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North Omaha rupture at center of PlayFest drama

April 30, 2018 2 comments

 

North Omaha rupture at center of PlayFest drama

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

In her original one-act More Than Neighbors, playwright Denise Chapman examines a four-decades old rupture to Omaha’s African-American community still felt today.

North Freeway construction gouged Omaha’s Near North Side in the 1970s-1980s. Residents got displaced,homes and businesses razed, tight-knit neighborhoods separated. The concrete swath further depopulated and drained the life of a district already reeling from riots and the loss of meatpacking-railroading jobs. The disruptive freeway has remained both a tangible and figurative barrier to community continuity ever since.

Chapman’s socially-tinged piece about the changed nature of community makes its world premiere Thursday, May 31 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Great Plains Theatre Conference’s PlayFest.

The site of the performance, The Venue at The Highlander, 2112 North 30th Street, carries symbolic weight. The organization behind the purpose-built Highlander Village is 75 North. The nonprofit is named for U.S. Highway 75, whose North Freeway portion severed the area. The nonprofit’s mixed-use development overlooks it and is meant to restore the sense of community lost when the freeway went in.

The North Freeway and other Urban Renewal projects forced upon American inner cities only further isolated already marginalized communities.

“Historically, in city after city, you see the trend of civil unrest, red lining, white flight, ghettoizing of areas and freeway projects cutting right through the heart of these communities,” Chapman said.

Such transportation projects, she said, rammed through “disenfranchised neighborhoods lacking the political power and dollars” to halt or reroute roads in the face of federal-state power land grabs that effectively said, “We’re just going to move you out of the way.”

By designating the target areas “blighted” and promoting public good and economic development, eminent domain was used to clear the way.

“You had to get out,” said Chapman, adding, “I talked to some people who weren’t given adequate time to pack all their belongings. They had to leave behind a lot of things.” In at least one case, she was told an excavation crew ripped out an interior staircase of a home still occupied to force removal-compliance.

With each succeeding hit taken by North O, things were never the same again

“There was a shift of how we understand community as each of those things happened,” she said. “With the North Freeway, there was a physical separation. What happens when someone literally tears down your house and puts a freeway in the middle of a neighborhood and people who once had a physical connection no longer do? What does that do to the definition of community? It feels like it tears it apart.

“That’s really what the play explores.”

Dramatizing this where it all went down only adds to the intense feelings around it.

“As I learned about what 75 North was doing at the Highlander it just made perfect sense to do the play there. To share a story in a place working to revitalize and redefine community is really special. It’s the only way this work really works.”

Neighbors features an Omaha cast of veterans and newcomers directed by Chicagoan Carla Stillwell.

The African-American diaspora drama resonates with Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and August Wilson’s Jitney with its themes of family and community assailed by outside forces but resiliently holding on.

Three generations of family are at the heart of Chapman’s play, whose characters’ experiences are informed by stories she heard from individuals personally impacted by the freeway’s violent imposition.

Faithful Miss Essie keeps family and community together with love and food. Her bitter middle-class daughter Thelma, who left The Hood, now opposes her own daughter Alexandra, who’s eager to assert her blackness, moving there. David, raised by Essie as “claimed family,” and his buddy Teddy are conflicted about toiling on the freeway. David’s aspirational wife, Mae, is expecting.

Through it all – love, loss, hope, opportunity, despair, dislocation and reunion – family and home endure.

“I think it really goes back to black people in America coming out of slavery, which should have destroyed them, but it didn’t,” Chapman said. “Through our taking care of each other and understanding of community and coming together we continue to survive. We just keep on living. There are ups and downs in our community but at the end of the day we keep redefining communityhopefully in positive ways.”

“What makes Denise’s story so warm and beautiful is that it does end with hope,” director Carla Stillwell said.

Past and present commingle in the nonlinear narrative.

“One of the brilliant things about her piece is that memory works in the play in the way it works in life by triggering emotions. To get the audience to experience those feelings with the characters is my goal.”

Feelings run deep at PlayFest’s Neighborhood Tapestries series, which alternates productions about North and South Omaha.

“The response from the audience is unlike any response you see at just kind of a standard theater production,” GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler said, “because people are seeing their lives or their community’s lives up on stage. It’s very powerful and I don’t expect anything different this time.”

 

Neighbors is Chapman’s latest North O work after 2016’s Northside Carnation about the late community matriarch, Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown. That earlier play is set in the hours before the 1969 riot that undid North 24th Street. Just as Northside found a home close to Brown and her community at the Elk’s Lodge, Neighbors unfolds where bittersweet events are still fresh in people’s minds.

“The placement of the performance at the Highlander becomes so important,” said Chapman, “because it helps to strengthen that message that we as a community are more and greater than the sum of the travesties and the tragedies.

“Within the middle of all the chaos there are still flowers growing and a whole new community blossoming right there on 30th street in a place that used to not be a great place – partly because they put a freeway in the middle of it.”

Chapman sees clear resonance between what the characters in her play do and what 75 North is doing “to develop the concept of community holistically.”

“It’s housing, food, education and work opportunities and community spaces for people to come together block by block. It’s really exciting to be a part of that.”

ChapMan is sure that Neighbors will evoke memories the same way Northside did.

“For some folks it was like coming home and sharing their stories.”

Additional PlayFest shows feature a full-stage production of previous GPTC Playlab favorite In the City in the City in the City by guest playwright Matthew Capodicasa and a “homage collage” to the work of this year’s honored playwright, Sarah Ruhl, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient. Two of Ruhl’s plays have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

Capodicasa uses a couple’s visit to the mythical city-state of Mastavia as the prism for exploring what we take from a place.

“It’s about how when you’re traveling, you inevitably experience the place through the lens of the people you’re with and how that place is actually this other version of itself – one altered by your presence or curated for your tourist experience,” he said.

In the City gets its world premiere at the Blue Barn Theatre on Tuesday, May 29 at 7:30 p.m. Producing artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer said the piece is “a perfect engine” for the theater’s season-long theme of “connect” because of its own exploration of human connections.” She also appreciates theopen-ended nature of the script. “It’s evocative and compelling without being overly prescriptive. The play can be done in as many ways as there are cities and we are thrilled to bring it to life for the first time.”

You Want to Love Strangers: An Evening in Letters, Lullabies, Essays and Clear Soup celebrates what its director Amy Lane calls Ruhl’s “poetic, magical, lush” playwriting. “Her plays are often like stepping into a fairytale where the unexpected can and does happen. Her work is filled with theatre magic, a childlike sense of wonder, playfulness, mystery. We’ve put together a short collage that includes monologues, scenes and songs from some of her best known works.”

The Ruhl tribute will be staged at the 40th Street Theatre on Friday, June 1 at 7:30 p.m.

All PlayFest performances are free. For details and other festival info, visit http://www.gptcplays.com.

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Photographer Jim Scholz and his lifelong mission to honor beauty

April 27, 2018 1 comment

 

Photographer Jim Scholz and his lifelong mission to honor beauty

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2018 issue of the New Horizons

 

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Photographer Jim Scholz of Omaha finds beauty wherever life takes him. The 73-year-old former Roman Catholic priest began making images growing up in the St. Cecilia Cathedral neighborhood.

“I started shooting pictures in high school for the yearbook and ever since it’s been a real passion and interest for me,” he said

He recalls “the magic of that first print when I put the white piece paper in the developer and an image actually came up on it.” It happened in the Cathedral High darkroom. From that moment on, he said, “I was forever hooked by the magic that this is more than just reality. It’s a powerful thing.”

“I started off with a 35-millimeter camera because everybody had one. You could buy the film pretty inexpensively. You could develop the film in your own darkroom. I shot with that for a long time.”

He was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming during the Second World War. His father saw U.S. Army duty in the Pacific. After WWII, his father was offered a job with an Omaha company. Jim was 5 when his family moved here. His father worked management jobs at various Omaha firms. His stay-at-home mom eventually went back to work in her chosen field, dietetics, at area hospitals.

Serving a higher purpose

Scholz kept right on developing his photographic eye at seminary in Denver, Colorado, doing graduate work at Creighton University and serving metro parishes as an Archdiocesan priest.

“It was always a hobby.”

He doesn’t say it, but there’s a sacred dimension to capturing the essence of humanity and nature. As a priest ministering to his flock, he was called to mirror Christ’s unconditional love and to share the liturgy’s sublime peace. As a photographer, he reflects back what people project or see. Sometimes, he shows what they’ve never seen before. Surely, there’s something inspirational, perhaps even spiritual in that.

Omaha fashion designer Mary Anne Vaccaro admires his fidelity to beauty.

“Jim is very grounded and spiritual. As a photographer he embraces his creative gift with love, discipline and respect. He sees beauty in unexpected and unlikely places. His attention to detail and quality is amazing. His passion for his work drives him to excellence.”v

Tom Sitzman, owner of Connect Gallery in Omaha, sees in Scholz’s photography the same sensitivity and compassion that infused his ministry.

“I first knew Jim as my pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Omaha. His homilies were conversations, not lectures, filled with examples of everyday people living everyday lives. Those sitting in the pews could see themselves in those situations of the human condition – funny, sad, enlightening, tragic and giving – knowing he understood. His photography is deeply rooted and grounded in Jim the man and priest. They depict everyday events we too often take for granted. A moon rise over the city. Dark, foreboding storm clouds moving across a still sun-lit hay meadow, An old timber building. Jim knows where to stand to get the feel of size and distance as well as where the light is coming from. They are the works of a well-trained eye that knows how to compose a scene with his camera the way he did with words in a homily.”

Scholz ministered in Elgin, Nebraska and at St. Bernards, St. Cecilia and St. Leo in Omaha. The parish he served longest at was Sacred Heart in North Omaha, where he helped found Heart Ministry, which has grown to serve residents needs in the city’s most poverty-stricken neighborhood.

“I feel lucky to have been not only in that space but other parishes where I served or other jobs that I worked at. When you’re around someplace for awhile you’re hopefully going to make a contribution and I feel good about when I look back at something that helped people and continues to help people.”

Scholz received the 1995 Omaha Archdiocese Sheehan Award (then-the Presidential Citation) recognizing clergy as outstanding leaders in their communities.

Sacred Heart years

During his 1981 to 1998 Sacred Heart tenure, he took over an integrated parish in decline, its ranks thinned by white flight. Mass attendance was abysmal. Gospel already had a hold there, thanks to Father Tom Furlong introducing it in the ‘late ’60s-early ’70s.

“It was a very conservative, quiet little neighborhood parish,” Scholz recalled. “Most of the members were longtime parishioners, many of them quite elderly. Physically, the place was dilapidated. I felt we had to do something dramatic.”

He got the idea for more spirited, gospel music-based “uplifting liturgies” from an inner city parishes conference in Detroit. He was by impressed how churches in similar circumstances turned things around with the help of gospel. He saw the music as a homage to black heritage and a magnet for new members.

“What the music said was we are reaching out to your traditions and we’re trying to make you feel comfortable to come to our church,”

Scholz found a first-rate choir director in Glenn Burleigh, under whom the church’s full-blown entry into gospel began at the Saturday night Mass. The 10:30 Sunday liturgy remained ultra-traditional and sparsely attended.

“Six months later we’d gone from a Saturday service with 30 to 35 people, with hardly any music, to standing in the aisles full with a wonderful ensemble,

“Glenn wrote special music almost weekly for the service. People started to come out of the woodwork once the word got out. It was such a refreshing thing.

“We didn’t grow exponentially in black membership, although we did grow some. What we grew in was white membership.”

When Burleigh was hired away by a mega-Baptist church in Houston, Scholz tapped his assistant, William Tate, to take over. Scholz recruited a new choir director, Mary Kay Mueller, to energize the 10:30 Sunday service. For inspiration, he referred her to The Blues Brothers. So it came to pass the movie’s Triple Rock Church became a model for the expressive Sacred Heart liturgy. No, Scholz weren’t interested in “people doing somersaults down the front aisle. But he wanted “to come up with that spirit.” Unbridled. Joyous. Free. “We really need to come alive here,” he told Mueller. Thus, the Freedom Choir was born. The rest is history as that rollicking Sunday service began packing the pews and still does three decades later.

An abiding passion for photography 

All the while Sacred Heart grew its base, Scholz made photographs.

“When I had a little time off, an afternoon, or before I’d go to bed at night I’d probably spend the last half hour of my waking life that day by reading about photography or studying photographers like Ansel Adams and all these heroes of mine.

“The more you get into it then you start studying other people’s work and you try to emulate what they do and improve what you do. Ansel Adams wrote a series of books on the camera, the lens, photo development and so on. I checked them out of the library a number of times and studied these things to learn how he developed film and how he arrived at his vision.”

Other photographers Scholz has admired and studied include Wynn Bullock and Edward Weston.

Scholz followed his cleric calling for 27 years. After much deliberation and prayer, he shed the collar in 1999. He is still Catholic and regularly attends Mass. Now, he’s nearing 20 years in his second career as a full-time architecture, portrait and fine art photographer.

He describes his own aesthetic this way: “Probably at the baseline is a sense of beauty, whether color or color harmony or composition or subject. That would be the underlining thing. I love landscapes. I love abstracts, I love people, you name it.” He finds beauty in it all. “There are certain patterns hardwired into the fabric of our beings that produce pleasure, and we declare them beautiful. This is also true of music and other art forms. We are better because of what Michelangelo and Beethoven created and left to us;”

Ideas for projects are not hard to come by.

“I probably have more imagination than time. Every now and then I’ll get cranked up about a certain theme or methodology. I started a project photographing Omaha and Nebraska artists a few years ago. I just wanted to do that. I know a number of artistsand i started taking their picturesI’m about half way through that and hopefully I’ll have a show.

He envisions an exhibition in which each of his artist portraits is displayed next to a work by the artist, whether a sculpture or painting or whatever it might be.

“I’ve talked with a couple gallery owners about it. It might also be a book. We’ll see what happens.”

Catherine Ferguson is among the artists Scholz has photographed. He’s also photographed her work.

“Jim and I worked together to produce photographs of my stacked glass series,” Ferguson said. “He is a generous artist ready to help another artist see their vision realized. Jim is a patient, calm, gentle perfectionist. He gives me all the time necessary to have the prints exactly as I want them, no hurry, no pressure. I feel he is under-recognized as an artist in our community.”

Another artist friend is Shelly Bartek.

“I’ve known Jim from the time he was a priest at Sacred Heart to now where he is a successful national photographer,” Bartek said. “He is an authentic, all-around photographer serving to bring his clients the best quality images that represent their brand. His personal

passion to create art in his work has inspired us all through his concept and technical perfection.

“Best of all, he’s a great friend.”

About a decade ago, Scholz collaborated with writer Leslie Little on a museum quality book about Paris.

“I made the Paris Icons book images during two short visits to the city in 2007,” Scholz said. “It then took several months to edit, layout and in general prepare for print. The result was well received and we were awarded three international awards for the publication.

“It is always a joy to produce something of beauty that people appreciate.”

By choice, he’s not little documentary work on the gritty margins of life. “That’s a whole journalistic approach I respect greatly – it’s just not me. I like to show the best of people.” That includes showcasing the works of makers’ hands. Then there’s the joy he takes in picturing the natural splendor of God’s handiwork.

Expanding and honing his vision

Shooting Opera Omaha rehearsals and productions has deepened a long-held appreciation for music.

“What it’s done is it’s really stretched me in terms of my knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the whole operatic canon. My vision has been broadened.”

Photography has opened new vistas for him.

“If I never made another photograph, if I never went click again, I still think my life would be much richer because as I look at the world I see things that before I would never have noticed. The angle of the light or the color or whatever. There’s a whole bunch of stuff I would never have paid attention to, but the discipline of seeing as a camera sees forces you to see these things.

“I can sit an airport waiting for a plane for two hours and not be bored at all because I’m looking all around, seeing a grandma with little kids, the light coming in the windows, the big airplane rolling up on the tarmac outside. All this stuff.”

Cultivating a vision of what he wants to shoot and executing that vision, he said, is “a process.”

“It’s a lot more the work you put into it then the gizmo that goes click. The ultimate satisfaction is the process itself – getting to see things maybe in a little bit unique way and presenting them so that people say, ‘Oh, look at that, I never noticed that, I walked by this every day and never saw it.’ It’s finding what’s interesting.

“You’re expressing it from your perspective. You bring a whole life history and all kinds of things to color that.”

Photographers like him prefer to say they “make” rather than take photos.

“There’s a distinction.” Scholz said/ “You see something and you have a vision of how you want to present it.”

He saw in his mind’s eye what he wanted to achieve with his portrait of the late sculptor John Walz before ever shooting anything. “I had a vision of what I wanted to present, so I exposed the film to achieve that and I printed the print to achieve that.”

Walz turned a former Burlington Railroad Station power plant into his home-studio.

“I did the photo shoot with him part way through the remodel,” Scholz said. “I wanted to show him in his art creation, but we wanted a little mystery, so that’s why his face is a little in shadow.”

Contrasting elements can communicate mystery, energy, texture, whimsy, depth of perception, the passage of time, et cetera.

“I like to work with the idea of the human figure and the natural world,” Scholz said,

For an image he made of footprints in the sand at Canon Beach on the Oregon coast, he explained, “I wanted it to convey the essence of nature and humanity. The ocean is kind of symbolic of the timeless and I had to wait for somebody to walk along the beach to produce footprints, which get washed out with the next wave or two. That’s a story about how nature is constantly washing over us.

“As humans, we think we’re so important but in the big picture we’re real new on the scene and we probably won’t last all that long either. We’re just a little part of that from the beginning-to-the-end scenario.”

For a picture he made of a nude young woman lying on a fallen redwood tree in a Big Sur Coast grove, he wanted the contrast of “the old rugged, hard-edged woods and the softness of the young human figure.”

“That was done very deliberately to hopefully make the image strong.”

On a trip to Chatterbox Falls, British Columbia, he captured for posterity a sublime setting he awoke to,

“My friends, Ron and Judy Parks, rented a Nordic Tug for the summer to explore the coast and invited me to join them for a few days. We docked there for the night and in the morning I liked the reflections from the rain on the dock and the movement of the water. I made the picture with the falls in the background.”

During a Colorado sojourn he set out to photograph one of the state’s most prominent mountains, Longs Peak.

“Since the Forest Service does not allow camping there we had to leave the parking lot at midnight and climb all night to get there just before dawn. It was cloudy at sunrise but just for a moment the clouds partially broke and I was able to get the shot.”

 

Intuitive and intentional

Sometimes, the opportunity for a picture appears as he’s driving to or from an assignment.

“I was coming from Kansas City and I took the back roads and just about sunset I saw this partially plowed wheat field with terraced ridges in a pattern. So I stopped and took a picture. But the sky was very dull – there was nothing. Driving back, I was thinking, what can I do with this? Then I decided to put a woman’s flowing hair in the sky.”

He secured a model for the shoot at his studio. He made the image and overlaid it in the picture of the field.

“That was fun. I think that sort of thing makes the image richer.”

Manipulating images on a computer or in the darkroom, he said, “is just a creative tool.”

“People have the idea that in an earlier era of photography, working in the darkroom was somehow pure. Okay, it wasn’t, it never was. As long as I can darken this part and lighten that part (or crop or burn or do any number of things to manipulate an image), it’s a subjective, editorial process.

“Just the act of making a picture, you choose what to include in the frame and what not. My act of putting a frame around that image begins to edit right there.”

He embraces today’s digital tools.

“What I love about PhotoShop is that now I can do things that even in my wildest dreams in the darkroom I couldn’t achieve. For instance, I have an image of an abandoned ore processing plant high in the Colorado back country that’s been a favorite in galleries. I made it with an eight by ten camera and black and white film. I worked and worked in the darkroom to get all the various tonalities but it was hard because the inside of the building was kind of dark.

“Well, you can only burn an edge so much in the darkroom.”

For this oversized image, he placed his developing tray on the floor and angled the enlarger on the print.

“I’m crawling down there, lightening this part and darkening that part, but you could only go so far and you couldn’t change the focal contrast. With PhotoShop you can adjust the tonality and contrast. The nice thing is once you get done, two years or 20 years from now when you hit print it’s still going to come out the same.Or you can change it.”

“I had an early ’90s show of my work in Omaha. One of the prints was very successful in terms of sales. It also happened to be a print that involved six different negatives at various exposures in the enlarger. The original print probably took me six evenings from seven to midnight and now I suddenly had orders for 10 more. By the time I got done with that whole thing, I was spent and none of the prints were exactly the same because you couldn’t exactly get it the same.”

Whether intuitive or intentional, he’s after the same result – to distill beauty and endow permanence to an ephemeral moment.

Finding a niche

Scholz depends on what he earns photographing for his living. He started his own business, Scholz Images, in 1999. He works from a high-ceilinged downtown studio with ample natural light. It’s outfitted with lights, tents, screens, filters, cases and framed prints.

Most of his time is spent not on making photographs but scheduling. marketing, billing and other business matters. Finding and juggling projects isn’t easy.

“If you’re doing it on your own, you’re always kind of dancing between jobs. It’s a constant changing. When I first started the business I wanted to mostly go in the fine art direction. What i found is that in order to really make a living at it I had to have an additional niche and architecture became the thing I gravitated toward. I realized it was something I could do and it’s a good market. The architecture puts bread on the table and allows me to pay the mortgage and that sort of thing.”

He’s shot for Omaha firms Holland Basham Architects and HDR, for Lincoln-based Clark Enersen Partners and for Denver-based Fentress and Ruggles Mabe.

Fentress flew him to Quantico, Virginia for a week’s shoot at the National Museum of the Marine Corps and to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for an even longer shoot of the Central Terminal Expansion.

Traveling for his work brings it’s own challenges.

“When you travel a lot you get to sleep on airport floors, have bears come into your camp in the middle of the night, have flat tires on cactus in the back country, be in the center of a bison herd, have foreign police order you to not use your tripod. Just the usual stuff.”

When not flying, he travels to assignments via his trusty Chevy Silverado.

“I find I make my best photos when I have my camera and tripod with me. It can be anywhere that the moment presents itself.”

For most clients, he’ captures objective reality, though he sometimes heightens things via filters and strobes.

“With the commercial work I do, I’m called to record what’s there. Architects like to see all the bricks and everything the way it is. I then like to think of it the way a filmmaker does – how’s this going to look when the sun goes down and there’s still some light in the sky. You’re alway working with light.”

Another major commercial client is J & J Flooring Group, which has sent him on various assignments.

“It’s very challenging to get really interesting pictures of carpet.”

Buildings are easier. For his architectural work, he used to shoot with four by five film.

“In those days if you could get eight pictures a day you were doing really good, especially with color because you had to use several different filters.”

Though there’s little call for it now, he’s fond of large format film photography because he can attain certain qualities with it he can’t in smaller formats or digitially. He first moved to the bigger format in 1980.

“My father built a wooden kit for my four-by-five inch camera. I used that for years. Then I thought, well, if four-by-five is good, then eight-by-ten must be better, so I eventually bought an eight-by-ten.”

He admits he’s “a gear-head” like most photographers when it comes to camera gadgets.

What the large format offers in quality it sacrifices in efficiency.

“The tradeoff is, if you get the image perfectly you’ve got great quality to work with, but you can only make a small number of images, whereas with a smaller camera you might be able to get a hundred images in the same amount of time. So you have to pick your tool for what you want to do

“The larger format allows for more clarity and tonality. You can make increasingly large enlargements that still look good. But it comes at a great cost. The equipment is expensive but the really big cost is hauling it around because it’s heavy and awkward. It’s really tough flying. I much prefer to drive – that way I can load up the truck with lighting gear and I don’t have to worry about it being broken or arriving late or getting lost. When I fly, it really has to get edited down to the very essentials, plus backup. You cant check it – it will end up broken or lost. I carry it on board and stow it overhead.”

Old habits die hard.

“I sometimes think about getting rid of the four-by-five and eight-by-ten but occasionally I do have a client that comes along that wants something in large format film and I’m one of the few guys left that can do it.”

In order to stay current, he’s adapted to digital cameras.

He’s remained true to certain brands.

“I settled in on Nikon for whatever reason and have stayed with it because once you invest in a bunch of lenses then you can use them forever. I can still shoot with the Nikon lenses I got back in the 1960s. I don’t use them all that often anymore, but I can still use them on the camera because they never changed the lens body.”

Standing out from the crowd

For portraits, he uses whatever best serves the subject. A favorite portrait is of a corporate CEO whom Scholz wisely took out of the stuffed shirt, sterile office setting for something more fun and authentic.

“The guy needed a picture for an annual report. I could see in talking to him he just wasn’t into it at all, so I asked, ‘What do you like to do? ‘ He said, ‘I just bought a motorcycle and I like to ride it Sunday afternoons. I said, ‘Okay, let’s do that.” I sat in the back of a pickup with my camera and his wife drove. We were over in Iowa and we drove maybe 30-40 miles down the highway with his hair blowing in the wind. I made lots of pictures in black and white. The whole thing was stronger to me in black and white.

“Later, I decided I wanted a little more drama, so I put the clouds in. The only parts of the image that are in color is the burnt orange gas tank and front fender. It was a custom color designed just for that particular motorcycle. I like black and white because color sometimes is so pretty people stop there without looking deeper, where with black and white you’re reduced to light and dark contests that make your image pop.”

After decades making pictures for public display, Scholz is a fixture on the local photographic scene.

“In general, I think the photographic community here is pretty open and receptive. Most people like each other and get along.”

He counts as peers such well known shooters as Larry Ferguson, Andrew Baran, Monte Kruse. Patrick Drickey, Kat Moser and Sandy Aquila.

He’s talked shop with Omaha native Jim Krantz, who now enjoys a national and international reputation based out of Chicago.

“One of the local people I really admire is Vera Mercer,” Scholz said, “Her work to me is outstanding. I really love what she does.”

His work has shown at Gallery 1516 and Connect in Omaha, at the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney and at galleries in Kansas City, Missouri, Santa Fe, New Mexico and other locales.

His work is in public and private collections around the nation and even in in other countries.

Photography equals opportunity 

He makes images to be seen. Naturally, he likes it when people respond favorably to his work. Another fringe benefit of shooting for hire is gaining entree to people and places he’d otherwise not get.

“Being a photographer often times opens doors to things. You get admitted to a lot of places and things you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. For instance, maybe 15 years ago I got a call from a company here in town sponsoring ex-president Bill Clinton to give a keynote talk at an event in Aspen, Colorado. They wanted a lot of pictures of bill involved with people, so they flew me out to Aspen to do that. I spent three days with Bill. Hilary (Clinton) was there. I made all the pictures. Well, this repeated itself in Miami, once here in Omaha, and several times in Aspen.

“That’s not a world I would normally have access to at all, but it was really fun. I remember once in Aspen Bill got there in the afternoon. He was pretty tired having been on the road a lot. He checked into the hotel and decided he wanted to go for a walk downtown. He didn’t get more than a block when he was surrounded in this park by a hundred mothers with little kids. You could see him getting energized. It was fun to see over the course of several events how he would wk with crowds. He had a magic about him

“I remember prior to a cocktail party and dinner he was keynoting there were some guys waiting for his arrival and they were talking about how when they saw Bill Clinton they’re going to give him a piece of their mind. Well, Bill shows up and if by magic those guys are the first people he walks up to. He’s got his hand around one guy telling him a joke and within 10 minutes he totally won them over. I saw that hundreds of times.”

Being a photographer also means forever chasing perfection that can’t be attained.

“My photographer friends and I all know there are certain images meant to tease us into spending a lot of time and effort but we never quite get them. They’re always just a little beyond us.”

Scholz feels it’s good to have something to chase just beyond your grasp in order to stay sharp and hungry. “If you could roll a 300 game every time you bowl, you wouldn’t bowl. It wouldn’t be any fun. It’s the same thing with golf and shooting par.”

The same when making pictures.

“Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Hits and misses come with any creative art. There are times where from start to finish you work it right through and, boy, the whole thing just comes out great.”

The magic of first seeing an image he’s just made still enthralls him. Hooked for life.

Visit http://www.scholzimages.com.

Eduardo Aguilar: Living a dream that would not be denied

April 26, 2018 Leave a comment

Eduardo Aguilar:

Living a dream that would not be denied

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico (el-perico.com)


As Eduardo Aguilar walked down an Omaha Creighton Prep hallway one school day last April, he had no idea a lifelong dream would soon be secured. Counselor Jim Swanson pulled the then-high school senior out of his international relations class on the pretext of seeing how he was doing. It’s something Swanson often did with Aguilar, whose undocumented parents were deported to Mexico when he was about ten. Aguilar lived with Swanson and his family an entire year – one in a succession of homes Aguilar resided in over six years.

The counselor and student talked that spring morning as they had countless times, only this time school president Father Tom Neitzke joined them. The priest shook Aguilar’s hand and invited him into his office, where several adults, including media members, awaited.

“I was confused and shocked,” Aguilar recalled. “I thought I was in trouble.”

Creighton University president Father Daniel Hendrickson then informed him he was receiving a full-ride scholarship worth $200,000 funded by donors and the G. Robert Muchemore Foundation.

Cameras captured it all.

“To have that news thrown at me out of nowhere was incredible,” Aguilar said. “I just felt like God answered my prayer because it was always my dream to go to Creighton. I was so happy.

“I still can’t believe it even happened. I’m forever grateful for the scholarship donors and for the people that believed in me.”

KMTV Channel 3 news reporter Maya Saenz, who filed a touching story on him, came away impressed by Aguilar.

“He’s a brilliant and hardworking guy and I feel privileged to have met him and to have highlighted his extraordinary efforts to reach the Mexican-American dream.”

The scholarship came just as Aguilar despaired his dream would go unrealized.

“There weren’t many options for me at that time and I was thinking, ‘Maybe this is the end of my journey – maybe I’m not going to go to college.’ I was in a bad mood about it that same day.”

After learning his good fortune, he called his parents, Loreny and Jose Aguilar.

“They were extremely excited to hear I’m continuing my education, especially at Creighton University, because they knew from a very young age I wanted to go there, They’re absolutely humbled their son received such a generous gift to attend such a prestigious place and that people believed in their son.

“Even though not having them here physically hurts, they’ve motivated me throughout. They’ve given me words of wisdom and advice. They’ve definitely pushed me to be best that I can.”

Aguilar also appreciates the support he’s received in his folks’ absence, first at Jesuit Academy, then at Prep, and now at CU, where he’s finishing his freshman year. He didn’t get to say goodbye to his parents, who are general laborers in Tijuana, when they got deported. He and his older brother Jose relied on family and friends.

“It was a very traumatizing experience,” Aguilar said. “I felt powerless. It really opened my eyes to the harsh place life can bring you at times. It definitely made me mature a lot faster than my peers.”

Jesuit Academy staff rallied behind him.

“They assured me everything would be okay, I decided I had to kick my academics into gear because it was the only thing to get me ahead without my parents here.”

Three months after that sudden separation, Aguilar and his folks were reunited in Mexico. He lived three years there with them.

“I enjoyed it down there with family. I learned a lot. It really humbled me and made me into the person I am today. Now, I’m just happy to be getting my education. I don’t really care about material possessions.”

By 13, his yearning for America would not be denied.

“I realized in Mexico I wouldn’t have the same opportunities I would here. My mom was very hesitant about me coming back because I was so young. But she agreed. Leaving was very difficult. I came back with a family member. I ended up staying with him for awhile and then i just moved from house to house.

“It’s been a journey.”

Few of his peers at Prep knew his situation.

“The majority of them found out on graduation day, They were surprised because they never saw me upset or sad. I was always smiling, happy. They were astonished I was able to go through all that, but it’s due to the support system I had.”

Prep staff took him under their wing his four years there.

“Jim Swanson has been a great motivator. He and his wife served as my second family. When I needed them the most, they opened the doors to their house to me. I see him as my second father. I have the utmost respect for him and his family.”

Aguilar also grew close to art teacher Jeremy Caniglia

“He left a great impact on me. I still reach out to him.”

Aguilar used art and slam poetry to process and express his intense feelings.

In college, he’s found professors sympathetic to his plight. He calls CU Vice Provost for Enrollment Mary Chase “one of my go-to persons,” adding, “She always checks up on me.”

“It really means a lot to me to have extra structure and support and to know these people actually care and believe I have potential to do something in life,” Aguilar said.

He’s studying international business and corporate law in CU’s 3-3 program, which will allow him to earn an undergraduate degree and a law degree in six years instead of seven. His dream job is with Tesla Motors, which produces mass-market electric cars.

“Renewable energy has always fascinated me and Elon Musk (Tesla founder-CEO) has always been one of my idols.”

Thus far, Aguilar said, “College has been an incredible, eye-opening experience.”

Aguilar hopes his personal story empowers others caught in the immigration vice.

“If this can serve any person going through a similar situation or hardship and help them to succeed, then I’m totally for that.”

Things coming full circle for Doug Marr, Phil’s Diner Series and Circle Theatre

April 24, 2018 1 comment

Things coming full circle for Doug Marr, Phil’s Diner series and Circle Theatre

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in June 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

NOTE: THIS IS A 2017 STORY

 

In June, things come full circle for one of Omaha’s longest-lived stage companies, the Circle Theatre, in support of recovering resident playwright Doug Marr.

Doug and wife Laura Marr were among 12 founding members of the Circle, created in 1983 by a cohort of UNO theater grads and professors. The group enlisted Doug, then a poet, into writing an original work to perform. That play, Phil Contemplates Putting a Jukebox in the Diner, became an unexpected sensation early in 1984 at Benson’s Joe & Judy’s Cafe. It spawned a successful series of 11 Phil’s Diner plays Marr wrote and the Circle produced, even as the cafe changed hands.

Marr went on to write many plays outside the Phil’s series, including Starkweather for the Omaha Community Playhouse. As Circle members dropped out owing to job and family commitments, the Marrs carried on, eventually moving the theater to Central Presbyterian Church and more recently, Urban Abbey. In 2016 the Marrs handed off operations to Fran Sillau, who joined the company in the late 1990s.

Now, Sillau and the Circle are reviving the play that started it all, with many of the original cast, for six scheduled performances at Harold’s Koffee House in Florence. Only this revival isn’t purely about nostalgia. It’s for a purpose. Show proceeds will help offset major medical expenses incurred by Doug after undergoing multiple surgeries the last two years. Omaha’s most prolific playwright is in need of a serious rewrite.

Most recently, a pressure wound got infected to the bone. That  necessitated surgery followed by weeks of rehab at a care center. In an interview at the Marrs’ midtown home, Doug sat at the kitchen table surrounded by medical bills. One alone totals $85,000. Medicare pays some but finding the rest on Laura’s teaching salary and what he makes writing is rough.

The costs extend to a regimen of eight prescription drugs he’s on. It’s all on top of being a paraplegic (he’s been paralyzed from the waist down since undergoing risky spinal surgery at age 22). Since then, he’s only been able to walk with the aid of crutches. The pressure on arms and shoulders bearing his full body weight blew out both rotator cuffs.

He’s never wanted pity, but to entertain us through his craft. He’s done it over and over again. Now that he needs a little help, he’s touched that his old theater gang is rejoining for the cause. They, in turn, are happy to do so. Reliving the most intense theater experience of their lives makes it all the better.

“Fundraiser aside, I think it’s amazing,” Marr said. “We’re hoping people in the Florence area will kind of glom onto this new experience.”

M. Michele Phillips. who’s directing the revival, said, “To bring it full circle is something that never happens because theater’s so ephemeral and when it’s done, it’s done, so this is totally cool. What was always nice about the Circle Theatre was the ensemble. The ensemble was always full of great people you loved working with.”

Michael Markey, who’s reprising the role of the mensch diner proprietor Phil he originated, said in rehearsals it doesn’t seem decades have passed.

“It’s just like we finished yesterday – the interplay, the shortcuts. You know what the other person’s going to say or how they’re going to react. All that’s there after 30 years. Bill Lacey (he plays Al the grouchy short order cook) I haven’t seen in 30 years let alone act with, and we’re right there.”

“It doesn’t take time to catch up and reconnect to people you were that close to, even though it was a long time ago,” Lacey said.

Then there’s the added benefit of everyone bringing more life experience to the material.

“I think the fact everybody’s a little bit older makes the acting more intuitive,” Phillips said. “It seems like second nature.”

“This experience was very embedded in who I was as an actor,” Markey said. “I tend to believe it was probably that way because it was so different. It was so organic as environmental theater that it all came rushing back as soon as we started doing it again.”

Markey said there’s nothing like the intensity of creating theater together for imprinting things in you.

“There’s a trust factor that comes about from working with people over and over again. When we started this we were 12 people who had worked together in UNO and in other community theater who had built that trust, and we spent the first six months of the Circle just working on developing that truth and the improvisation and all that. So that ensemble was part and parcel of who we were.”

The late Matt Kamprath is the stock company’s lone member who’s gone.

In a gender twist, Stan, the homeless philosopher has changed to Stella. Laura Marr, one of Omaha’s most distinguished actresses, plays her. Other characters include Daryl the savant dishwasher, Grace the sharp-tongued waitress and Rudy the jeweler.

Then as now, the players are an extension of the Phil’s Diner universe of neighborhood dreamers, schemers, working stiffs and misfits whose stories Marr explored.

“It had that feeling of an extended family where Phil kind of took in all these different characters over the years,” Marr said. “He was kind of their father in a way.”

The verisimilitude increased placing the actors of these archetypal diner denizens in an actual eatery.

“Because I think part of what the whole experience was with diner theater was to be surrounded by the play in this natural found space,” Laura said. “It gave a really interesting feel as an audience member and as a performer. You can produce the play just as a play but to actually mount it in a setting like this opens a new generation up to what found space theater is and to the possibilities of it. It’s very different doing it that way then doing it on a stage. It requires a different type of style, awareness of the audience and a whole lot of things as a performer.”

When Phil’s Diner debuted, it was a first for area theater.

“It was an experiment the first time we did it,” Markey said. “We only planned on doing it one night. We’d see if anybody came and what they thought because it hadn’t been done before, and the response was so electric it was like, ‘OK, this will work.'”

Until, then, Lacey said, “We didn’t know it would work – we really didn’t.”

What made it a must-see?

“It was so unique to go to a diner and see a play, so there was the novelty aspect of it,” Phillips said.

“Doug created a wonderful slice of life of people you run into, talking the way they talk, being who they are, and you’re just sitting in amongst this group of people you can completely relate to,” Markey said. “Doug’s writing is so earnest – it’s who he is. He causes us to look at the people around us and embrace what’s good about them. What’s good in us comes out because of them.”

Putting on the plays created lasting bonds for this cadre of University of Nebraska at Omaha thespians.

“A group of us from UNO had decided that after we graduated we really wanted to work where we live, instead of live where we work,” Laura Marr said. “We didn’t want to necessarily go off to New York or L.A. if we could try something here and it could be successful.”

The Circle was formed at the Marrs’ wedding reception. To everyone’s surprise, Laura recalled, the theater was a hit right out of the gate. “We had no idea it would so quickly become self-sustaining and a viable medium for us.”

Years of staging work coincided with troupe members getting married, starting families, moving on.

“We really went through a lot of things together,” she said. “Even if we don’t see each other for a long period, anytime we get together we just pick up where we left off because we’ve shared so many experiences. That includes our college years when you really start to figure out who you are and what you want to do and what you believe in. When you have a core group of people that comes together with those very strong themes and you create something together, I don’t think that ever goes away.”

Doug Marr, who only penned that first play because he was the group’s lone writer, said he soon discovered his calling. “I found my voice – I found the way I could express myself.” The sold-out shows, he said, “really blew me away.”

The Circle eventually drew deeply from the American theater canon and became known for casting disabled persons and staging signed shows.

“Before the word inclusive was even a thing, they lived it, they embodied it,” said Fran Sillau, who himself has a disability, “and that didn’t happen everywhere. It was a very special place with very special people.”

It was Sillau’s idea to revive the first Phil’s Diner. Marr was to write a new one but got sick. He intends finishing it yet. “It’s going to be years later – with a lot of the same characters,” he said.

Michael Markey feels there’s an advantage to doing Phil Contemplates first because it gives the ensemble a chance to rediscover the characters with a piece they know and introduce new audiences to diner theater.

“Now we have the foundation for the reunion piece.”

Marr has no problems reengaging with his Phil creations. “They were such a part of my life. They’re attached to my soul. They’re like real people to me.”

Laura’s grateful the work and theater have a new life. “I think that’s the whole purpose of starting something – to see it continue. It’s so interesting to see it from a different perspective because when you’re in the day to day workings of something it’s very hard to be objective about it. With Doug’s health issues over the past two years, it’s really been a relief to us to have someone as competent as Fran (Sillau). He’s got very good vision and some great people supporting that vision. He’ll move the organization in new and exciting ways.”

For the Marrs, it’s nice having a finished script and someone else put up the show.

“It’s not like the old days where Doug was producing so much work and the work was so popular we would start rehearsal on a new one while we were still in production on on,” Laura said.

She feels the Circle’s endurance might explain why other grassroots theaters appeared here.

“We had a big influence in the emergence of all of these little theaters,” she surmised. “They began to pop up and stay and do very interesting original work.”

“It gave everybody the courage to try it,” Michele Phillips said. “These guys actually accomplished it. That was exciting for everybody in the theater community.”

Giving back to a local theater icon, Phillips, said, “gives everybody impetus to do a really good job because there’s no more dedicated theater practitioner than Doug. Just getting around is such a struggle for him,nbut he’s never late, he’s always on top of it.”

“He’s an inspiration –  that’s why we do it,” Sillau said. “Thanks to him I learned that someone with a disability could make what you want out of your life.”

“It’s a great opportunity to say thank you to Doug and Laura for keeping the theater alive,” Markey said.

Doug Marr appreciates it all, even though some days the pain is just too much. Like Phil and the bunch, he remains hopeful.

“I mean, there’s going to be a point in my life when it all crashes down … cause it’s just going to be too difficult, but right now I can’t not keep going. There’s still challenges out there, there’s films to watch, books to read, and also it’s a good time to start working on getting things published, like Starkweather and some of the other pieces I’ve written. Even the Phil’s Diner series. They have to be totally rewritten on the computer, but I’ve got time.”

Shows are Friday and Saturday nights, June 2 to 17, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at Harold’s, 8327 North 30th Street. Tickets are $25 and include a cup of coffee and slice of pie. Visit circletheatreomaha.org.

Stage-screen star Vanessa Williams in concert with the Omaha Symphony

April 24, 2018 1 comment

Stage-screen star Vanessa Williams in concert with the Omaha Symphony

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in April 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The following story appeared in advance of the diva’s April 21 concert with the Omaha Symphony but after attending the show I can now report that she and her band in performance with the orchestra were off-the-chain that night. I have always admired Vanessa Williams for her beauty but I never followed closely or even casually her singing and acting career and so I never really formed an opinion about her as a performing artist. Well, count me as a convert to her immense talent after thoroughly enjoying her vocal artistry and stage presence. She delivered a world-class performance to the delight of the diverse crowd on hand. Her voice, her range and her stage craft and command are as good as anything I’ve ever witnessed live. This was her first performance in Omaha and I certainly hope it’s not her last.

 

Singer-actress Vanessa Williams, 55, brings a regal serenity wherever she goes.

The always put-together Tony, Grammy, Emmy nominee makes her metro debut headlining the April 21 Omaha Symphony Gala Concert at Holland Performing Arts Center. For the 8 p.m. gig benefiting the symphony’s community engagement programs serving youth, she’ll sing her own hit tunes (“Save the Best for Last,” “Colors of the Wind”) as well as American Songbook classics.

She looks forward to a backstage visit from an uncle who lives in Omaha.

The Broadway musical star, concert hall veteran, recording artist, film-television player and humanitarian has won multiple NAACP Image Awards.

“I’ve felt the embrace of the African-American community from the get-go – besides incidents where people felt I wasn’t black enough,” she said.

She’s proud of her behind-the-scenes reputation as a steadying influence.

“I’m usually the leader of calm. People say when I’m a part of an ensemble, it’s a calm and happy set. I know how to deal with people. I don’t like drama and I don’t engage.”

Thirty-four years into her career, she shows no signs of slowing. In February, she appeared in the New York City Center Encores production Hey, Look Me Over. She sang a tune idol Lena Horne originated in the show Jamaica.

Here, Williams will interpret standards immortalized by Horne and other icons.

She recently completed a three-week Asian tour. Then she went to Dallas to shoot an ABC episodic dramedy pilot, First Profits, about women cosmetics moguls. If picked-up, it will mark her fourth ABC series, following Ugly Betty,Desperate Housewives and 666 Park Avenue.

“It’s kind of like going back home. The character I play is a force to be reckoned with. I’m excited.”

She loves moving from one genre to another.

“It’s great because it exercises a lot of different muscles for me. It never gets stale and I get a chance to reach different audiences. Playing a small jazz club I can do some intimate, personal stuff. Doing a symphony concert allows beautiful, lush orchestrations I don’t get to hear all the time, so for me it’s a special treat. Then acting behind a camera, I get a chance to step into another character.

“The reason I get to do so many things is that I take care of my voice, I’m professional, I show up on time, I know my material. That’s how you have longevity in this business – being prepared and dependable.”

Performing is play. Preparing to play, especially doing eight shows a week on Broadway, can be a grind.

“The biggest effort is getting to the theater and going through the process of putting on your makeup and costume, especially when you’re exhausted or your voice doesn’t feel right or you’re dealing with distractions. Once you hear the downbeat, then it all goes away. You feel the electricity from the audience, the camaraderie of the cast, and it’s easy.”

The mother of four, who successfully manages her Type 1 diabetes, said she consciously “doesn’t try” striking a positive image but instead projects her authentic self.

“I think it’s a byproduct of who you are. I am who I am and I’m lucky I had great parents who instilled great values in me and I get a chance to demonstrate that. I think it’s also reflected in my children (one of her daughter’s is singer-actress Jillian Hervey).”

In 2012, she and her mother, Helen Williams, released a memoir they co-authored, You Have No Idea, in which Vanessa revealed being molested by a woman as a child. Though raised Catholic, she got an abortion as a teen. She became “a trailblazer” as the first black Miss America, only to have erotic photos she posed for published without her consent. Stripped of her crown, she recovered from the scandal.

“I’m seen as a survivor after being famous overnight at 20 and then having to create a career when, within 11 months, it all changed drastically. It shows fortitude, perseverance, talent. That’s what’s revered. That’ll never go away. That’s a badge of honor I continue to carry.”

She supports today’s women’s advocacy movements born from sexual harassment allegations against men, including some prominent film-TV-music figures.

“I know these are very positive and strong women helping to bring awareness to the issues,” she said.

She cautions branding all men with a broad-brush.

“I don’t want an attitude where every man is bad, a threat, a predator, untrustworthy. I’ve worked with some incredibly talented, wonderful, warm men – producers, directors, writers, actors – who are my good friends.”

She weathered divorce from NBA player-turned-actor Rick Fox – the father of three of her children.

She married businessman Jim Skrip in 2015.

Williams has come to represent what black women she admires symbolize.

“Lena Horne, Diahnn Carroll, Debbie Allen, Eartha Kitt.

All legendary women stellar in their career and active with civil rights. Their own personal struggles were such lessons for us and our generation. They paved the way.”

She’s a nurturing “mother bear” to younger artists.

“I’m always the one everyone comes to for advice. I love to connect people and make things happen.”

She’s encouraged by how many women of color have become creative forces behind the camera

“Progress is definitely apparent in movies and television,

Certainly, there’s plenty of opportunity now, which is fantastic.”

She’s may even direct one day.

Meanwhile, she despairs America’s divide. “The hate speak and the divisiveness,” she said, “is just really saddening”

Escape with her in music on the 21st.

For tickets, visit omahasymphony.org.

Finicky Frank’s puts out good eats

April 24, 2018 1 comment

Finicky Frank’s puts out good eats

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in April 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Finicky Frank’s stands apart from North Omaha restaurants with its farm-to-table commitment and casual-meets-fine dining balance. Chef-owner Kesa Kenny sticks with quality ingredients and keep things simple to create five-star comfort food.

The Salina, Kansas native worked the family farm growing up, gaining an appreciation for fresh-natural-local even though things often got overcooked by her elders. As a stay-at-home wife and mother, she raised the kids, maintained a home and made art (dried gourds became a medium). Then, almost on a dare, she poured her creativity and love of good food into cooking.

She stretched herself in the kitchen to the point she made her own cheese, butter, bread, noodles.

“I was awfully close to self-sufficient. I went to the library and researched. I just got into cooking. I guess I always had been, but didn’t realize how good it could be,” she said.

After moving to Omaha in the late 1990s, she worked factory line shifts and flipped houses, saving enough to open her first eatery, the soup-salad-sandwich Center Street Cafe. It was a hit but when she couldn’t swing buying the building to renovate, she looked elsewhere.

The first version of Finicky Frank’s – named for a persnickety Ponca Hills neighbor – folded at the Forgotten Store. Then she and husband Brian Kenny, who manages and tends the bar and repairs anything that breaks, opened in one small bay of their present 9520 Calhoun Road location.

They found kindred spirits among the local gourmands, small growers and urban farmers, thus making her farm-to-table practice a welcome fit.

“They are kind of foodies for the most part out this way.

The restaurant soon outgrew its snug confines and seven years ago the couple expanded into the adjacent bay – doing a total makeover. The result is a cozy spot with a not too heavy black and white tiled motif. The laid-back, curated ambience extends from the art on the walls to the music overhead to the soul satisfying, un-rushed food coming out of the kitchen.

The aesthetic is hers.

“Art flows in everything I do,” said the self-taught Kenny. “Anything creative is my realm. Anything I can get my hands on, found objects or ingredients, I repurpose. It just follows me.”

As time allows during service, the plain-talking Kenny engages diners about their meal or makes small talk. If there’s a snafu with a dish, she personally addresses it.

It’s a neighborhood place but both loyal followers and newbies come from near and far. Everyone’s treated the same: warmly.

The same confidence and drive that convinced Kenny to be a restauranteur infuses her cooking approach.

“I’m not afraid of anything.”

Years reading recipes and food books, finding new ingredients and ways to use them, fortify her culinary arsenal.

“You just change it up. That’s what keeps me fired up.”

She’s open to good ideas wherever she finds them. Like her fried chicken.

“I stole that recipe from a restaurant I waitressed at years ago in Kansas.”

She starts with fresh, never frozen, organic free-range chickens from the family farm. Salt, pepper and flour. Fried in a stainless skillet in pure vegetable oil.

Simple sums up her overall approach to cooking.

“Start with a good basic ingredient and keep it simple. If you mess that up, you have no business behind a skillet. Don’t overcook it, don’t over-stress it, don’t overwork it.

“It’s wise to keep it to good basic comfort foods people remember growing up. That’s why our Saturday night fried chicken is a huge success, Some of my fondest memories are passing platters of food at family dinners and having meatloaf or chicken night. It’s bringing those things back and just putting a little twist on them of my own and keeping it fun to where I can stay creative.”

The same ethos applies to her walleye Thursdays. Her meaty, slightly sweet catch come direct from Canada.

“It brings people from all over the place. I keep it as simple as can be with a light coating of homemade bread crumbs. Salt and pepper. Served with twice-cooked Yukon gold potatoes and fresh cole slaw. It’s just like the lakeside meals you make with fresh caught fish.”

For her succulent steaks, she uses teres major cuts (shoulder blade) from a local purveyor.

“That piece of meat is like a filet – a little more marbling but not much. The flavor’s really nice. It’s tender every time.”

People tell her her burger is “hands-down” the best in town. It’s all in the details. She hand forms full 8 ounce patties of 80 percent lean Angus beef accented with sea salt for a medium grill on the flat-top. Grilled red onions add a sweet, creamy bite. She serves it all on a buttered brioche bun with choice of add-ons and sides.

The moderately priced menu also includes crab cakes, a veggie stir fry, a seafood enchilada, a spinach-mushroom enchilada, a Reuben sandwich, a pork tenderloin sandwich, wood-fired pizzas, scratch soups, crafted salads and various wines, draft beers and cocktails.

A small patio offers an outdoor seasonal dining option.

She decides daily specials by whim, weather, season and what diners tell her they’re craving.

Her own urban farm-garden at her 11-acre Hills home supplies kale, bok choy, peas, green beans, cucumbers. radishes, onions, peppers, tomatoes, fingerling potatoes, cilantro, basil, parsley, et cetera.

“It means getting up earlier in the morning to pick and wash, but it’s worth it. It doesn’t get any better than right out of the ground.”

The nearby Florence Mill Farmers Market is another fresh produce source.

“I bring it from there right over here. It’s so wonderful to have that and it supports them.”

She’s a vendor at the market, where she likes educating people’s palettes with homemade, garden-fresh salsa and guacamole and from-scratch roasted veggie broths.

At Frank’s, everything is prepped back of the house to arrive ready in the galley-style kitchen, which has the same black and white checkerboard tile as the rest of the place. About the tile, she said, “It’s fun, it’s vibrant, it keeps the kitchen a part of the whole and it cleans really well. Tile never wears out.”

She has anchors in her husband – “He will never let me give up on an idea” – and daughter-in-law Stephanie, who waitresses there – “We mesh like no other.”

The most satisfying thing for Kenny is seeing customers savor their meal by tipping back a bowl to drink the last of their soup or sopping up sauce with a dinner roll. Best of all is when they “clean” their plates.

“That is like the best compliment ever. There is something about me that always has to be loved and I figured out through cooking no one will never bite the hand that feeds you.”

She’s enthused by fellow North O good eats destinations (Alpine Inn, Enzo’s, Florence Mill, Fat Shack BBQ, Omaha Rockets Kanteen). Area options took recent hits when fire totaled Mouth of the South and Fair Deal Cafe closed.

Kenny said northeast Omaha is still “underutilized and under-seen.” She envisions a trolley tour hitting historic venues, scenic overlooks and area food spots.

She feels North O still suffers a stigma that sees business drop after high profile shootings – even if incidents occur a mile or more away. She wants folks to know about gems like hers and there’s nothing to fear unless you’re counting calories and carbs.

Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m to 2 p.m.

Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, 5 pm. to close.

Visit finickyfranks.com or call 402-451-5555.

Nature photographer Joel Sartore taking cue from Noah for his National Geographic Photo Ark

April 24, 2018 1 comment

Nature photographer Joel Sartore taking cue from Noah for his National Geographic Photo Ark

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in April 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

If Noah had a camera, perhaps he would have done what noted nature and wildlife photographer Joel Sartore is doing. Sartore, who resides in Lincoln, Neb., is a star National Geographic shooter in the midst of an epic project, aptly named Photo Ark, that’s creating an archive of global biodiversity in order to raise awareness and spur acton around endangered habitats and species. The National Geographic Society is throwing its considerable weight behind the effort.

The endeavor transcends geo-political differences to put a face on stressed ecosystems and inhabitants.

Photo Ark grew out of Sartore’s early assignments around the world documenting wildlife.

In addition to National Geographic magazine, he’s shot for Audubon, Life and book projects. His work’s been the subject of national broadcasts. He’s a regular contributor on CBS Sunday Morning.

The more he saw and learned, the more species and habitats that became threatened, the more urgency he felt to create a comprehensive archive in his lifetime.

“I’ve been a National Geographic photographer for more than 27 years, and I photographed the first 15 years or so out in the wild doing different conservation stories, on wolves, on grizzly bears, on koalas, all in the wild,” he said. “Can I say that moved the needle enough to stop the extinction crisis? No, it did not. So I just figured maybe very simple portraits lit exquisitely so you can see the beauty and the color, looking animals directly in the eye with no distractions, would be the way to do it.

“NG sees themselves as not only responsible stewards of the environment, but they’re in it for the long haul. I always believed that, if I could build the project up a bit, they would see the value in it. And they sure have.  Sadly, I have seen species go extinct since starting the Photo Ark. A rabbit, a fish, an insect and the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog have all gone extinct since I photographed them. It saddens me greatly, but also angers and inspires me to want to give everything I’ve got to this project, and use extinction as a wake up call. As these species go away, so could we.”

Traveling to where species are, often to remote areas, accounts for much of his time on the project.Ironically, the Photo Ark practically began in his own backyard about 12 years ago.

“The Photo Ark started when my wife got breast cancer. That event ‘grounded’ me for a year in that I literally needed to stay home and take care of my wife and kids while she got chemo and radiation. She’s fine now, and on the days that she felt better, I started going to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, a mile from my house, to take photos. The naked mole rat at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo was the first animal to come on board the Ark.

“Since then, I have visited 40 countries and worked in more than 250 zoos, aquariums and animal rescue centers around the world to create the Photo Ark. Most of the countries I’ve visited for this project are those I’d not visited before.”

He’s already logged thousands of hours and tens of thousands of miles to photograph thousands of species, and yet he’s far from finished.

“We are a little more than halfway done after 12 years with just over 7,500 species (photographed). Because we’ll now have to travel farther and wider to get the remaining species (an estimated 5,000 more), it’ll take us another 15 years to complete. So, if I had to guess, I’d say another 30 countries or so should do it.”

When working in the wild, things can get hairy.

“Now that I’m working mainly at zoos, the work has fewer unpleasant surprises. During my 16 years on assignment in the field for National Geographic magazine, however, I had a few close calls with critters. But it’s mostly the little things I’m most wary of.”

For example, there are diseases carried by insects like the Marburg virus.

“I was quarantined three weeks for that one and didn’t get it.”

Then there’s a flesh-eating parasite called mucocutaneous leishmaniasis.

“I did get that one and the treatment is no fun at all.”

Things are less creepy-crawly today,

“These days, working in controlled environments. most of these shoots go extremely smoothly because the animals have been around people all their lives,” he said. “But sometimes the critters do ‘have their way’ with my backgrounds and sets.

“Having enough time to get to everything is the biggest challenge, but definitely doable. Thankfully, the project isn’t political and so we’re welcomed pretty much everywhere we go.”

The work holds deep personal meaning for him.

“Most animals I photograph have a real impact on me. They’re all like children to me because I’m the only voice most will ever have. It’s giving a voice to the voiceless. For many of these species, especially the small ones that live in the soil or in little streams or high up in the treetops, this will be their only chance to be heard before they go extinct. That’s a great honor, and a great responsibility, and why I’m devoting my life to this. “If I had to choose one right now though, I suppose it would be Nabire, one of the last northern white rhinos at the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. She was the sweetest and passed away less than two weeks after our visit of complications brought on by old age. Now the world just has three left, all in a single pen in Kenya.”

EDITOR’S NOTE:The world’s last male northern white rhino, age 45, died at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya on March 19.

Sartore, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism graduate, is now working exclusively on the Photo Ark. He’s the project’s lone photographer though it’s evolved into a family and legacy adventure.

“My oldest child, Cole, goes with me to assist on most foreign shoots and has promised to carry out the work should I not be able to complete it in my lifetime,” Sartore said.

Photo Ark strives to make a difference. One way is by raising money to save species from extinction. “In the bigger picture,” Sartore said, “we raise public awareness to the extinction crisis.” The message gets out via projections on touchstone buildings (St. Peter’s Basilica, the Empire State Building), publication in NG magazine and posts on NG social media. “The images get people to care about some of the least known animals on the planet while there’s still time to save them.”

The PBS documentary series, Rare: Portraits of the Photo Ark, provided more exposure.

Nat Geo Photo Ark EDGE Fellowship is a new initiative aimed at supporting future conservation leaders working on the planet’s most unique and endangered species. In partnership with the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE of Existence program, the fellowship will support funding and highlight creatures in the Photo Ark that historically receive little or no conservation attention.

Sartore doesn’t mince words when describing what’s at stake with endangered biodiversity and the consequences of inaction.

“We’re looking at a massive extinction event if we don’t control human behavior in a way that spares some of the largest rain forests, prairies, coastal marshes, coral reefs, et cetera. But if we can raise public awareness, and get people to care, it’s my hope there will be far fewer extinctions than predicted. It is not too late to turn this around.

“At its heart, the Photo Ark is meant to be more than just a huge archive; it’s meant to inspire the public to care about the future of all life on Earth, including our own. After all, when we save other species, we’re actually saving ourselves.”

In his travels, he encounters just enough positive developments to encourage him.

“I meet people every month who have saved species simply because they cared enough to devote time to it. That inspires me greatly and gives me plenty of hope to carry on.”

To those who pooh-pooh global warming and the damage done by ever encroaching human contact with the wild, he offers some food for thought.

“People don’t think this issue affects them, but it will in a major way in the not too distant future. Climate change, overfishing of the seas, habitat loss, clean air, clean water, good food to eat – these things are all tied together. When we save these other species, we’re actually saving ourselves. It’s my hope, my prayer, that the public wakes up, and soon. There’s still time to save the Earth, but we must act now.

“There are a million things we each can do: Insulate your home and drive a smaller car to reduce your carbon footprint. Eat less meat or no meat. Put zero, and I mean zero, chemicals on your lawn. And just how do you spend your money? Every time you break out your purse or your wallet, you’re saying to a retailer, ‘I approve of this, please do it again’. Is your money helping to tear down the world or to save it? Yes, it requires a bit of education to know right from wrong in terms of your consumer choices, but it’s so important.”

In 2019, the Lincoln Children’s Zoo will incorporate a Photo Ark show into its new exhibit space.

Even three decades into his high profile career, Sartore still has to pinch himself that it’s real, especially the part about his modern-day Noah’s ark gig.

“I still can’t believe a kid from Nebraska who dreamed of working for National Geographic is doing just that. I’m a lucky guy, to say the least.”

For more about the project, visit natgeophotoark.org. Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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