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Washington Garcia’s international music career finds perfect balance in Omaha

December 26, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Washington Garcia’s international music career finds perfect balance in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

UNO School of Music Director Washington Garcia’s destiny was set the first time he tickled the keys of his grandmother’s piano at age 4 in his native Ecuador.

“I’ve always considered myself blessed to know my purpose in life from very early on,” Garcia said. “That’s a gift not many people have. My family knew my mission was to come to the United States one day. They trained me from a young age to prepare for it. They had me learn English. They mentored me so I would mature to be in a leadership position.”

Though born into a musical family, he’s the only one to have made music a career. His father’s a retired neurosurgeon. His mother, a retired accountant.

His talent was so evident that by 6 he enrolled in Ecuador’s National Conservatory of Music. His first public performance came at 7. Recognizing the prodigy in their midst, conservatory leaders created a program for him. He advanced quickly enough to debut with the Ecuadorian National Symphony Orchestra at only 15.

He won several prestigious piano competitions. He made his international debut in Chile. He’s since performed all over Europe as well as in Canada, Israel, Mexico, Colombia, Japan and China.

Whatever he’s done and wherever he’s gone, he’s felt his parents’ support.

“They knew instinctively music was going to be my tool to connect Ecuador with the world. My parents opened many doors for me because of their perseverance.”

He enjoys national hero status in his native land as a recipient of the Outstanding Cultural Achievement medal – the highest recognition the Ecuadorian National Assembly awards an individual for artistic excellence.

Getting this far has meant sacrifice.

“I didn’t really have a normal childhood practicing piano five or six hours a day in addition to going to private piano and English lessons, doing regular school courses and homework and attending the National Conservatory.

“These were highly intensive academic and artistic activities I invested all of myself into. I don’t regret it. I would do exactly the same thing again.”

He feels in music he’s found the great common ground.

“Music has the power to connect us all,” he said. “When I travel abroad, language is a barrier, but the moment I perform music it connects us. Music is the language of the soul. I’ve created so many relationships and associations with people who don’t speak a word of English. They understand immediately that music is a bridge between cultures.”

The University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Music he leads is all about making connections.

Said Garcia, “Music has so many angles that impact community. We place music teachers in the schools. Our faculty tour the nation and world. We host an international music festival and visiting teaching artists.”

“We have been able to enhance our visibility on a national and international level. It allows us to bring the world to Omaha. We’re like an ambassador for the city.”

Coming to Omaha culminated a love affair with America. He first came to the U.S. in the late 1990s as a Kennedy Center Fellow in Washington D.C. That led him to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he earned his master’s and doctorate.

“I was the institute”s youngest Latin American graduate in piano performance.”

He taught there before being hired by Texas State University. He became assistant director of TSU’s music school. Then “the right opportunity” appeared at UNO. A national search for the founding director of UNO’s newly established school of music led recruiters to Garcia. He and his wife Valeria moved to Omaha in December 2015. He assumed the post the following January.

In addition to administrative duties, he’s a full tenured professor of piano at UNO.

“I run my life based on mission and one of my missions is to teach and give to others what I have received in terms of artistic and academic knowledge.”

He arrived in the middle of the school year during an accreditation review.

“It was a challenge,” he said, “but I’ve always loved challenges as opportunities to learn and grow from. Still, it almost felt like somebody dropped me from a plane and I had no idea if I had a parachute or not. I pulled the plug on what looked like a parachute. It opened and then I looked for the safest place to land. I landed and  started running and I haven’t stopped since.

“It’s been a really fast pace. We’ve accomplished a lot of initiatives and collaborations. We would like to establish the School of Music as one of the top academic and artistic institutions in Nebraska and the nation. We have    everything it takes – a great faculty and support from the community and the university – to make this happen.”

Like his faculty, he also performs. He’s played with the Omaha Symphony and he does special engagements nationally and internationally.

Every performance is an opportunity to serve.

“I pray every time before I perform that God will help me inspire those who hear me with the gift of music. I want to be for young people who desire a career in music but may not have the means what my parents were for me.”

He feels fortunate.

“The U.S. gave me a free education, a job and continues giving me the opportunity to serve others. That is why this is my home. When I go to Ecuador or anywhere abroad  I feel like a visitor. After a week I’m ready to go back home.

“My wife and I know we have a mission to complete here in Omaha. This is our family.”

He and Valeria have a 2-year-old child and are expecting their second child in December.

Visit washingtongarcia.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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Expressionistic images by Elisa Morera Benn

December 26, 2018 Leave a comment

 

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Expressionistic images by Elisa Morera Benn

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Costa Rica native Elisa Morera Benn of Omaha has been making art infused with the colors and passions of her tropical Central American homeland since childhood.

“All my life my surroundings have been full of contrasts. Shades of green, red, orange, a whole range of intensities and feelings. It is impossible to separate artists from their visual and emotional environment,” she said.

She’s one of four siblings born to a customs agent father and stay-at-home mother.

“My father worked hard to give his children a private education. He later managed to open his own business.”

Benn studied with masters. Each gave her something that grew her as an artist.

“With Francisco Alvarado Avella, I learned the eroticism that always covered his paintings. With Soraya Goicoechea the realism of the portrait. With Max Rojas, the use of expressionism. With Isabel Naranjo, realism. With Rodolfo Rocha, I learned how to mix all these techniques.”

Her work’s shown internationally at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France and at galleries and museums in Fabriano, Italy, Juarez, Mexico, Toronto, Canada and Houston, Texas.

Since moving to America with her husband, Dr. Douglas Benn, an adjunct professor at the Creighton University School of Dentistry, she’s consistently shown her work in Nebraska. She recent exhibited at the Artists Cooperative Gallery in the Old Market. She has work at the Burkholder Project in Lincoln. She’ll show some pieces at her studio during the Hot Shops open house in December.

She and her husband reside in a near downtown home accented by her own art and by artwork they’ve collected. The couple met five years ago in Costa Rica when he visited there. They married three years ago.

Benn was no stranger to America, where she traveled on school vacations and visited an aunt in Florida.

“Once I moved here, I fell in love with Omaha, which is full of art.”

As a girl in Costa Rica a school teacher and a newly arrived classmate from Cuba affirmed her talent.

“All my life I have painted and drawn,” said Benn, who found her voice in art.

“My formal studies were in architecture but I didn’t finish. But always the drawing was in my blood,”

Like any artist, she finds inspiration in many sources. The paintings of Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt and his use of gold leaf foil are particularly influential.

“Klimt’s symbolism seems extraordinary to me – the way he uses symbolism and geometric patterns, which I always use in my work.”

Expressionism best describes her style, though she incorporates elements of surrealism as well.

“We live in anxiety about humanity’s increasingly discordant relationship with the world and accompanying lost feelings of authenticity and spirituality. I am an expressionist and as such support the rebellion to be free from academic restrictions. I want to be free in the way I express myself.”

The style fits her temperament and vision.

“These techniques were meant to convey the emotional state of my feelings and my art reacting to the anxieties of the modern world with all the problems of this particular period of time. This style allows me to have that freedom of expression.

“True art always causes an emotion in the spectator. When I succeed in transmitting the feeling I want to reflect in my painting to the viewer then I feel I have achieved my goal.””

She often deals with women’s emotional states in her work.

“Capturing the emotions and feelings reflected in a face is a challenge. I achieve feeling THROUGH a painting. Reflecting the model’s expression of joy, sadness, excitement, sensuality, for me is a challenge that I like.”

When dealing with women subjects she uses eroticism to capture mood and atmosphere.

“Why not? These feelings are part of human beings.”

After all, she said, seduction and mysticism are well known ways to captivate viewers.

“There are many ways to convey eroticism,” she said. “All of Georgia O’Keefe’s work is wrapped in eroticism and sensuality in a very subliminal way. Then there are the very criticized erotic drawings of (Gustave) Courbet’s realism, which is not my message, nor my style. I prefer the model of the painting have the expression and leave the rest to the imagination.

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Benn’s imagination sometimes supplies the human figures in her work. Other times she works from live models.

“The imaginary models are easier to work with. When one makes a painting of a live model, more is known by friends and family, so the level of accuracy has to be higher, which is more difficult. Normally everyone has a mental image of how we see ourselves, so to satisfy the model and also make the painting in your style, it’s quite a challenge.”

She makes her paintings directly on wood and enjoys the texture the surface gives her work.

“I really like how the lines of wood are mixed inside the face of my paintings. When I paint on canvas, the backgrounds go with the personality of the models. For example, I painted a friend who is a metal sculptor, so her surroundings have to be where she was born here in the USA and what she does.”

Visit http://www.artistamorera.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Lifelong fascination with history feeds Bill Gonzalez and his photo archival work at Durham Museum

December 26, 2018 Leave a comment

Lifelong fascination with history feeds Bill Gonzalez and his photo archival work at Durham Museum

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

A glass plate portrait loaded with family secrets and a chance exposure to a noted photographic collection foreshadowed the photo activist work Bill Gonzalez does today at Durham Museum.

He grew up in South Omaha the oldest of eight children of Mexican immigrant parents. An old image of his grandparents in Mexico intrigued him enough as a boy to ask questions. He discovered his maternal grandfather was a wealthy rancher who married multiple times to younger women. Then there was the tale of a great aunt in the family’s ancestral village who was hidden from marauding bandits in the lawless post-Mexican Revolution years.

“I found all that about my heritage really interesting,” he said. “The stories I heard provided me with a connection to that part of my family I never knew.”

A 1967 slideshow at South High School showing select photos of early Omaha from the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection motivated him to learn about the stories behind the people, places and events of his hometown.

“Those pictures made such a deep impression on me. Something that happened so far back led to something a lot greater in my life.”

Studying historical photos, he said, “is like looking through a window into the past.”

“You can see people as they were doing what they were doing at a certain period in time. You can’t travel into the past but you can look into it. That’s kind of neat.”

Gonzalez was always inquisitive and an avid reader.

“I mean, how many 11-year-olds do you know that read ‘The Illiad’? I was a nerdy kid. I wasn’t into playing baseball and things like that. I spent a lot of time in the South Omaha library.”

He’s the product of tough love.

“When I found out other kids got an allowance, I broached the subject with my dad. I said, ‘Popi, don’t you think I should get an allowance?’ He said, ‘Hijo, I allow you to live.’ So I started hustling – running errands for neighbors, cutting grass, shoveling snow. I got my social security card at 12. I’ve done everything – you name it.”

Nothing was as satisfying as his current Durham gig.

“The best part of my job is helping people find pictures they have personal connections to, like the neighborhood church, school, movie theater or park they used to go to. When I can find a picture that means something special to somebody, that is the best high I can get.

“Anytime I find pictures of South Omaha, they evoke memories in me, I know that part of town. South Omaha in its own right is very historic. It’s such an eclectic mixture of ethnic groups and nationalities. It’s contributed heavily to the prosperity of this town. Thousands upon thousands of people are living here today because an ancestor came to South Omaha to work in the packinghouses.”

He takes seriously the role the archive serves.

“We’re the keepers of the past. I really think what we have here and what we do here is very important. It provides a continuity of memory. Museums and archives really are the storehouses of memories of humanity.”

In searching for pictures in the Durham collections, he said, “it helps if you’re a native Omahan.”

“I know about places that used to be, things that happened. Not just pieces of memories, but history. I’ve got a mind like a black suit that picks up white lint or in this case little pieces of information. I am not an expert, but I know a little bit about a lot of things, and it’s all useful.”

Experience helps, too. “I’ve been here 13 years-plus, so by now I have a fairly good idea of what we have in the collections that might be pertinent. Sometimes I have to piece together information to figure out what I’m looking for and where to find it .Where to find it is the trick because we have so many collections. Usually I can narrow it down to one collection.”

 

From the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, this 1911 image was taken on top of the Union Pacific Railroad Building at 14th & Dodge streets looking east.

 

He compares the searches he makes to a hunt.

“I go out and hunt pictures down for people. It’s a lot easier now than when I started because we didn’t have any of this stuff digitized in a searchable data base. There’s still a lot of hit and miss searching. I strike out a lot. I wish I could have a picture for everything everybody wants, but I don’t. But now you can go online and search for this stuff by keywords. It makes it more accessible to more people more of the time.”

He conducts searches for “a wide range of people with a wide range of interests from personal to professional.”

Educators, historians, journalists, students, laborers, and folks from other walks of life request his help.

He works with highly educated interns and staff but feels he has something to contribute they cannot.

“Here I am a high school graduate and yet I can sit and talk to them about things they don’t have any background on.”

Gonzalez might never have done this work if not for an injury on his previous job that forced early retirement.

“I was sitting at home trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life when this came along. It pulled me back into the world.”

He began as a volunteer before joining the paid staff.

“I couldn’t have found a better position for someone of my bent who enjoys history and loves the history of his town. I don’t really think of it as a job.”

He’s discovered “there’s a whole world of people out there that have the same interest” he does in history.

The Durham photo archive is a resource for the whole community, he emphasizes.

“It belongs to everybody.  It’s available for the public to use.”

For Gonzalez, there’s nothing better than sharing his passion with others.

“I love showing my pictures to people, telling them what they’re looking at.”

He’s grown a following for his Flashback Friday posts on the Durham’s Facebook page.

He makes occasional public presentations.

“I’d like to do more of that because that’s what got me hooked on this. I’d love to go out and talk to a group of kids and maybe have one of those kids study history or get involved with the museum because of what they saw. That would be a neat thing.

“It would be full circle.”

Contact the museum’s photo archive department at photoarchive@durhammuseum.org or by phone at 402-444-5071.

The archive can be searched online anytime at durhammuseum.contentdm.oclc.org.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.


Image may contain: one or more people, tree and outdoor
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Stereoscopic photo of 3rd Nebraska Volunteers in parade after their return from the Spamish-American War and the

viewfinder used to see this and other early 3D images.

Image may contain: 1 person, crowd, wedding and outdoor
From the John Savage Collection. When Omaaha’s downtown sidewalks teemeed with people.
This is from circa 1967 outside J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store.

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