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Artist Erin Blayney: The Great Reveal

August 3, 2018 1 comment

Artist Erin Blayney

The Great Reveal

Originally published in September-October 2016 issue

of Omaha Encounter magazine

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

 

For visual artist Erin Blayney, who grew up in the great outdoors, it’s all about light and space. She has plenty of both at her Old Market apartment that doubles as her studio.

Natural light from six large, south-facing windows cascades over her easel and houseplants. “Not only is that perfect for the type of lighting I need to do my best work, it’s healthy for my overall well-being,” says Blayney.

erinblayney2Exposed brickwork, high ceilings, and an open floor plan contribute to a sense of spaciousness. Extra-wide windowsills provide great perches for her collection of succulents.

“I love nature and the outdoors,” she says. “This apartment allows me to integrate that love into my living quarters, and not feel cramped or experience cabin fever.”

Her spot above Urban Abbey in the historic Windsor Hotel building puts her right in the thick of things. “The Old Market for me is very welcoming, unique, and nourishes a diverse group of people of all ages and backgrounds,” she says. “It’s urban yet has some aspect of a small neighborhood as well.”

A Florida transplant and Art Institute of Chicago graduate, Blayney creates figurative drawings and paintings. She previously worked as an art preparator for California museums.

Her mother preceded her to Omaha to be near a sister, and Erin followed. “My mom lives three blocks away from me, so it’s wonderful to conveniently meet for coffee or go for a bike ride together,” she says.

This self-described “people person” is drawn to the human form. She variously works from live models or photographs.

“Drawing and painting people, mostly gestural, seems to be pretty consistent for me,” she says. “It’s capturing the physicality of a person expressed through facial expression or movement. I love capturing the realness of their character, even if it’s subtle.”

Recently, Omaha restaurant mogul Willy Theisen commissioned her portrait of his granddaughter for his new Paragon eatery in Dundee.

When approaching a new work, she says, “I never know how it’s going to look, so it’s a little adventurous. If I stop thinking about what I’m doing and just let it flow, it comes out naturally. That ‘diving into it’ mindset is what I have to be in for the work to really evolve. It’s mysterious.”

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Blayney’s work is not all figurative. “Occasionally, I’ll do still life,” she says, gesturing to an in-progress oyster shell rendered in a swirl of pastels. She is contemplating an oceanic-themed series motivated by her love of the water, marine life, and nature.

“I was brought up on water. I swam in the Gulf of Mexico. So that’s in my bones.”

In Omaha, she has twice worked at Jun Kaneko’s studio (most recently in 2006 as a painting assistant). Of the celebrated artist, she says, “We had a good connection. He’s very quiet, polite, observant, receptive. He was very trusting of me. Like when I did some mixing of colors, pigments—he trusted my instincts. I’m not a ceramicist, but I felt in my natural element.”

She feels at home in Omaha, where she says, “The connections I’ve made are so important.” The same for her day job at Alley Poyner Macchietto, where she curates art shows. She admires the local art-culture scene.

“I feel the creative community in Omaha is very supportive rather than super competitive. The friends I’ve made here are very authentic, genuine, and loyal.”

She enjoys what the Bemis and Joslyn offer as well as how “smaller, contemporary, progressive galleries like Project Project and Darger HQ are pushing the envelope. I’m a huge fan of Garden of the Zodiac. 1516 Gallery is just gorgeous.”

In the spring of 2016, Petshop Gallery in Benson exhibited her portraiture work. She regularly shows in the Bemis Benefit Art Auction and had a piece in the October 28 show (she described the colorful abstract portrait as “a little mysterious looking”).

Blayney also contributed to the Old Market Art Project; hers was one of 37 banners selected (from nearly 300 submissions) to be displayed outside the Mercer Building as renovations followed the M’s Pub fire.

“It’s an abstract painting that took forever,” she says. “There’s a lot going on in it. Finally, it just came together. I collaborated with another artist in the process of painting it, and then I finished it.”

She sees many opportunities for local artists in Omaha, but there is room for improvement, too. “There’s definitely room to grow—I’d like to see even more galleries because there’s so much talent here,” she says.

Going into the fall, several commission projects were “consuming” Blayney’s time. Her projects come from anywhere and everywhere. “Lately, it’s been more people coming to me and asking either for a portrait of themselves or of a family member. I can be surprised. I’ve given my card to someone and then a year later gotten a commission. It’s unpredictable.”

Visit erinblayney.com for more information.

Encounter

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A Fluid Life: Dana Oltman Goes With the Flow

August 3, 2018 1 comment

A Fluid Life

Dana Oltman Goes With the Flow

Originally published in November-December 2017 issue of Omaha Encounter magazine

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

 

 

 

 

Fluid.

That’s how digital graphic designer and fine art painter Dana Oltman describes her aesthetic.

As art director for Identity Marketing Group (she was previously at Rebel Interactive) she fulfills client project wishes. She says her branding design work consistently features “minimal, simple, clean” looks that, well, flow.

“Fluid is what I love,” she says. “Fluid is where I’m at now.”

Her abstract expressionistic fine art, especially her poured art work, is all about the swirls and natural organic fades of liquid flows.

“Most of the paints I use are acrylics,” she says. “which have as their base water, and so they’re very fluid.”

She invariably listens to music when painting in order to activate or induce that state of flow.

“What I do is based on whatever mood I’m in,” she says. “While design is very rigid—I like to have a plan and justify everything I do—painting is exactly the opposite. I like to work with the medium, just pick a paint, pick some colors, and basically put it on a surface and see what it does. It’s very much working with my medium to get random results, trying to affect it minimally as I go, letting gravity and fluid dynamics do the rest. It’s all very in the moment.”

If she does manipulate the image, she says, it’s for texture, and in those cases she may apply etching materials, resin, linoleum carvers, and even a culinary blow torch.

The images she creates on masonry board or wood panels and, occasionally, on canvas are often expressions of things found in nature–everything from nebulas in outer space to severe storm skies.

Her favorite skies appear after a storm at sunset. “The clouds are stacking up to the east after they’ve already moved through and the sun is shining from the west and you have orange, yellow, purple, red—which is my favorite color palette,” she says.

Her natural hair color is red, and she often sports highlights in different shades from her favorite palette.

In August, she drove to Beatrice, Nebraska, to catch the total solar eclipse, and she knows it’s only a matter of time before it shows up in one of her paintings.

Music is another source of inspiration for Oltman, 26, who loves going to local live shows and festivals.

Occasionally, her work is featured at local concerts and entertainment events. She did a live painting of a musician at an Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards showcase.

She’s also taken on art projects for local bands, including an album cover for The Big Deep.

Some of her paintings can be seen at Curb Appeal Salon & Spa in the Old Market. A broad sampling of her work is available on her website, danaoltman.com.

Additionally, she draws and makes photographs, which she shares on her Instagram page.

Other influences and inspirations range from high fashion to poetry. She did a multi-week study abroad in Japan learning that country’s visual culture. The Japan immersion naturally showed up in her work, and she intends returning one day.

She’s also a Francophile who’s visited Quebec, Canada, and France. She expects taking ever deeper dives into French culture and returning to France—the home base for her favorite art movement: Impressionism.

Oltman grew up in Bennington, Nebraska, and graduated with a fine arts degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She draws a clear distinction between graphic design and art activities. She loves both, but one’s her job and the other’s purely for pleasure. She likes the balance of producing on a schedule as part of an office team and creating art alone when she feels like it.

“Since I don’t have art hooked to a vocation, it’s in my court totally. I don’t have to rely on anyone,” she says. “If I don’t want to make stuff, I don’t make stuff. If I do, I do. It’s just totally free.”

On the design side, she’s finding her most satisfaction working on websites.

“It”s such an advancing field,” she says. “Websites are so versatile, and you can do so many things. And it’s just so nuanced. It’s a really pretty time for web design.”

Motion graphics and animation are two new areas she’s learning fast. Coding is another.

“I enjoy learning new things,” she says.
“I’m a learner.”

Oltman enjoys the meet-ups that the local American Institute of Graphic Arts chapter puts on, including BarCamp.

She also stays connected to the design community via social media.

As a self-identified millennial, she admits, “I definitely fit the label in respect to being super connected online, being liberal, wanting a meaningful career that isn’t too constricting and gives me creative output, focusing on experience over material things in life, etc.”

A couple years ago when legalizing same-sex marriage was struck down in Nebraska, Oltman made a graphic of the Husker “N” with the Human Rights Campaign logo imposed in it. “I’m for causes that focus on equal human rights,”
she says.

At UNL she was one of several art students who created a mural portrait of George Flippin, the first African-American athlete of note at the university. The mural adorns the campus multicultural center.

When not doing pro bono work for things she believes in, she donates to the American Civil Liberties Union and to disaster relief funds.

In whatever she does, she follows her passion. Her personal credo-tagline says it all:

“Doin’ me a life.”

This article appears in the November/December 2017 issue of Encounter.

Free North Omaha Summer Arts Crawl features variety of art forms – Friday, August 10 at select North 30th Street Corridor venues

July 25, 2018 1 comment

Free North Omaha Summer Arts Crawl features variety of art forms 

Friday, August 10 at select North 30th Street Corridor venues

When Pamela Jo Berry decided her Miller Park neighborhood needed more art options, she created the presenting organization North Omaha Summer Arts in 2011. Nonprofit NOSA is still going strong in 2018 and its annual culminating event, An Arts Crawl, takes place Friday, August 10 from 6 to 9 p.m. at several venues in and around the North 30th Street Corridor.

Berry, a writer, photographer and mixed media artist herself, calls the free Arts Crawl “a community celebration of visual, performing and culinary arts.”

In addition to the Arts Crawl, NOSA annually features women’s writing workshops and retreats, a gospel concert in the park and pop-up events.

Free eats and refreshments prepared by Omaha foodies and chefs are part of every event.

For the Arts Crawl, NOSA invites patrons to take a stroll or drive from Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus to venues down North 30th Street to experience beautiful art and great food by visual, performing and culinary artists.

Al reception kicks things off at the Charles B. Washington Branch Library, 2888 Ames Avenue, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Area quilters will display their handiwork at the library.

All other locations are open from 6 to 9 p.m.

The Arts Crawl route:

Begins at MCC Fort Omaha’s Mule Barn (Building #21)

Proceeds north to Church of the Resurrection, at 3004 Belvedere Blvd.

Continues onto Nelson Mandela School at 6316 North 30th St.

Ends at Trinity Lutheran Church at 6340 North 30th St.

The venues will present a wide range of work.

A one-man show entitled Shapes and Shadows by the late printmaker Galen Brown is at the Mule Barn Arts Center, The U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Purple Heart recipient served two tours of duty as a sniper in Vietnam. After returning home from war, he began making art as a way of emotionally healing himself. His images reflect the shapes and shadows of what he observed: war and peace, justice and injustice, landscapes, other artists’ work and his own cancer.

At Church of the Resurrection Fort Calhoun-based artist Cheri Oelke will demonstrate her acrylic painting and talk about her creative process and artist’s life. The church’s sanctuary is also home to a signature triptych, “Crucifixion,” by the late artist Leonard Thiessen, which visitors can view.

Children and adults will display their art at Nelson Mandela School.

Art created by Omaha refugee communities and other area artists will be showcased at Trinity Lutheran Church.

Live music performances will occur at select sites.

“All of us at North Omaha Summer Arts want the public to come sample and savor the many forms and faces of art,” Berry said. “This celebration of the human spirit through art expression also supports local artists.”

NOSA is in its eighth year of presenting family-friendly, community-based art opportunities and events.

For more information, call NOSA at 402-502-4669.

Follow at http://www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts.

 

North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) presents: An Arts Crawl 7


North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) presents:

An Arts Crawl 7

Friday, August 10

6 to 9 p.m.

Join us for the 7th Arts Crawl

Take a stroll or drive from Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus down North 30th Street, ending at Trinity Lutheran Church, to experience beautiful art and great food by North O visual, performing and culinary artists.

A free event.

 

 

An Arts Crawl reception kicks things off at the

Washington Branch Library, 2888 Ames Avenue, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

All other locations open 6 to 9 p.m.

Arts Crawl route Begins at–

MCC at Fort Omaha

Mule Barn (Building #21)

Church of the Resurrection

3004 Belvedere Blvd. (just northwest of 30th and Kansas)

Nelson Mandela School

6316 North 30th Street

Ends at–

Trinity Lutheran Church

6340 North 30th Street

For more info (artists and patrons), call Pamela Jo Berry at 402-445-4666

 

North Omaha Summer Arts presents: Art and Gardening – Saturday, July 7


North Omaha Summer Arts presents: 

Art and Gardening

Join facilitator Cheri Oelke for a day of planting flowers and painting clay pots.

Saturday, July 7 @ Florence Branch Library

10:30 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Free

No art experience necessary

 

Harvesting food and friends at Florence Mill Farmers Market, where agriculture, history and art meet

June 6, 2018 1 comment

 

Harvesting food and friends at Florence Mill Farmers Market, where agriculture, history and art meet

©by Leo Adam Biga, Originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com)

The Mill Lady is hard to miss at the Florence Mill Farmers Market on summer Sundays. She’s the beaming, bespectacled woman wearing the straw hat adorned by sprays of plastic fruit and vegetables.

Market vendors include local farmers, urban ag growers, gardeners and food truck purveyors. It’s been going strong since 2009 thanks to Linda Meigs, aka The Mill Lady. As director of the historic mill, located at 9102 North 30th Street, she’s transformed a derelict site into a National Register of Historic Places cultural attraction “connecting agriculture, history and art.”

She “wears” many hats beyond the fun one. As market manager, she books vendors. She organizes exhibits at the Art Loft Gallery on the mill’s top floor. She curates the history museum on the main level. She schedules and hosts special events. She writes grants to fund operations. Supervising the mid-19th century structure’s maintenance and repairs is a job in itself.

 

 

 

Ever since she and her late husband John acquired the abandoned mill in 1997. Meigs has been its face and heart. An artist by nature and trade, she also has an abiding appreciation for history.

“Omaha would be such a beautiful city with some of the architecture we’ve torn down. This is not the most beautiful architecture in Omaha, but it is the oldest historic business site and the only still-standing building in the state that bridges the historic eras of the overland pioneer trails of the 1840s with the territorial settlement of the 1850s. That’s a very small niche – but what a cool one. And it has this Mormon heritage and connection to Brigham Young, who supervised its construction.”

It took her awhile to arrive at the ag-history-art combo she now brands it with.

“I had very vague, artsy ideas about what to do. But that first summer (1998) I was in here just cleaning, which was the first thing that needed to be done, and I had a thousand visitors and the building wasn’t even open. A thousand people found their way here and they were all coming to see those 1846 Mormon hand-hewed timbers

“It was like those timbers told me it needed to be open as an historic site after that experience.. This is my 20th summer with the mill.”

She made the guts of the mill into the Winter Quarters Mill Museum with intact original equipment and period tools on view. Interpretive displays present in words and images the site’s history, including the western-bound  pioneers who built it. She converted the top floor into the ArtLoft Gallery that shows work by local-regional artists. Then she added the farmers market.

“It was not really until after it happened I realized what I had. Then I could stand back and appreciate the integrity of it. I felt like it was a natural fit for that building because it was an ag industrial site and an historic site. The pioneer trails is certainly a significant historical  passage of our country.

“Then, too, I’m an artist and a foodie. I think supporting local is good for both personal health and for conservation of resources. It promotes individual health and the health of the local farm economy. It has less impact on the environment with trucking when you bring things in from close by as opposed to far away.

“I’m into fresh, locally-produced food. In the summer I pretty much live on local vegetables. I am a gardener myself and i do support my farmers market folks, too.”

Farmers markets are ubiquitous today in the metro. Hers owns the distinction of being the farthest north within the city limits. It proved popular from the jump.

“That first farmers market started with six vendors. Hundreds of people showed. It was a crush of people for those vendors. And then every week that summer the number of vendors increased. I think we ended up with about 40 vendors. I was pleased.

“Really, 30 is about the perfect number. It’s the most manageable with the space I have. I’m not trying to compete with the maddening crowd market.”

 

 

Finding the right mix is a challenge.

“You want to have enough variety to choose from, but you also have to have the customers that will support those vendors or they wont come back. If the community doesn’t support it, it’s hard to keep it going.”

Other markets may have more vendors, but few can match her setting.

“This one is quite unique. It’s in a field. It’s inside and    outside an historic ag building. And it feels like an authentic place for a market.”

She cultivates an intimate, upbeat atmosphere.

“It’s like a country fair. I have live music. Dale Thornton’s always there with his country soft pop ballads in the morning. The afternoon varies from a group called Ring of Flutes to old-time country bluegrass circle jams. Second Sundays is kind of a surprise. One time I had harpists show up. Lutist Kenneth Be has played here several times. I’ve had dueling banjos. Just whatever.”

A massage therapist is usually there plying her healing art. Livestock handlers variously bring in lamas, ponies and chickens for petting-feeding.

A main attraction for many vendors is Meigs.

“Oh, she’s beautiful. Nice lady, yeah,” said Lawrence Gatewood, who has the market cornered with barbecue with his T.L.C. Down Home Food stall.

Jared Uecker, owner of O’tille Pork and Pantry, said, “Linda’s exceptional to work with and really cares about the market and its vendors. She’s passionate about local food and is a frequent customer of ours.”

Jim and Sylvia Thomas of Thomas Farms in Decatur, Nebraska are among the produce vendors who’ve been there from near the start and they’re not going anywhere as long as Meigs is around.

“Everybody loves Linda. She’s what makes it,” Jim Thomas said. “She’s really doing a good job and she’s pretty much doing it for free. I mean, we pay her a little stall fee but for what we get its a deal.”

“Jim and Sylvia Thomas came in the middle of that first season and they’ve come back every year,” Meigs said.

“We kind of grew along with it,” Thomas said. “It’s a really nice friendly little market. We’re also down at the Haymarket in Lincoln, but it’s touristy, This (Florence Mill) is more of a real, live food market.”

Thomas is the third-generation operator of his family farm but now that he and his wife are nearing retirement they’re backing off full-scale farming “to do more of this.” “I like the interchange with the people. I guess you’d say its our social because out in the boondocks you never see anybody. The thing about Florence is that you get everybody. It’s really varied.”

That variation extends to fellow vendors, including Mai Thao and her husband. The immigrants from Thailand grow exquisite vegetables and herbs

“They came towards end of the first season and they’ve always been there since,” Meigs said.

Then there’s Gatewood’s “down home” Mississippi-style barbecue. He learned to cook from his mother. He makes his own sausage and head-cheese. He grows and cooks some mean collard greens.

Gatewood said, “I make my own everything.”

“I call him “Sir Lawrence,” Meigs said. “He’s come for the last three years. He smokes his meats and beans right there. He grills corn on the cob.”

Gatewood gets his grill and smoker going early in the morning. By lunchtime, the sweet, smokey aroma is hard for public patrons and fellow vendors to resist.

“He’s a real character and he puts out a real good product,” said Thomas.

Kesa Kenny, chef-owner of Finicky Frank’s Cafe, “does tailgate food at the market,” said Meigs. “She goes around and buys vegetables from the vendors and then makes things right on the spot. She makes her own salsa and guacamole and things. You never know what she’s going to make or bring. She’s very creative.”

Kenny’s sampler market dishes have also included a fresh radish salad, a roasted vegetable stock topped, pho-style, with chopped fresh vegetables, and a creamy butter bean spread. She said she wants people “to see how simple it is” to create scrumptious, nutritious dishes from familiar, fresh ingredients on hand.

“From a farmers market you could eat all summer long for pennies,” Kenny said.

More than a vendor, Kenny’s a buyer.

“She’s very supportive,” Meigs said. “For years, she’s bought her vegetables for her restaurant from the market.”

“It’s so wonderful to have that available,” Kenny said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meigs said that Kenny embodies the market’s sense of community.

“She comes down to the market and does this cooking without advertising her own restaurant. I told her, ‘You need to tell people you’re Kesa of Finicky Franks,’ and she said, ‘No, I’m not doing this to advertise my restaurant, I’m doing this to support the market and to be part of the fun.’ That’s a pretty unique attitude.”

“Kesa’s also an artist. She I knew each other back at the Artists Cooperative Gallery in the Old Market. She quit to open a cafe-coffee shop and I quit to do an art project and then got the mill instead. It’s funny that we have reconnected in Florence.”

Jim Thomas likes that the market coincides with exhibits at the ArtLoft Gallery, which he said provides exposure to the art scene he and his wife otherwise don’t get.

“I really enjoy the artsy people and the crafts people. They’re so creative. I guess what I’m saying is for us it isn’t about the food as much as it is about the people.”

Being part of a site with such a rich past as a jumping off point to the West is neat, too.

“That’s some big history,” said Thomas.

He added that the variety and camaraderie keep them coming back. “It’s really diverse and we’ve developed a lot of friendships down there.”

“It’s a great mingling of different nationalities and cultures.” Sylvia Thomas confirmed. “All the vendors help each other out, which is very unique. At a lot of markets, they don’t do that. Here, if you don’t have something that someone’s looking for, we’ll refer you to who has it. After you’ve been there long enough like we have, vendors and customers become kind of a family. Our regular customers introduce us to their kids and grandkids and keep us posted on what’s going on, and they ask how our family’s doing.

“We kind of intertwine each other.”

The couple traditionally occupy the market’s northeast corner, where gregarious Jim Thomas holds court.

“Linda (Meigs) tells us, ‘You’re our welcoming committee.’ It’s very fun, we enjoy it a lot,” Sylvia Thomas said.

Lawrence Gatewood echoes the family-community vibe found there.

“It’s real nice there. Wonderful people.”

Even though business isn’t always brisk, Gatewood’s found a sweet spot on the market’s southeast side.

“Not every Sunday’s good, but I still like being out there mingling with the people.”

But food, not frivolity, is what most patrons are after.

“Our big deal in the summer is peppers and tomatoes,” Jim Thomas said. “We also have onions,p ottos,  cucumbers, eggplants. We do sweet corn but sweet corn is really secondary. Early this year, if we get lucky, we might have some morels down there. Morels sell like crazy. We can sell just as many as we’ve got.”

In the fall, Thomas pumpkins rule.

The veggies and herbs that Mai Thao features at her family stall pop with color. There are variously green beans, peas, bok choy, radishes, fingerling potatoes, cucumbers, kale, cilantro and basil.

Makers of pies, cakes and other sweets are also frequent vendors at the market.

The farmers market is not the only way the mill intersects with food. Meigs has found a kindred spirit in No More Empty Pots (NMEP) head Nancy Williams, whose nonprofit’s Food Hub is mere blocks away.

“We both have an interest in food and health,” Meigs said as it relates to creating sustainable food system solutions. “Nancy is also into cultivating entrepreneurs and I guess I am too in a way.”

Jared Uecker found the market “a wonderful starting point” for his start-up O’tillie Pork & Pantry last year.

“It was the perfect home for us to begin selling our meat products. I really enjoyed its small-size, especially for businesses new to the market such as ourselves. It gave us a great opportunity to have a consistent spot to showcase our products and bring in revenue for the business. I particularly enjoyed the small-town family feel to it. It’s filled with really great local people using it for their weekly shopping as opposed to some other bigger markets which can feel more like people are there more to browse.”

The mill and NMEP have organized Blues and Barbecue Harvest Party joint fundraisers at the mill.

Meigs has welcomed other events involving food there.

“I’ve hosted a lot of different things. Every year is kind of different. In 2014 the mill was the setting for a Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayFest performance of Wood Music. The piece immersed the audience in reenactments of the mill’s early history, complete with actors in costume and atmospheric lighting. A traditional hoedown, complete with good eats and live bluegrass music, followed the play.

Kesa Kenny catered a lunch there featuring Darrell Draper in-character as Teddy Roosevelt. A group held an herb festival at the mill. Another year, crates of Colorado peaches starred.

“I occasionally do flour sack lunches for bus tour groups that come,” Meigs said. “I make flour sacks and stuff them with grain sampler sandwiches that I have made to my specifications by one of the local restaurants. It’s like an old-fashioned picnic lunch we have on the hay bales in the Faribanks Scale.”

The mill is part of the North Omaha Hills Pottery Tour the first full weekend of October each year. The Czech Notre Dame sisters hold a homemade kolache sale there that weekend.

Visit http://www.theflorencemill.org.

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

 

 

Sculptor Benjamin Victor gives shape to Ponca Chief Standing Bear’s enduring voice

May 1, 2018 1 comment

Sculptor Benjamin Victor gives shape to Ponca Chief Standing Bear’s enduring voice

 

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Sarah Lemke

Appearing in the May’June 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

 

In creating the larger-than-life likeness of Chief Standing Bear for the Nebraska state capitol’s Centennial Mall, sculptor Benjamin Victor felt communion with the late Native American icon. Victor was “captivated” by the principled ways of the Ponca leader, whose eloquent advocacy for his people led to a historic federal court ruling at Fort Omaha that declared the nation’s indigenous peoples to be legally “human” for the first time on May 12, 1879.

“He was a true servant-leader,” Victor says of his subject. “The things he wanted were very basic, inalienable human rights everyone should be afforded. He carried himself with dignity even through demeaning treatment. He had a higher moral code of ethics during a time when the laws were not moral. He had the courage to stand up for right through many injustices.”

Based in Idaho, the Boise State University professor and resident artist felt connected to Standing Bear through every stage of his artistic process—from preparatory research into the famous Nebraskan, through molding his clay form, to casting the Ponca leader in bronze.

“His story and spirit definitely were speaking to me,” Victor says. “As an artist, you try to get that voice through your artwork to speak to viewers who see it. I felt humbled to be working on it. In the sculpture itself, I tried to keep the spirit of Standing Bear alive as much as I tried for an accurate portrait. An accurate portrait is important, but to me a spiritual portrait is just as important. I hope it really inspires other people to study his life. If my work does that, then it’s a success.”

The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and Donald Miller Campbell Family Foundation commissioned the 11-foot-tall sculpture, unveiled Oct. 15, 2017. Then, over the winter, a pair of Nebraska state senators (including Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha) introduced a bill to replace the state’s two sculptures—of J. Sterling Morton and William Jennings Bryan—in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall with those of Willa Cather and Standing Bear. A donor, Donald Miller Campbell, pledged funds for a copy to be made of Victor’s Standing Bear work.

“To have him as a towering icon in the U.S. Capitol would be important. His story should be on the national scale. He should be known in every school,” Victor says.

The artist already has two works in the Hall. One is of Northern Paiute activist Sarah Winnemucca on behalf of the state of Nevada. Anything Native holds profound meaning for Victor, as his late step-grandfather was a member of the Juaneño—a coastal California tribe engulfed by Spanish missions.
“It’s always a big deal to me whenever I do a Native American piece that it’s done right and with purpose. I always think of my grandpa when I do them. He liked the images I created of Native Americans with a strong stance and with dignity. That really meant a lot to him. If he’s looking down, he’s really proud of this one.”

Victor’s second sculpture in the U.S. Capitol represents Iowa—Norman Borlaug, the father of modern agriculture’s “Green Revolution.”

Working from photos, Victor “modified” Standing Bear’s pose “to capture a hint of motion,” as if the chief were moving forward slightly. In an attempt to “capture every detail,” he created folds and the look of heaviness in the blanket draped about his subject. Ornamental details included intricate beadwork, a bear claw necklace, and peace medals. Victor symbolized the chief’s dual roles as warrior and ambassador by having him holding an ax-peace pipe.

The bronze is positioned in front of a wall carved with the eloquent words of Standing Bear on trial (as translated by Omaha Native Susette “Bright Eyes” LaFlesche): “That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”

The project selection committee for the state capitol’s Centennial Mall learned about Victor from George Neubert (director of the Flatwater Folk Art Museum in Brownville, Nebraska), who befriended the artist when he did a commission for Peru State College, where his bronze of a hulking football player adorns the Oak Bowl.

Although Victor originally hails from California, he developed deep roots in the Great Plains while attending Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he discovered his love of sculpture.

“When I picked up clay the first time in college, the medium just clicked for me,” he says. “I felt like the concepts I was trying to get across were very readily expressed in sculpture. I really like the physicality of sculpture, how you move the clay with your hands and manipulate it. I like everything about it. I also work in marble—so I do the subtractive process of carving, the additive process of clay work, and the replacement process of bronze.”

He was still in school when he landed his first big commission—for the Aberdeen airport.

“I had a family to support,” he says. “I worked at the YMCA part-time, took odd jobs, and went to school full time. I was on food stamps and rental assistance. We had nothing. To get the commission was really amazing because you can struggle your whole life as an artist and never get a commission like that.”

Soon thereafter came the Winnemucca project. Demand for his work has never ceased.

“I never thought I’d get the opportunity to make it on my own in my dream field and career,” he says. “It’s a true American success story. I still don’t take it for granted. Every day I get to do this, I feel very blessed. And then to do something inspiring like Standing Bear. What a dream commission to commemorate him and everything he stood for.”

Upon graduating, Victor was a Northern State teacher and resident artist before Boise State courted him.

“They gave me a beautiful studio space and gallery. It’s been a great home,” he says, adding that he maintains close ties with his former colleagues in South Dakota. “I’ve got so many friends there that are just like family.”

Back at his Boise studio, his studio life intersects with students, patrons, and his three children. Meanwhile, he continues to always keep his ears open to the spirits of his subjects.

Visit benjaminvictor.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

 

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