Nancy Kirk: Arts Maven, Author, Communicator, Entrepreneur, Interfaith Champion
There are people who talk about doing things and people who do things. Nancy Kirk is the latter. That’s not to say she finishes everything she starts. Like those unfinished manuscripts of hers she’d like to get to one day. But lots of us can say that. She’s also a model of reinvention – of following one path in life and then finding a new direction and then another to feed her ever-searching sensibility. In truth, all of her paths have followed a similar humanistic and cultural track. She began her career in the arts, then went entrepreneurial in the antique quilt and fabrics world, and more recently has taken up interfaith work as executive director of an initiative whose ultimate aim is to bring together a synagouge, a church, and a mosque on the same campus in Omaha, Neb. The following profile I wrote about this intriguing woman will be the November cover story in the New Horizons. Read it here first.
Nancy Kirk: Arts Maven, Author, Communicator, Entrepreneur, Interfaith Champion
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
Long before becoming executive director of the Tri-Faith Initiative, the Omaha collaborative that finds Jews, Christians and Muslims building a shared worship campus, Nancy (Timmins) Kirk made a name for herself in the quilting world. Only not as a quilter, she’s quick to point out, but rather as a designer and aficionado.
It’s only natural to assume she’s a quiltmaker since she and her late husband owned The Kirk Collection, an antique fabrics supply, restoration and appraisal business that gained an international reputation and clientele. Nancy still carries on aspects of the business by conducting workshops, making presentations and producing DVDs and CDs on antique quilt restoration.
“I still love the teaching and the writing and the speaking,” she said. But the grind of multi-day conferences takes more of a toll these days on Kirk, who has survived a heart attack and open heart surgery.
Much like her work with the nonprofit Tri-Faith, whose groundbreaking plan for a synagogue, church and mosque on adjoining property is drawing worldwide interest, Kirk came to quilting an inveterate seeker always curious to know more. She’s learned enough to speak with not only passion but authority about quilting as art, craft and healing process and quilts as potent, touchstone objects of utility, aesthetics and humanity.
“Quilting serves many different purposes,” she said. “For some people it’s a craft activity, a stress reliever. Studies have shown the activity of quilting changes the brain’s alpha waves. For other people it’s an art medium, a very expressive way for a designer to work. For others it becomes very therapeutic.”
Quilts evoke intimate feelings tied to memories, rituals and relationships.
“For the viewer or the recipient, quilts exist for people at an emotional level that is really very primitive,” she said. “People respond with a part of their brain that usually has no language. Quilts represent people’s deep emotional connections with home, with comfort, with safety, with love. You see people wrapping up in quilts or touching quilts and being reminded of parents and grandparents and places they used to live. And you start hearing these wonderful stories.”
The way Kirk sees it, every quilt has a story to tell.
“All you have to do is plant yourself near a quilt, particularly an older quilt, at a quilt show and by the end of the day you’ll hear dozens of stories from people because they’re so evocative, especially in this part of the country, where people grew up with quilts. They’re very powerful objects.”
Before The Kirk Collection became a mail order source of antique fabrics for quilters the business made its name as a supplier to Hollywood film and television studio designers and costumers in need of period materials. Nancy and Bill Kirk provided fabrics that ended up in costumes of such major motion pictures as Titanic, Forest Gump and Wyatt Earp and network shows like Brooklyn Bridge and Homefront.
The couple ran the business out of their Bemis Park home before opening a store at 45th and Military Ave. Their customer roster extended to Europe and Asia.
Before she got into quilting, Kirk worked in the arts, where her aesthetic sensibilities were honed to give her a deep appreciation for not only the fine and performing arts but antiques, including textiles and fabrics.
The daughter of university professor parents who divorced when she and her sister were young, Kirk grew up in her native New York City and a variety of other locales.
She absorbed a classic liberal arts education at Antioch (Ohio) college, where she studied social sciences and journalism. She’s put her writing skill set to good use over the years as an arts administrator and public relations professional. Her unplanned fascination with arts management was fired when she spent two years with an Antioch theater project in Baltimore, MD.
“At this funny little free theater we brought in very experimental theater and dance companies from all over the world — The Medicine Show, Pilobolus. It was the out of town try-out place for experimental theater and dance. I became absolutely in love with experimental theater and dance and I was exposed to some of the best in the world. We were always at odds with the state and local arts councils because we were doing and promoting this work that was very outside the mainstream.”
By the time she earned her master’s in arts management from the University of Illinois and moved to Omaha to work a paid internship with the Nebraska Arts Council, she found herself in the midst of a cutting edge arts movement here. She arrived only a week after the devastating 1975 tornado and neither its widespread damage nor the paralyzing blizzard of ’75 that followed that winter could scare her away. Neither did the relative uproar over the Bicentennial I-80 sculpture project, edgy stagework by the Omaha Magic Theatre and the counterculture head shops, avant garde films and art happenings in the then-fledgling Old Market.
Indeed, she was won over by how open-minded Nebraskans were to new ideas.
“In all the time I worked for the state arts council and then 11 more years for the local arts council there was no one who said we shouldn’t have art.”
She recalled an I-80 sculptures forum in some backwater Neb. town where “an old man in coveralls got up and said, ‘I sure don’t understand this stuff, but I want to make sure my grandchildren have a chance to see it,’ and that was the attitude pretty much for anything.” One of her roles with the state arts council was traveling to rural hamlets and educating the local populace about the touring programs coming their way.
She said resistance or suspicion to unfamiliar art disappeared when she framed the needs of artists “in terms that (rural) audiences could understand from their own perspective,” adding, “That was a big part of my job.” Like the time she went to a small town in advance of a touring opera program. She laid to rest concerns singers were divas for requiring humidifiers in their rooms by explaining that the artists needed the devices to keep their throat and voice supple in the same way farm tractors or threshers need routine maintenance to run right. Once she put things in practical terms, she said, humidifiers were readily volunteered.
“I came to have a real appreciation of what arts councils were doing in terms of opening up the doors to the arts in a lot of communities where there had really been nothing outside the high school play. A lot of them shied away from cutting edge kind of work.”
The arts councils that sprung up in the ’60s and ’70s, she said, “were bringing the arts out of the urban areas and into the rest of the country.” For example, she said the Omaha Community Playhouse formed the Nebraska Theatre Caravan “and took theater into towns that had never had professional theater and Opera Omaha organized small touring evenings of opera.”
Visual artists, dancers, authors, poets and others began criss-crossing the state to present before general audiences or to do residencies in schools. Her focus on bringing the arts to underserved populations extended to a visual art program in the state penitentiary, where even death row inmates were provided art supplies for their self-expression. Her work introduced her to the man who became her husband, Bill Kirk, who was a theater actor-director and kindred spirit.
She authored an award-winning book, Lobbying for the Arts, used all over the country.
An advantage Omaha owns when it comes to supporting the arts and other things, she said, is that it’s still small and accommodating enough to provide ready “access to power,” unlike other cities she’s lived where access is limited to few. “Here, all you had to do was pick up the phone and ask for an audience with Willis Strauss or Peter Kiewit or Leo Daly or John Bookout. You could be heard. They might not agree with you, they might not end up supporting your cause, but you could make your case. I think it’s very much the same attitude that created Ak-Sar-Ben. It’s this place of kind of infinite possibility and egalitarianism.”
Nancy Kirk discussing quilt restoration
She said Omaha’s can-do spirit is what sold her on this place and has kept her put.
“This is the kind of city I wanted to live in. I think this same spirit of civic work still exists now. It’s an attitude that makes the most extraordinary things possible.”
“Tri-Faith is another example of it,” she said of the initiative whose partners are Temple Israel, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture, “Not only was there no significant opposition to it, there was a kind of, Well, I don’t quite understand it, but what can we do to help? attitude. When it came to raise money for the land four foundations stepped up.”
The intended Tri-Faith campus is on the grounds of the former Highland Country Club, which Jews formed decades ago when denied admittance to goy clubs. The campus plan is part of the Sterling Ridge mixed-use development in southwest Omaha that’s presently undergoing site preparation work. Plans call for three worship centers — one for each participating faith group — and a shared interfaith education center Kirk refers to as “the meeting place.”
Support for the project, which launched in 2006, has come together quickly from large though as yet undisclosed donors.
“Basically the donations have been made because it’s good for the city,” said Kirk. “They see this vision that this makes Omaha a better place to live for everybody.”
Tri-Faith was conceived in response to a seemingly mundane dilemma.
“The genesis is parking lots. This is a project about parking lots — very seriously,” Kirk said.
Temple Israel synagogue has long been in need of a new site, having outgrown its current building and plot just east of 72nd and Cass. With its congregation largely residing now in suburbia, a move west only made sense. When synagogue leaders began contemplating what they’d like in a new site, said Kirk, they were “very intentional about finding good neighbors” like the ones they have today in the Omaha Community Playhouse and First United Methodist Church.
She said when Temple heard that the Institute was planning to build a new mosque in west Omaha synagogue member Bob Freeman, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel and others contacted AISC president and co-founder Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, “to discuss looking for land together to share parking lots.”
Consistent with hospitality being “such a central concept to all the Abrahamic faith traditions,” she said, representatives from each group came bearing mounds of food for the meeting. That first confab led to more. She said, “When they eventually began talking matters of faith rather than concrete it occurred to them they had two of the three major Abrahamic traditions represented.” As a potential Christian partner the parties approached the Catholic archdiocese of Omaha, whose then-archbishop, Rev. Elden Curtiss, declined. They next made overtures to the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, whose then-leader, Rev. Joe Burnett, accepted.
In 2006 Tri-Faith was incorporated as a 501c3 and since then the organization has presented several interfaith events to promote understanding, all while working toward a common goal of a shared campus. The endeavor has made headlines around the world at a time when religious and cultural differences continue to be serious dividing points. Building bridges is an appealing idea as the globe grows ever flatter and more interconnected thanks to online social networking and to grassroots movements like those of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.
“It turns out the parking lots are such a metaphor for what’s going on in the world because the fact is we all have to share this earth. — it’s how do we live together,” said Kirk.
Her Tri-Faith involvement began in 2008, when it might be said her decades-long quest for spiritual fulfillment reached a new plane. In some ways, she acknowledges, she’s a most unlikely director of an interfaith project because for the first 35 years of her life she struggled with matters of faith. Then again, her uneasy journey steeled her for leading an initiative about celebrating differences.
“My father was a fallen-away Catholic, my mother was a fallen-away Unitarian, so I was brought up with no particular religion, in a household that wavered somewhere between agnosticism and atheism. But both parents allowed us to be exposed to some variety of religions. There was no objection if we went to church with friends.”
On some level, Kirk’s faith odyssey echoed that of her divining rod maternal grandmother, Sophia Lyon Fahs, who was ordained a Unitarian minister at 80 and wrote dozens of religious education books. Her last book, The Church Across the Street, was a comparative religions study. The liberal, progressive themes of inclusion and tolerance her grandmother advocated are in line with those of Kirk and the Tri-Faith Initiative.
Kirk comes from a long line of matriarchal figures and accomplished professionals. Her great-grandmother wrote books about her Presbyterian missionary work in China.
So it wasn’t as if Kirk didn’t have ready examples of faith to follow. In fact, she said, “I envied people who had great faith but I didn’t understand the experience and didn’t expect to ever have it. I was never anti-religious, I just was not religious.”
Then, in the midst of building her arts career, what she least expected happened.
“I was one of those bolt of lightening people. Literally in the course of a 24-hour period I came to a very deep belief in the existence of God. I was at home and all of a sudden I felt this incredible sense of certainty. It was so different than the kind of rational approach I’d always had to life. That’s when I started searching and doing a lot of reading. I didn’t talk to anyone about it really for a very long time.”
Before becoming a couple Nancy and Bill Kirk were friends. On a long road trip for an arts program she told him about her spiritual awakening and “how confusing it all felt” because it didn’t necessarily jive with what organized religion prescribed.
“And he said something very helpful — that the personal experience you feel is faith and all the stuff you hear in church and in the bible and other sources is belief, and belief is what happens in your head and faith is what happens in your heart …and that both are OK. The part that is faith is intended to be a questioning process throughout your life. Your responsibility as a human being is to continue to explore and try to understand and to go through periods of disbelief.”
“The deeper you explore that abyss that you’re always afraid you’ll fall into and never come out of,” she said, “the more you discover there are those dark nights of the soul when you feel faith has deserted you. But usually it’s the belief that’s deserted you, and the faith part can lead you back away from the edge of the precipice. And then you rebuild the belief.”
After being stricken with the spirit, Kirk tried on a number of faiths but it was only four years ago she “came to the Episcopal Church.” She’s a member of St. Andrew’s. She was finally swayed to the denomination, which she’d flirted with before, after seeing the church’s presiding bishop in the U.S., Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori on CBS. “I said, ‘I would follow that woman anywhere,’ so when it came to look for a new church I looked for an Episcopal church.”
Coming from where she did to where she is today, Kirk said, has informed and shaped the spiritual life she enjoys today and her work with Tri-Faith.
“So this rather eclectic religious background of growing up outside any one particular faith tradition and not necessarily having a particular belief in any of them for the larger part of my life in some ways really helped prepare me for what I’m doing now. Because I came to the habit of questioning, researching, listening hard and trying to understand other people’s faith journeys as part of my own.”
The discernment she does by opening herself to other beliefs enriches her life and her faith. “I find it fascinating and each of those encounters helps me refine my own faith and without any denial of my own tradition as I have adopted it now.”
Kirk felt drawn to engage in the Tri-Faith experiment after taking an inventory of her life a few years ago and deciding to embark on a new path she felt called to follow.
“When I turned 60 (she’s 64 today ) I made a 44-year life plan. I’ve always made long range plans. Women in my family thankfully tend to be long-lived. My grandmother died at 103. My mother died at 94. Both were active until the end. So it seemed like 104 was a good age to shoot for. I had become really fascinated with the changing role of religion in a pluralistic society. The Kirk Collection was kind of winding down, I’d closed our retail store. I didn’t want to cut another piece of fabric ever again in my life. After about 25 years in the quilt world I was ready for a change. My husband had died. It was time to reinvent myself again.”
She didn’t tell anyone (at first) about her new life plan. Then, she said, she “finally got up the nerve” to tell her business coach and much to her relief “he didn’t laugh.” “Once I said it out loud it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do — some kind of ministry.’ Lay or ordained, it didn’t matter, but this is the subject area I wanted to be in.”
She felt compelled to give back.
“Sixty is a great place to start because chances are you’ve done pretty much what you intended to do professionally and getting your kids raised up. It’s not really like a bucket list but there’s still a chance to contribute meaningfully to the world. We want to make sure by the end of our life we know our life had meaning and this is a great age at which to be doing it. We don’t have a lot of the distractions we had before of raising kids and building career. Sixty to 100 there’s a chance to do things that really change the world and getting it done is more important than getting credit.”
The philosophy reminds her of her college’s motto: “Be ashamed to die until you’ve won some victory for humanity.”
Fatefully, a group of Tri-Faith board members made a presentation at St. Andrew one Sunday. Until then, she’d not even heard of the venture but she was immediately and powerfully attracted to its vision of three faiths partnering together.
“This is what I’m supposed to be doing,” is what she said she thought to herself. It wasn’t long before she offered her services to help spread Tri-Faith’s message and dream. When she learned the group was seeking an executive director she made a proposal and was hired. She saw the mission as a perfect fit for many reasons, not the least of which is her considerable PR experience and expertise.
In a world full of noise and mixed messages, she said she aims to keep Tri-Faith on point with its mission of “celebrating the diversity of our religious traditions.” “It’s beyond tolerance and acceptance and respect, it’s really about building relationships among people and celebrating those differences,” she said.
“As one of our board members, Rev. Ernesto Medina said, ‘The reason we know it’s working is we know the names of each others children,’ and that’s what it’s all about. It’s building those relationships.”
A Tri-Faith Initiative event
She said in this increasingly global space we inhabit “I think the world is having to live into a new definition of who is our neighbor. I think we’re called on to be really aware of our neighbors and getting to know them.”
Through events like Abraham’s Tent and the Tri-Faith Picnic, she said Jewish, Christian and Islamic rites are celebrated and people learn what to say or do during worship services and ceremonies. As distinct as each tradition is, Tri-Faith reminds participants “there’s so much the faiths share — we all greet each other with peace, we’re all talking about and praying to the same God.”
She said learning how to offer peace in each faith tradition can be a profound thing, whether saying “peace be with you” or “shabbat shalom” or “as-salamu alaykum.” “Just those few simple words,” she said, “and all of a sudden you feel very comfortable. It’s those little things that take the strangeness out of it.”
Then there is the exploration Tri-Faith inspires.
“A great thing that happens with the Tri-Faith is that as you engage in interfaith work and discussions you feel compelled to learn more about your own faith. You begin to explore your own tradition. You either question or affirm or study why you believe what you do and universally you end up more attached and committed to your own faith.”
She’s impressed by how the Tri-Faith board, composed of both lay and religious, doesn’t stray from its mission.
“I’ve worked with many nonprofit boards over the years and this is truly unlike any other board I have ever worked with. They expect that everything is possible, they have committed themselves to one another to make things possible. There are really no internal politics, there’s no jockeying for position. There’s a spirit that infuses their discussions that they’re really there to do God’s work and that it’s going to happen. There’s such a certainty it’s going to happen. There’s a spirit of peace in the room that is extraordinary.”
She said internal politics don’t surface though she concedes “politics sometimes intrudes from the outside.”
She said the fallout of 9/11 played a part in Tri-Faith’s formation “in the sense that we’re all in this together and we’re the ones that have to find a solution to this, and focusing on the division is not the way.”
It’s not the first time the city’s faith groups have banded together. She said several joined forces to help feed and house Chief Standing Bear’s supporters during the great Indian leader’s Fort Omaha trial. Many were active in the civil rights struggle. A number formed Together Inc. after the ‘75 tornado. More recently, faith groups have united in calling for an end to urban violence. But the Tri-Faith Initiative is something else again. She said Rev. Medina, pastor of St. Martha’s Church in Papillion, may have best summed up the miracle of the initiative with, “This was beyond the imagination of many people but not beyond the imagination of God.”
It hasn’t all been perfect.
“There have been bumps in the road,” Kirk acknowledged, “and people who’ve gotten their noses out of joint over this or that, but for the most part even those who were a little suspicious at first have often ended up as the biggest cheerleaders.”
She’s proud of many things she’s done in her life, from her work in the arts to her entrepreneurial success to her raising two adopted children, but she’s pretty certain Tri-Faith will be her most impactful legacy, at least in terms of sheer magnitude.
She can’t imagine making a greater contribution than bringing people together.
“I think the most meaningful part of the work is when I see people come to the table and sit with people of other faiths with excitement and anticipation instead of fear. If we’ve done our job and created a safe place, a place of trust where people feel they can be authentically themselves and authentically interested in the other, that is a real place of grace.”
If heredity’s any guide, then Kirk has miles to go before she sleeps. Reflecting upon her life, her diverse pursuits have “felt to me as a continuum,” she said, adding, “They all enrich people’s lives in important ways and all involve starting something new, whether new types of arts programs, a new small business or a one-of-a-kind religious development. I like being in on the start of things…”
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