of more than one work. She’s a casual portrait study in a piece called “Home Again” and her absence informs another piece in which an anxious Griess cowers on his front porch, alone at night, a doll seen inside a window providing no solace.

“With some of my paintings I first kind of get like this mental image and then when I’m painting it, even weeks after, I start to think about why I needed to do that or what was the significance of it,” he said.


©Kent Bellows’s self-portraits



Just as Bellows sought out great art in his travels, Griess spent his weekend in New York soaking up treasures at the Met. He and his folks also made special visits there and to the Forum gallery to see Bellows’ work in each venue. The splendor of it all, Griess said, “made me want to go back home and start working again.”

Griess didn’t need all the hype to feel an artistic kinship to his uncle. He just wished Bellows could have been there. “I was probably more wishing he could have been involved in this with me and seen the work I did to win this award,” he said. He regrets too never discussing their shared sweet affliction. “I was a shy kid and probably still am. I wouldn’t have necessarily been ready to talk with him about art or these other interests we shared,” Griess said. “Now I would say I would definitely be ready to talk to him about things.”

It’s probably unfair to say Griess lived in the shadow of Bellows, but Bellows was a giant among artists and a looming presence in the life of the the sensitive young artist-nephew. A legacy he could not escape. Griess wasn’t necessarily a slacker before Bellows’ death, but then again he acknowledges he didn’t exactly apply himself to his art. When Bellows passed, Griess suddenly got busy, approaching his own art with a greater sense of urgency.

“After his death is when I really started to get serious about drawing and painting and that’s when I started to do better things and win awards,” Griess said. “I realized he would no longer be there to kind of give me advice or look at what I’m doing, so in some strange way that pushed me, It was kind of a way to deal with it. I mean, also I realized I need to be doing this for myself, too.”

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