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Peter Buffett completes circle of life furthering Kent Bellows legacy

July 21, 2012 4 comments

The Buffetts are to Omaha what the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers and the Fords were to their home cities only the Buffetts don’t build brick and mortar edifices as expressions of their wealth they way those other mega-rich families did.  No, the Buffetts are creatives, not industrialists, and therefore the contributions they make are in ledger books and programs and services and, in the case of Peter Buffett, in compositions.  This is a story I did a few years ago for Metro Magazine about Peter and his passions for music, art, youth, and social justice.  It also goes into the encouragement he received from his late mentor, the artist Kent Bellows of Omaha and his support for the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts in Omaha.

 

 

 

 

Peter Buffett completes circle of life furthering Kent Bellows legacy 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine

 

The sudden death in 2005 of American Realism master Kent Bellows reverberated throughout the art world. Among those affected by his passing was musician Peter Buffett, an Omaha native and youngest son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.

Decades earlier Peter was befriended by Bellows, eight years his senior, when his parents became the artist’s patrons. Bellows, who had an affinity for young people, mentored Peter. Over time, the two remained close, a relationship that lasted until the artist’s death at age 56 from natural causes at his mid-town studio.

In the back of that studio, whose loft contained Bellows’ living quarters, the artist held court with a coterie of friends, creatives all. Buffett was a frequent visitor.

“I just really found his intellectual curiosity, coupled with his creativity, infectious,” Buffett said by phone from his New York City home. “He was just a very warm, open, likable person. He also played piano. I loved to hear him play. He had a very unique style.”

The widely collected and exhibited Bellows lived and worked in a century old structure overbrimming with the toils of his discipline. The building’s now home to the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts, 3303 Leavenworth St., where his tools, ephemera and backdrops are preserved the way he left them. The result is a tableaux-like, three-dimensional still life of the creative process.

The center, whose mission is to “ignite the create spark” in individuals and encourage their “potential through self-expression in the visual arts,” conducts a  mentoring program pairing professional artists with area high school students.

Fulfilling potential is a theme of Buffett’s new book, Life is What You Make It (Harmony Books), a part memoir, part inspirational primer.

 

 

 

Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts

 

 

On April 30 he presented Life is What You Make It, A Concert and Conversation benefit for the nonprofit center. Performing before a packed house at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Witherspoon Concert Hall, he sang and spoke about finding one’s bliss.

“I think self-reflection and responsibility is sometimes the missing piece for people. They’re not really willing to take a hard look at their own actions,” he said. “It’s much easier to blame something or someone else.”

He believes “a lot of people short change themselves. Our own minds can wreak havoc on our dreams for sure. It is too bad we get trapped by our own thinking that we’re not good enough.” He said he held himself back musically for years because of self-doubt. In his book he discusses some of his failures or missed opportunities. Recognizing those moments can help us seize the next day, he says.

He credits encouragement from his parents and from mentor figures like Bellows for preparing him to fulfill his own potential.

Event proceeds also supported a Bellows exhibition opening September 25 at Joslyn, the first major retrospective of the artist’s work since his death. A young Bellows studied masterworks in Joslyn’s galleries and some of his own early work showed there.

The Bellows center and exhibition are close to Buffett’s heart because they perpetuate the spirt of a man whose loss is still fresh for him and they complete the circle of life.

 

 

 

“Kent’s somebody I think about very often,” said Buffett. “When you know anybody well there’s certain things about them you remember. He had a great laugh, he had a great quality to his voice. So, viscerally you can feel and hear his presence. He’s definitely still around.”

Buffett’s built a life embodying the Bellows mantra of following one’s passion.  Buffett’s parents modeled a similar philosophy: his father Warren as entrepreneur and philanthropist; his late mother Susie as community activist and singer. Peter suspects Susie saw Bellows as a kindred spirit who would nurture and guide him .

Bellows center executive director Anne Meysenburg said of Peter, “He’s a product of Kent’s mentoring.” Buffett agrees and often references the influence of his departed friend. As Kent did, Buffett’s carved out a creative niche for himself that expresses his deepest feelings. As a Kent Bellows Foundation founder and board member, he’s keenly aware of carrying on the generosity Bellows was famous for.

“As Kent was to me, the foundation is to the kids it’s mentoring and supporting. That was the brilliance I think of Kent’s sisters and Anne (Meysenburg) really saying, What was Kent’s role in the lives of the people he touched and how can that be extended to what the foundation does? They’ve really hit it, too. It really is that supporting, mentoring role.”

“The center gets to give that back to young people in perpetuity,” said Meysenburg.

In turn, mentors and students engage the communit in positive social action through public art projects. Meysenburg said Buffett is “a guiding force. He’s got a very holistic view. He comes from a funder’s perspective but he also understands the plight of the nonprofit. He provides a lot of insight. He has incredible passion for the organization. Peter is very focused on the two sides of our mission, which are honoring Kent’s legacy and creative development in the community.”

Giving back is a dimension of Buffett’s humanist ideals. He and his wife Jennifer’s NoVo Foundation works to empower girls in developing nations. He said this focus is predicated on the belief societies need to move “from domination and exploitation to collaboration and partnership” by valuing the disenfranchised.

“We talk about that in the context of girls and women because they’re certainly wildly misrepresented in the world compared to their numbers,” he said.

He believes supporting girls and women has a ripple effect through families and communities.

“The bottom-line for me is that only a girl will be the mother of every child and because of that if you can support, educate, provide health care and a livelihood to a girl she’s going to be a different kind of mother, and therefore everyone will be better off. It’s not unlike my father’s investment philosophy — you find something undervalued in the marketplace, you recognize its true value, you invest in it, support it, and wait until the market catches up and your investment pays off. And to me that’s a girl, she’s undervalued. That’s where we want to put our money.”

He said there’s no substitute for visiting a country to understand its challenges. “It’s invaluable to do. My line is, ‘You won’t know if you don’t go.'” Jennifer was recently in Uganda for the foundation. The couple log many miles together. The Uganda visit was the first major foundation trip he’s not been on.

Not long ago Buffett was best known as a composer-producer of New Age-style projects, but he’s fast-gained notoriety for personal recordings, some political, featuring his singing voice. The first social justice awakening in his music came with his Native American work (Spirit – The Seventh Fire) and a collaboration with Chief Hawk Pope. He’s lately collaborated with R&B artist/rapper Akon and Afropop artist Angelique Kidjo. He and Akon performed in the United Nations General Assembly in remembrance of slave trade victims.

He said his ever evolving career “is a testament to following what you love” as opposed to a rigid goal. “I’m much more into being than doing because I’m finding the more I follow this thing that’s inside of me I’m able to put these interior feelings in the music in a way that people respond to.” He never imagined himself a singer but he believes events opened him to the possibility.

“Kent’s death was a big piece of that, as was my mom dying the year before. Jennifer and I went through a very difficult time, so songs started coming out, and I really just wrote them for myself and my relationship. I was surprised by the fact they sounded OK. I still don’t think of myself as a singer. I’m still getting used to it frankly. But when you’re sitting in the General Assembly of the U.N. and Akon is singing with you and Nile Rodgers is backing you up on guitar, you think, How the hell did this happen? How cool is this?”

Buffett is the only male to perform on stage for V-Day, a movement to stamp out violence against females. By using music to speak out against social ills, such as his songs “Can We Love?” and “Bought and Sold,” he’s fulfilling a long-held desire. He said, “I always wanted the music to do something — to serve a higher purpose.”

In an era of diminishing resources and widening inequities, he’s a proponent of people in developed countries making do with less.

“We’re stuck in this world that tells us we need things to feel whole,” he said. “I think you can never fill whatever inside you that feels empty with stuff. Some brilliant ad man a long time ago figured out that you can make people think that they can. Now we’ve built an economy on it, and when it collapses what will we have? We won’t have the sense of community and connections we’ll need to really survive.”

 

 

 

Peter Buffett with children in Liberia

 

 

He appreciates the irony of someone from privilege raising the question, “How much is enough?,” but points out that for all the Buffett’s riches they live frugally and do give back. His father’s famously earmarked his fortune to charitable causes, including foundations run by Peter and his siblings that address social problems.

Peter advocates social networking as a means to promote social justice and supports efforts like the social action web site, IsThereSomethingICanDo.com.

Meysenburg said the Bellows center’s community engagement piece aligns closely with Buffett’s interests. Students and mentors will participate in a graffiti abatement program this summer with juvenile offenders. Buffet’s involvement in the Bellows Foundation is a big reason why Meysenburg said the start-up’s grown quickly and formed multiple partnerships. His April concert was the second fund-raising gig he’s performed on its behalf.

Peter visits the Bellows center whenever in town. He enjoys seeing the student-mentor dynamic at work. He cannot help but think back to when he and Bellows filled those roles. It’s an interaction he finds almost sacred beauty in.

He’s seen the progress made in transforming the old Bellows work space into a contemporary gallery, offices, education wing and artistic playground. Work continues as funds allow. Renovations have necessitated the center’s classes meeting in the Bemis Underground in the Old Market. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts is a major partner of the Bellows program.

Buffett said he and fellow Bellows Foundation members are conscious of living up to the legacy of the man whose life exuded the nurturing, creative spark. He’s satisfied they’re on the right track.

“It makes us all feel good we’re doing something we know he would love. None of us forget that.”

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Jazz-Plena fusion artist Miguel Zenon bridges worlds of music

July 21, 2012 2 comments

A couple years ago I interviewed a hot name in jazz, Miguel Zenon, in advance of he and his quartet playing in Omaha.  This cat has major chops and I was a bit intimidated because I am far from a jazz aficionado, but he was great and if he detected my ignorance he didn’t let on.

 

 

Migul Zenon, ©photo by Daniel Sheehan

 

 

 

Jazz-Plena fusion artist Miguel Zenon bridges worlds of music

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

When the Miguel Zenon Quartet plays the Holland Performing Arts Center May 21 at 8 p.m., one of the world’s most acclaimed and decorated young artists will take center stage.

Leader-composer-saxophonist Miguel Zenon, a native of Puerto Rico now based in New York City, is a Grammy nominated musician, but the recognition goes well beyond that music award.

He’s been heralded by the Downbeat Critic’s Poll, Billboard magazine, the New York Times, Latin Beat, El Nueva Dia, the Chicago Tribune, Jazz Times, Jazz Improv and Jazz.com, among others.

Regarded as an innovator for bridging jazz with plena, the traditional music of Puerto Rico tinged by influences from Africa and Spain, he’s received major grants, including a 2008 fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. The Guggenheim helped fund a project that developed into his most recent CD, Esta Plena (2009).

That same year he received the MacArthur Fellowship or “genius grant,” which recognizes individuals who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.” In his citation the MacArthur Foundation noted: “This young musician and composer is at once reestablishing the artistic, cultural and social tradition of jazz while creating an entirely new jazz language for the 21st century.”

The MacArthur prize includes a $500,000 stipend.

With so much that’s come his way so quickly — Zenon is only 30 — El Perico caught up by phone with the busy artist, who also teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music, to talk about his red hot career and many accolades.

“I just feel very blessed by all these opportunities, They’re all very positive things,” he says. “They’ve all come in kind of a relatively short time and all very close to each other, and for me it’s just basically an incentive to keep doing what I’m doing and keep working hard and trying to move forward.

“These opportunities open doors to other opportunities and other roads. It’s truly the best thing you could ask for in terms of being a creative person — to have opportunities and people giving you the means to do what you want to do.”

One thing that won’t change is his work ethic.

“It’s just something that’s always been in my personality,” he says. “I understood early on in my development as a musician that in order to advance and move forward I just needed to be disciplined and focused and put in the work. It’s always been my main priority.”

 

 

 

 

©rochesterjazz.com

 

 

 

His early musical foundation was laid at the San Juan performing arts school Escuela Libre de Musica, where he studied classical saxophone.

In the States his formal jazz training came at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, Mass. He continued studies at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. He’s learned too from all the gifted musicians he’s played with as sideman or leader.

“I think the big thing for me is to have this attitude of the eternal student and really trying to learn something from everyone and trying to be curious about things and trying to get something out of every experience,” he says.

Now, he’s the teacher.

“It’s something I enjoy very much. I learn a lot from my students and I learn a lot from myself. By having to pass on information and concepts and tools onto others, you sort of have to relearn them yourself. The whole experience and dynamic of being a teacher is a great learning experience for me in every way.”

Working with serious, highly motivated students is “my ideal situation,” he says, adding, “That’s when I feel I can give the most because I identify with that in many different ways.”

Honoring his heritage is a vital part of the music he shares with the world. He says his work is “an exploration of these two sides of me — of being a jazz musician and being rooted in this very strong Caribbean and Puerto Rican culture and trying to find something that connects both worlds.”

In Omaha, he says, “people can expect this sort of mix or fusion. The way I like to think of it is, I’m a Latin American musician that plays jazz music. I have many different things I like, many influences, just as anybody else, but I try to be honest and true to my background, my culture, my roots, and have that come out in a natural and organic way through my music. Hopefully, people hear that honesty and all those different combinations.”

His quartet will play original tunes from a new CD, Alma Adentro, set for August release on Marsalis Music. He says the label allows he and his collaborators great “freedom to do what we want to do.”

Community trumps gang in Fr. Greg Boyle’s Homeboy model

July 21, 2012 3 comments

Gang prevention-intervention efforts run the gamut.  One that’s drawn lots of attention is Homeboy Industries, an East L.A. program founded and directed by Rev. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has serious cred on the mean streets there for helping gangbangers find pathways to employability.  I wrote this article in advance of a talk Boyle gave in Omaha a couple years ago.  His experiences working with gang members and getting many to give up that life are told in his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.

 

 

 

 

 

Community trumps gang in Fr. Greg Boyle’s Homeboy model

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

The gang intervention efforts of a Jesuit priest in East Los Angeles have grown into Homeboy Industries, which provides mostly Latino participants work and life skills training, counseling and, most importantly, opportunity for hope.

The much profiled program has many communities, including Omaha, looking to its founder, Rev. Greg Boyle, for guidance in dealing with their own gang issues. Boyle, an acknowledged expert in the field, will be in Omaha Feb. 24 to discuss the successful therapeutic and employability approach his nonprofit takes and how it may be a model for Omaha.

From 1 to 4 p.m. at Creighton University‘s Harper Center Boyle will consult with community leaders engaged in gang intervention, prevention and workforce development efforts. At 5 p.m. he meets with Mayor Jim Suttle and Omaha City Council members. At 7 Boyle will deliver a public lecture and sign copies of his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, at Metropolitan Community College‘s South Omaha campus, in Room 120 of the Industrial Training Center, 27th and Q Streets.

Rev. Howard Dotson, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Omaha, invited Boyle after hearing him speak last year in L.A., where Dotson also did gang intervention work. One thing Boyle says he’s learned from 20-plus years dealing with gang bangers is that “just like recovery in alcohol and drugs,” where “it takes what it takes to finally stop getting high,” it’s the same for gang members leaving The Life. “It can be the death of a friend, the birth of a son, a long stretch in prison. Like in recovery you don’t have to hit bottom, but maybe it will take that.”

He says gangs are not a crime issue but a community health issue like other social dilemmas (homelessness, addictions, prostitution).To address the complex problems gang members present he says Homeboy offers mental health services, along with employment opportunities, life coaching, “plus every imaginable curricular thing, from anger management to parenting — you name it, we have it.”

The program operates businesses that employ gang members, including a bakery, a cafe, a silkscreen shop, a merchandise store and a maintenance service. More than a job Boyle says Homeboy provides an avenue for “healing to take place.” Enemy gang members work side by side to break down barriers.

“Once they have a real palpable experience of community then it will shine light on the dark corners of gang life,” he says. “They realize how empty and hollow all that had been in the past. The community trumps gang.”

He says suspicion and animosity dwindle amid shared goals and cooperation.

“Their common interest is that they want to work. Before too long they become fast, wonderful friends. It’s one of those things you can actually take to the bank — it’s going to happen. They’re going to bond in a way they’ve never known in their family and they’ve never known in their gang certainly.”

Boyle says the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of Homeboy is why cities like Seattle and Wichita adopt some of its methods. Some observers credit Homeboy and community policing with helping dramatically reduce L.A.’s homicide rate.

“No nonprofit in L.A. County has a greater impact on the public safety than this place because we engage so many gang members,” says Boyle, who estimates “all 1,100 known gangs in the county have had somebody walk in here at some time or another.”

“I would say what makes us unique is this therapeutic model — attachment repair and a secure base is what we call it. We try to help people engage in their own healing so they can re-identify who they are in the world. Then they can go out in the world and the world will throw at them what it will but it won’t topple them because they’ve had this palpable experience of community and the chance to figure out who they are. It works.”

Dotson’s convinced Boyle and Homeboy have something to offer Omaha.

“To get jobs and to get rehabilitation for kids coming out of correction is the best way to stop the bullet.,” says Dotson. “You need to invest in these kids. If you give them a sense of hope and a sense of agency and some of that unconditional love many of them never got, then you reduce the gang problem.

“As church and community we have to meet people where they’re at and Fr. Greg and the people who support Homeboy understand that.”

South Omaha Boys and Girls Clubs gang prevention specialist Alberto Gonzales says the need for a Homeboy model here is greater than ever in light of recent cuts. Funding for anti-gang work he did in local schools has been eliminated. The Latino Center of the Midlands has disbanded its substance abuse counseling program.

“Where’s the Latino community going to turn to?” says Gonzales. “People need a place they can go to where they can cry out, ‘This is who I am, this is what I’ve done, I need help.’ These programs are definitely a must.”

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