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Process equals passion for migrant Bemis resident artist Trevor Amery

March 8, 2018 1 comment

Process equals passion for migrant Bemis resident artist Trevor Amery

©story by Leo Adam Biga

©photos by Bill Sitzmann

Appears in the March-April 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine ( http://omahamagazine.com/ )

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts resident Trevor Amery is a well-traveled maker. The sculptor, whose Bemis stay began January 11 and runs through mid-March, has done residencies in Mexico, Hungary and Finland. He’s completed projects in Alaska, Florida and many points in between.

After years on the East Coast, he now makes California home, though he’s often just returning from or embarking on a new art-life adventure. This summer he expects to go to China.

Some journeys have proved transformative. In the course of the 2011 Finland sojourn, fate or circumstance intervened to change his practice from painting to sculpture. He had just left his former risk-adverse life as an admissions counselor at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore to heed the very advice he gave students – to live freely and fearlessly. He’d no sooner broken away from his own safe, prescribed higher ed rut to go to far-off Finland, when, en route, all his oil paints were confiscated by airport security.

There he was, adrift in a strange country, unequipped to create in the manner he’d come all that way to do.

“I didn’t have a lot of money to go and buy all new oil paints in one of the most expensive countries in the European Union,” Amery says. “I just had to figure out how to start making.”

Enraptured by the dense forests of the residency’s idyllic rural setting and the ubiquitous, large firewood piles he saw outside every home, he surrendered the idea of painting to create instead in wood. It helped that he had an extensive woodworking background.

“I started splitting wood to understand it as a material. I’d wake up and split as much wood as I could handle and I learned so much more about it than I ever did working in a wood shop. I started doing these stacked firewood piles. I made a 12-foot tall spinning wood pile on a children’s merry-go-round as a kinetic permanent sculpture. I did a 6-foot-by-6 foot-by 6-foot cube of firewood on a floating dock in the middle of the lake outside the old schoolhouse I stayed in. I went into town to do woodpiles in urban niches – between buildings and mailboxes – and left them to be reclaimed.”

His “big epiphany” happened paddling wood out to the floating dock in the lake.

“I had this eureka moment of, ‘Wow, this could be my work. I don’t have to sit in a studio illustrating an idea with oil paint – I can actually be out in the world engaging nature and people, having the social aspects I crave.'”

For Amery, the journey in the making is everything.

“I just like process – problem-solving, engineering new solutions and stuff like that. I do have an interest in DYI culture, which also informs my practice. I grew up with two older brothers who were always taking apart and rebuilding cars, so I inherited a little bit of that interest. My mom’s an antique dealer. She deals in country rustic. She rewires lamps and reupholsters chairs. That kind of problem solving has always been in the family.”

Since Finland, Amery’s gone on to cast pieces of firewood in porcelain stoneware. This past summer in Wyoming he taught himself how to make his own charcoal using wood. While assisting with the set-up of a towering geodesic installation there, he salvaged a broken sledgehammer handle made of ash and converted it into a 30-inch, hand-hewn spoon sculpture in whose bottom he carved a tiny geodesic dome.

“Function plays a role in the work,” he says. “But this object also now has a really important history to it. I love the kind of shift in value that comes with provenance of objects and materials that I use. Because of a personal story with it, it has this new significance.”

He’s always searching for materials at Habitat for Humanity Restores, thrift shops, junkyards and wherever his eyes and curiosity lead him. Chance encounters turn into conversations that find him walking away with lessons and scraps for his sculptures.

 

In 2012 he came back from a residency in Hungary only to find himself “back to square one” in his work. Absent a project, he thought long and hard about finally realizing something he always wanted to make: a boat. Made of wood, of course.

“After some research, I set out to build my own Aleutian- style kayak, and I did. I made all the ribs out of green bent branches I cut in the woods in Maine.”

The design for the 17-foot vessel came from a downloaded PDF.

“The first year after I built it, I kind of denied its function. I was more interested in its making, its coming into being, the history of it. I built part of the frame in Maine and then drove it to Michigan, where it spent a year with me as this omnipresent dope object I couldn’t finish because I didn’t have the space to do it. It hung above me in the apartment making me feel bad for not working on it. I eventually brought it back to the east coast and then came to Calif. with it, where I finished it. But I was still using it as this studio-exhibition object and skirting its function. Then I decided I have to put it in the water.”

He secured a grant for a performative project whereby he drove the kayak all the way to Alaska to make its inaugural launch off the Homer Spit. He documented the experience with his Mamiya C330 camera.

On-site, he split a log to make his own paddle from tree branches. When the moment arrived to place the kayak in its heritage waters, he was overjoyed this object that traveled so far with him “actually worked great.”

The kayak trekked with him again when he took part in the Performance is Alive satellite art show in Miami.

“I kayaked through the different waterways of Miami to document the coastline and the relationship of these important spaces to water recreation and the city’s economy and looking at how this essentially sea level city will eventually be underwater.”

He successfully negotiated the voyage, only to have curator Quinn Dukes ask him go out again and finish in South Beach. Tempting fate, Amery recalls, “I went across the channel out into the ocean like a fool. Everything was gong fine actually and then the ocean floor dropped off at this one place that turned the ocean into a washing machine. This wave came from behind and capsized me many football fields away from the coastline. I thought I was done for. I was just this little head bobbing in the water. I tried flagging down a passing yacht but it cruised by. Finally, a jet skier who just happened to be out in the ocean jumping off waves, saw my waving arms and rescued me by throwing me a towline.”

Amery’s kayak and camera both survived the mishap.

“Out of all that came a whole new body of work of wooden wave sculptures I call ‘Capsized.'”

The artist is approaching Omaha the way he does all his residency stops – “keeping that opportunity for discovery.” “A huge part of it is what comes out of the relationships in a place,” he says. “Yes, the landscapes inspire me but also the people and the conversations.”

By the end of his Bemis stay, he expects to have worked on his sleeping bag forms and ‘Capsized’ wave series and to have responded to what he found here.

“Re-contextualizing or reorienting is one of the most important things for me,” he says.

But “allowing who you are to come out in the work as honestly you can” is where it’s at,” he adds. “The most authentic self you can have in the work is the real goal.”

Visit trevor-amery.com.

Rock photographer Janette Beckman keeps it real: Her hip-hop and biker images showing at Carver Bank as part of Bemis residency

September 19, 2014 2 comments

Here’s my Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) cover story on famed rock photographer Janette Beckman, whose images of punk and hip-hop pioneers helped create the iconography around those music genres and the performing artists who drove those early scenes.  She’s been visiting Omaha for a residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, working on a portrait of the city.  An exhibition of her photos of hip-hop pioneers and Harlem bikers is showing at the Carver Bank here through the end of November.

 

Janette Beckman

 

 

Rock photographer Janette Beckman keeps it real;

Her hip-hop and biker images showing at Carver Bank as part of Bemis residency

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

Photographer Janette Beckman made a name for herself in the 1970s and 1980s capturing the punk scene in her native London and the hip-hop scene in her adopted New York City.

Dubbed “the queen of rock photographers,” her images appeared in culture and style magazines here and abroad and adorned album covers for bands as diverse as Salt-N-Pepa and The Police. Weaned on Motown and R & B, this “music lover” was well-suited for what became her photography niche.

She still works with musicians today. She’s developing a book with famed jazz vocalist Jose James about his ascent as an artist.

Her photos of hip-hop pioneers along with pictures of the Harlem biker club Go Hard Boyz comprise the Rebel Culture exhibition at Carver Bank, 2416 Lake Street. Beckman, documenting facets of Omaha and greater Neb. for a Bemis residency, will give a 7 p.m. gallery talk on Friday during the show’s opening. The reception runs from 6 to 8.

The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts stint is her first residency.

“This is a new experience. It’s very refreshing. It’s kind of nice to get away from your life and open up your mind a little bit,” says Beckman, who describes her aesthetic as falling “between portrait and documentary.” “I truly believe taking a portrait of somebody is a collaboration between you and the person. I really like taking pictures on the street. I don’t want hair stylists and makeup artists. I don’t tell people what to do. I want to document that time and place – that’s really important to me. I want it to be about them and their lives, not about what I think their lives should be.”

Carver features a personal favorite among her work – a 1984 photo of Run DMC shot on location in Hollis, Queens for the British mag Face.

“They were just hanging out on this tree-lined street they lived on. I said, ‘Just stand a little closer,’ and they did. I love this picture because it expresses so much. It’s a real hangout picture and such a symbol of the times, style-wise. The Adidas with no laces, the snapback hats, the gazelle glasses, the track suits. It just expresses so much about that particular moment in time. And I love the dappled light on their faces.”

 

Salt-n-Pepa, ©Janette Beckman

 

 

She made the first press photo of LL Cool J, complete with him and his iconic boom box. She did the first photo shoot of Salt-N-Pepa while “knocking about” Alphabet City. In L.A. she shot N.W.A. posed around cops in a cruiser just as the group’s “Fuck tha Police” protest song hit.

She says her hip-hop shots “bring up happy memories for people because music is very evocative – it’s just like a little moment in time.”

The early hip-hop movement in America paralleled the punk explosion in England. Both were youthful reactions against oppression. In England – the rigid class system and awful economy. In the U.S. – inner-city poverty, violence and police abuse.

“Punk really gave a voice to kids who never really had a say. Working-class kids and art school kids all sort of banded together and started protesting, basically by being obnoxious and writing punk songs that were kind of like poetry, expressing what their lives were like. There was the shock factor of wearing bondage apparel and trash bags, putting safety pins in their noses. Really giving the finger to Queen and country and all that history. It was like, ‘Fuck you, it’s not that time, we’re fed up and we’re not going to take it anymore.'”

Her introduction to hip-hop came in London at the genre’s inaugural Europe revue tour.

“No one knew what hip-hop was. It was just the most amazing show. It had all the hip-hop disciplines. So much was going on on that stage – the break dancers and the Double Dutch and Fab 5 Freddy, scratching DJs, rapping, graffiti. All happening all at once. It blew me away.

“I met Afrika Bambaataa, who’s pretty much the father of hip-hop.”

Weeks later she visited NYC and “there it all was – the trains covered in graffiti, kids walking around with boom boxes, people selling mix tapes on the street. I got very involved in it.”

“New York was broke. Politically it was a mess. These kids had no future. Hip-hop gave this voice to the voiceless. They were singing ‘The Message’ (by the Furious Five). Where I was living there really were junkies in the alley with a baseball bat. It was no joke. You could see it unfolding in front of you and yet there was this vibrant art scene going on. Graffiti kids stealing paint from stores, breaking into train yards at night and painting trains in the pitch dark to make beautiful art that then traveled like a moving exhibition around New York. It was just fantastic. A real exciting time.”

She got so swept up, she never left. When big money moved in via the major record labels, she says. “everything changed.” She feels hip-hop performers “lost their artistic freedom and that almost punk aesthetic of making it up as you go along because you don’t really know what you’re doing. They were just experimenting. That’s why it was so fresh.” She expected hip-hop would run its course the way punk did. She never imagined it a world-wide phenomenon decades later.

“In the ’90s with Biggie and people like that it got massive. People are rapping in Africa and Australia. Breakancing is bigger than ever now..”

While capturing its roots she didn’t consider hip-hop’s influence then. “I was just in it doing it. I was just riding the wave.”

Portraying folks as she finds them has found her work deemed “too raw, too real, too rough” for high style mags that prefer photo-shopped perfection. “I don’t really believe in stereotypes and I don’t believe in ideals of beauty.” She’s even had editors-publishers complain her work contains too many black people.

 

 

B-Boys, ©Janette Beckman

 

Beckman’s surprised by Omaha’s diversity and intrigued by its contradictions. She’s shot North O barbershops, the downtown Labor Day parade, her first powwow, skateboarders doing tricks at an abandoned building and a South Omaha mural. She’s looking forward to taking pics at a rodeo and ranch.

She came for a site visit in July with one vision in mind and quickly had to shift gears when she began her residency in August.

“I wanted to photograph people on the street in North Omaha and I found there’s nobody on the street, so I had to try to wiggle into the community.”

Her curiosity, chattiness and British accent have given her access to events like the Heavy Rotation black biker club’s annual picnic at Benson Park. That group reminded her of the Ride Hard Boyz she shot last summer in New York.

“I was riding in the flatbed of an F-150 truck driven by one of the guys down this expressway with bikers doing wheelies alongside, All totally illegal. It was the most exciting thing I’ve done in years. Although it’s rebel in a way, the club keeps kids off the street and out of drugs and gangs. They’re the greatest guys – like a big family.”

The end of Sept. she returns to the NewYork “bubble.” An exhibit of her photos that leading artists painted on, JB Mashup, may go to Paris. She’s photographing a saxophonist. Otherwise, she’s taking things as they come.

“I try not to make too many plans because they tend to get diverted.”

Rebel Culture runs through Nov. 29.

View her Omaha and archived work at http://janettebeckman.com/blog.

 

Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area

May 20, 2013 3 comments

The following cover story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about a group of artists looking to take things to the next level at the Carver Bank cultural center and residency program in North Omaha has received some nice buzz. The four artists couldn’t be more different from each other. Each is doing his or her own thing and having success with it but they themselves and others feel there’s room for them to grow and to make an even bigger splash.  It will be interesting to observe what they do individually and collectively from this point forward.

 

Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area

©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The inaugural resident artists at the Carver Bank cultural center couldn’t be more unalike in some ways and more congruent in others.

Carver is the new Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and Rebuild Foundation endeavor at 2416 Lake Street that houses a Big Mama‘s Sandwich Shop, a gallery- performance space and artist studios. Artist and urban planner Theaster Gates of Chicago is the facilitator-instigator of the project. Caver is one of several projects he’s done through his Rebuild Foundation that repurposes abandoned structures in inner cities to house art-culture activities that engage with community.

Each Omaha native participant was selected in line with Carver’s mission of providing work spaces and showcase opportunities for underserved artists of color whose creativity deserves wider support and recognition

The artists cut across a wide range of disciplines and starting with the Carver’s March 29 grand opening they’ve been displaying their respective chops in performances, readings, exhibitions.

Program director Jessica Scheuerman says the artists “care deeply about the cultural resurgence of the Near North Side,” adding, “In addition to their individual practices, they have quickly taken to the role of host and are developing public programming that will enrich the space throughout the year and expand the roster of artists presented in the space.”

Shannon Marie is a 20-something hip hop and R&B artist. The single mom works full time to support her dream of making it big out of her hometown.

Dereck Higgins, 58, is a pioneer of the Omaha alternative music scene as a bass player, drummer and arranger. This champion of psychedelia recently left his career as a licensed mental health professional to devote all his energies to his art.

Bart Vargas, the lone visual artist of the group, is a 40-year-old art educator and creator of salvage-based paintings and sculptures.

Portia Vivienne Love, 56, is a sometime singer and full-time poet and writing workshop presenter now also penning murder mystery short stories and novels.

Three of the four have close ties to the symbolically potent 24th and Lake area. Once the commercial-entertainment hub of the local African American community, its live music scene used to draw national artists. Love’s late father, saxophonist Preston Love Sr., cultivated his music passion there as a fan and player. The catty-cornered Loves Jazz & Arts Center is named after him. Higgins’ late father, James “Red” Higgins, was a contemporary of Love’s and also haunted the Deuce Four.

 

shannon marie

Shannon Marie

 

 

Marie, who’s real name is Ennis, grew up a few blocks from Carver. She’s adamant about developing a national name for her writing and singing.

“I’m definitely confident about it,” says Marie, who’s produced several mix tapes. “It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s where you want to go. I can make it happen.”

If it doesn’t happen here she may leave to try her hand elsewhere, though she admits she needs more polish.

“I feel like I need to be more prepared before I step out with the big dogs.”

She got serious about rapping as a junior at Benson High School. Her early professional forays taught her lessons about not selling out.

“I would contact promoters and they’d just kind of brush me off like, ‘Who is this chick?’ Now when they have something going on I’m one of the first people they contact. I’ve gained their respect. They’ve seen the growth and they know I have people backing me.”

Her YouTube videos attract hundreds of thousands of views. Her Omaha fan following is such she gets recognized most everywhere she goes.

Gone are the days when promoters tried extracting sexual favors from an aspiring newbie. “It’s a male-dominated industry and sometimes guys look at females like a piece of meat. You have to be confident to let people know, Hey, you cant treat me like this. Now they’re like, ‘She’s just about her business. She’s not about sleeping her way to the top.’

“I kind of had to learn the hard way in some cases. I still have to learn a few things.

But it’s a lot better now than me being naive and saying, ‘OK, let’s just do music.’ All that glitters isn’t gold.”

A dispute with a local record label resulted in some of her original music being withheld from her. She’s moved on.

She plans a Carver event featuring herself and other empowered women who’ve overcome obstacles. She’s also planning a listening party for her new work.

“Now I’m here, I’ve got my opportunity, everything is still possible.”

Working alongside fellow residents who are “so different,” she says, “is going to be interesting.” She adds, “We really do vibe together. There’s going to be positive stuff going on. I want to support everybody and I want them to support me, too.”

She feels the love from friends, family and fans. “Everyone is excited for me.” She terms the multicultural turnout for Carver’s grand opening “a beautiful thing” and encourages all of Omaha to support its programs. “It’s for everybody.”

She’s eager to add to the area’s rich music legacy, saying, “Now it’s our time.”

 

 

Dereck Higgins

 

 

Dereck Higgins is intent on opening the Carver to a broad range of artists and audiences.

“It only makes sense that if Im going to be down here I try to get some of the people that work with me everywhere else to work with me down here,” says Higgins, who jams with Nik Fackler as part of InDreama. Higgins is presenting a Night of Sound Exploration with saxophonist and electronic musician Curt Oren from 7 to 9 p.m. on June 7.

Higgins, who has his own DVH Records label and an extensive vinyl collection, makes trippy music that draws on traditional instruments as well as a panoply of electronic and ambient sounds.

“It’s personal, that’s ultimately what it is,” he says, “and that’s probably why I’m not more commercially along the way because I don’t know what genre to be in and I’m not interested in it and I don’t like it. When people say to me, ‘I don’t know what you are,’ that’s a great compliment and I want to stay there.”

Since walking off his 30-year job at Community Alliance in 2012 he’s made music his number one priority.

“I’ve always been a real artist-musician but a hobbyist. Making the break from the job and now doing this Carver thing is really allowing me to embrace truly, fully the role of artist-musician. I’m very thankful. This is a luxury. I can come down here and I can work, experimenting with music and sound ideas at my makeshift little audio studio. I’m already working on my next album.”

He creates the collage artwork that adorns his album covers.

“I’m broker now than I’ve ever been as an adult but I’m happier,” says Higgins, who along with his fellow artist residents receives a $500 a month stipend.

 

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Bart Vargas

 

 

It’s no coincidence that Bart Vargas, the lone Carver resident artist who’s not African American, though his dreadlocks often prompt people to assume he is, makes art from salvaged materials. Just when it looked like his life was a thrown-away bust, he found salvation.

Growing up in a chaotic home with a mentally ill mother and alcoholic father Vargas sought refuge in art. “I escaped through drawing,” he says. “Drawing was a way to have control over something and make believe and go other places. When I was 16 I was young, angry and confused and this other family saw the situation and offered me a safe place and took me in. So I have my biological family and what I consider my real family – the family I associate with all these years later.”

Vargas, a Nebraska Air National Guard veteran, feels his salvage art parallels the Carver project and its adaptive reuse of the long abandoned Carver Savings & Loan building and plans to revitalize other long vacant North Omaha properties.

“Everything has a potential. The only place trash is made is in our head…when we decide something no longer has value.”

Bemis chief curator Hesse McGraw says the hope is that by nurturing artists Carver “can generate some cultural heat and create a magnetic lure in North Omaha.” Another hope, he adds, is for their work “to have an impact on public perception of the neighborhood. Imagine when the Near North Side is again known as a place that artists live and work, and where we all can be part of that resurgence.”

A self-described “mixed blood” who’s white and Mexican and not sure what else, Vargas used some of his Carver money to take DNA tests to determine his ethnicity.

“I’ve thought about doing this identity painting after finding out what my genetic markers say I am.”

Or he might adapt a painted words series he began s few years ago to express musings about “my American muttness.”

The University of Nebraska at Omaha and Metropolitan Community college art instructor says he’s already made word paintings “specific to this place or neighborhood,” adding, “I want this part of the city to become part of the work I do here. Before I even moved in I painted ‘Carver.’ My goal is to cover the walls in my little corner in Yeses. To have this wall of positivity. I want to start it out with really good energy.”

 

 

Portia Love

Portia Love

 

 

Portia Love understands why she’s identified with her father, whose band she sang with for several years, but music was his thing, not hers.

“The writing thing is mine,” says Love, who retreated into words and stories as an “introverted” adolescent and began winning recognition for her work at Marian High School.

She went on to work in and teach human services but always wrote on the side. As a veteran artist with Why Arts she conducts writing workshops for people with disabilities. She also holds workshops through the Bemis.

She’s self-published two books of poems, Eclipses of the Sun and Redefinition. She creates poems by commission for clients, placing her original works in designer boxes, frames and photo albums.

WriteLife is publishing her debut novel, The Men’s Club, as well as a book of short stories, High Heel Shoes, Bright Red Lipstick and Strange Love.

Carver appeals to her for practical reasons.

“I went after it for the working space and the recognition. I’m real if nothing else. I tear my house up doing this stuff. Now I have a studio to work out of. This is my time for me and my writing. This is an opportunity that I hope is going to put me to another level. i hate anybody trying to put limitations on me and what I do.”

Moving artists along is part of the idea.

“We hope this opportunity provides a crucial jump for the residents and that they are able to move their artistic practices to new levels,” says McGraw.

Love says Carver’s location is “significant,” adding, “The whole thing is significant. I love that Hesse (McGraw) said the Bemis cannot be this white organization that ignores the fact there are people of color in this city with talent. And yes this is the perfect place for it, 24th and Lake. I think about my dad and how much he would have loved coming through here wearing the hell out of everybody. I think he would be so overjoyed to see me excelling at something that was not his.”

Love’s hosting a poetry reading from 3 to 6 p.m. on May 25. She’s invited her fellow resident artists to add their distinct flavors.

Carver events are free and open to the public.

For Carver updates visit carverbank(at)bemiscenter.org.

 

North Omaha synergy harkens new arts-culture district for the city

June 26, 2012 19 comments

There’s a magazine published in Omaha called Revive!  It’s put out by a couple, Willie and Yolanda Barney, as a very intentional positive framing of the best of what is now and what is to come in North Omaha, by which they and most folks here mean northeast Omaha, which is the traditional heart of the city’s African-American community.  That heart has been hurting for decades due to disinvestment and crushing poverty and it’s only in the last few years and looking forward now that there’s come to be a concerted focus on finally revitalizing that area in a profound way.  Progress is being made in some sectors but there’s a long way to go yet before a fundamental, sweeping change comes to fruition and all boats are lifted with the tide.  The following story is about the stirrings of change in a historic hub, North 24th Street, that long ago fell on hard times and is looked at today as a cornerstone for the planned rebirth.  An arts-culture district is to arise in what was once the epicenter of a vibrant live music and entertainment scene with all the trimmings – dance halls, clubs, restaurants, stores, movie theaters, you name it.  It isn’t much to look at or partake in yet, but it could very well be in short order.  The potential is there.  Some of the pieces are already in place.  More are on the way.  It’s my hope that in a decade’s time the rebirth will no longer be a fond desire or enticing plan but a reality.  My story will soon be appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 
This is what much of the district looks like now

 

 

North Omaha synergy harkens new arts-culture district for the city

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The days when North 24th Street jumped with folks out on the town, strolling the main drag, hitting one live music spot after another, are decades past.

Aside from biennial homecoming activities, North 24th is a drive-through artery on the way to somewhere else. Few souls trod its walkways. If people do stop it’s for Sunday sanctification, a haircut, a fill-up or some social service business.

There’s little else to see or do. Food options are mostly confined to the fast variety and dingy bars pass for nightclubs. Vacant tracts of land abound.

But a welling synergy of activity promises to once again bring people in numbers to the “Deuce-Four” for entertainment. It’s the fledgling start of the arts-culture district designated in the city-approved North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan.

A couple pieces are in place. One is under construction. Others are on the drawing boards. The revival isn’t in full swing yet, but there’s enough happening to give a glimpse of what could be.

The existing pivot points are the Loves Jazz & Arts Center, Union for Contemporary Art and Great Plains Black History Museum. An emerging player is the as yet unnamed fulfillment of the two-year long Theaster Gates Town Hall Project in the former Carver Savings & Loan Association building.

John Beasley is eying property in the area for a new theater. Other envisioned digs include a movie theater, large music venues and artist live-work spaces.

Historic anchors with strong community orientation have their own roles to play. The Omaha Star newspaper is a conduit for community happenings. The Omaha Economic Development Corporation and the Empowerment Network, housed in the Jewell Building where the Dreamland Ballroom held sway, are driving redevelopment efforts and sponsoring events.

Seasonal attractions are part of the scene, too. The North Omaha Summer Arts Festival is in year two, though most of its events happen on North 30th. The expanded Juneteenth celebration centered last month’s activities on 24th, where the Dreamland Plaza hosted outdoor concerts. Last year’s Christmas in the Village drew hundreds to venues up and down the street.

The LJAC at 2510 No. 24th is by far the area’s most established attraction. The gallery, live music and rental spot has come into its own after a rough patch. Executive director Tim Clark sees the makings of a destination district about him. “The stars are aligning with all that’s going on with the Union, the Bemis, the black museum and the Loves Center. I think people are ready for it.”

Loves Jazz & Arts Center

 

 

 

The center, whose membership has risen from 8 to 300-plus in two years under Clark, is seeing more visitors to national traveling exhibits, including the current Selma to Montgomery. Special programs, from a gospel play-soul food buffet to a fashion show, draw well. Events like a recent Family Day and Arts-Culture Expo found new audiences. Its Jazz After Five series owns a loyal following.

The idea is that as more stay-and-play venues open around the center and offer  activities people will make a night of it by sampling the attractions, thereby dropping more traffic and dollars into a community starved for commerce.

“We’re trudging along and as we ramp up hopefully it’ll catch on,” says operations director Janet Ashley. “We’re all in this together, we’re very supportive of each other.”

Returning the area to a walking neighborhood is partly about overcoming perceptions, say Ashley and Clark, that the area is unsafe, which they insist it’s not.

“Being able to walk from one location to another is hugely important to the sense of vitality of the neighborhood.,” says Hesse McGraw, chief curator of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, a partner in the Gates project.  “The idea that you could come to a Jazz After Five at Loves Jazz and then walk to a opening at the Carver and then walk to an open studio or something at the Union, that’s a pretty dynamic thing.”

As events multiply and more patrons discover the area’s diamonds in the rough, not unlike North Downtown a few years ago or the Old Market a few decades ago, a critical mass of sit-down restaurants and retail outlets may join the party.

Around the corner from Loves Jazz a combined storefront eatery and art space is taking shape. Chicago-based artist and planner Theaster Gates, along with Rebuild Foundation of St. Louis, Mo, and the Bemis, is bringing new life to adjoining sites at 2416-18 Lake St. to house a Big Mama’s sandwich shop, three artist studios and a gallery.

For Patricia Barron, whose Big Mama’s Kitchen & Catering on No. 45th St. is one of northeast Omaha’s few destination spots, contributing to any revival is personal. Her father Elmer “Basie” Givens was a band leader when 24th jammed day and night with music and action.

“I can remember when 24th St. was just flowing with activity and so I’d like to see that restored, the arts, the music, theaters, stores, because this is my birth city and I love Omaha. We’re very excited. It’s been dormant for too long.”

Carver Building (right) and adjoining building to house the Theaster Gates project with a sandwich shop, artist studios and gallery
Theaster Gates

 

 

McGraw says the art side of the site aims to be a launching pad for North O artists of color and a catalyst for more activity. He describes “an emerging excitement about a set of possibilities burgeoning in the neighborhood,” adding, “I think there’s an interest from the city’s perspective in imagining what could happen on that block west of Loves Jazz, where the city owns a lot of property.”

He says the area’s potential as a lively arts haven could be enhanced by a North Omaha Arts Alliance. Deborah Teamer Bunting, Heritage Arts Manager with the Nebraska Arts Council, is working with the Empowerment Network on formalizing the alliance by year’s end. She says shared resources could help joint funding and marketing efforts.

Clark, who’s hosting informal meetings with his arts neighbors, also sees the benefits of “this coalition” working together moving forward.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the stirrings of a vibrant arts community,” says McGraw.

“I think the synergies are there and all these activities would be stronger in concert with one another.”

Bunting says it’s already “one of Omaha’s best kept secrets” and “its own unique community building on some of the history of North Omaha.”

A block south The Union is poised to be a destination. It hosts artist-in-residence studios and community projects, such as the North Omaha Tool Library formed by Kjell Peterson, at its 2417 Burdette St. site.

It seeks funds for the adaptive reuse of the adjacent Fair Deal Cafe as a gallery, lecture space and art library. The Fair Deal was THE Omaha soul food joint. So much social-political discussion happened there it was called the “black city hall.”

 

Brigitte McQueen

 

 

“We’re hyperaware of the fact that building has so much significance to this community and anything we do over there will be so respectful of that,” says Union founder-executive director McQueen. “I’m hoping people will be excited to see it used again and returned to a state of glory.”

This summer The Union is planting communal gardens and erecting an elaborate gazebo, all part of finishing out its multiuse campus.

“There will be seating, no gates, no fences, no nothing. It really is meant to be of the community,” McQueen says of the gardens-gazebo. “It’s creating an oasis that will always keep on the property and not build over that land.”

Urban agriculture is one of The Union’s many missions..”If we’re sustaining people visually and emotionally with the arts,” she says, “then we also need to be giving them an opportunity to grow food that sustains them in a better way.”

 

 

The Union for Contemporary Art

 

 

McQueen saw the area’s potential synergy May 31-June 1. That’s when a Great Plains Theater Conference play staged in the Union parking lot, with the Burdette building’s west wall as painted backdrop, drew hundreds, including area residents and workers. The sounds of traffic whooshing by and kids playing hoops across the street added “perfect” ambience to the urban-set play The Crowd Youre in With.

The Union and GPTC plan more collaborations.

Conference producing artistic director Kevin Lawler says, “The arts are one of the most live giving, healing, growth enhancing, healthy activities for a community, and this is a part of the city that has not had enough energy from the arts. So I want to work with groups like the Union to help to change that.” A youth theater program is in the works.

Additionally, the Union is developing an art-based after school program and a North Omaha murals project involving area youth.

“I think once kids and their parents start coming to the building that will help us get established,” says McQueen.

As more has been happening there, she says, the curiosity factor already has neighbors, including kids playing hoops at the Bryant Center courts, “coming over and asking questions…oh, so many questions,” says McQueen. “They’re excited to hear we’re doing art stuff over here.”

The Bryant Center Association operates organized leagues at its open basketball courts as well as programs for seniors and youths at neighboring St. Benedict the Moor Church. Funds are sought for a proposed anger management and life skills program. The focus is on giving kids positive, structured diversions along with mentoring, tutoring and counseling.

 

Bryant Center

 

 

Jean Cain, who helps runs things at the Bryant, has noted the Union’s activities and sees potential collaboration with McQueen’s programs.

“I’m very grateful for her, I really and truly am. I do want to make that acquaintance because I do think there’s a partnership or a marriage that could be an ongoing thing.”

The Union is new enough and the Carver opening far enough away that even most Bryant volunteers and area residents don’t know about the organizations yet. That will take time. The Theaster Gates site will feature a glass front entrance and a Big Mama’s outlet to make a transparent and enticing “invitation” for the community to come check it out, says McGraw, He says it’s all part of a “radical hospitality that makes spaces welcoming by reaching out in a charismatic and gregarious way. It’s this idea of having a thrown open front door, a place where there’s no expectations about who belongs there – there’s too few places like that.”

The black museum has a different challenge. It’s a well-known quantity that goes back to the mid-1970s but until monies are found to renovate its condemned home at 2213 Lake St. and/or to build a new one, it operates as a mobile presenting organization. It recently brought three Negro Leagues Baseball Museum exhibits to the metro, including two at Conestoga Magnet School not far from the 24th hub.

A mile or so southwest of the hub the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation has recently staked itself as an anchor with year-round programming at its new center.

Tim Clark and Brigitte McQueen say organizations like theirs are seeds that can grow roots that blossom into perennial attractions. But for that capacity building to take place resources are needed for more professional staff, among other things.

For all these disparate parts to form an effective, concerted North O mosaic or cohort that engages the general public, Clark says they must find sustainable support. He suggests a much larger pool of money than is presently available through funding mechanisms like the North Omaha Cultural Arts Committee is necessary to support the arts-culture district’s growth.

The catalyst effect Gates hopes to have with his project, which the Bemis is providing full financial support to for three years, can work the other way, too.

“There are new initiatives that are about to get off the ground in North Omaha that are really going to begin to change the game,” says McGraw, “and I think Theaster and Rebuild Foundation have a real interest in being part of those efforts. I think there are extremely exciting things on the horizon.”

Artist Claudia Alvarez’s new exhibition considers immigration

March 23, 2012 4 comments

I met and profiled artist Terry Rosenberg a few years ago but I never got to meet his life partner and fellow artist, Claudia Alvarez, until quite recently.  Years apart, each came to Omaha for a Bemis Center for the Contemporary Arts residency – he in 1982 and she in 2005 – and each found the city to be a nurturing place for their work.  Terry made Omaha his second home, commuting between here and New York City.  Then Claudia came and the two found each other.  They reside in New York City now but keep a place in the Old Market in Omaha and get back enough to maintain a strong presence here.  My profile of Claudia below keys off a new exhibit of her work dealing with immigration.  She and Terry are among the many artists and creatives from elsewhere who have infused Omaha with talent and energy.  You can find my profile of Terry and his work on this blog as well.  You’ll also find a story I did on the Bemis Center.  Look for a coming depth story on Bemis founders Ree (Schonlau) Kaneko and her superstar artist husband Jun Kaneko and a much shorter, sampler story about the Kanekos.  Their “Open Space for Your Mind” organization, KANEKO, and the multimedia Portals project that premiered there is the subject of yet another story.

 

 

 

 

Artist Claudia Alvarez’s new exhibition considers immigration

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in El Perico

 

For years Claudia Alvarez has created ceramic figures of beleaguered children as a metaphor for exploring social themes of poverty and violence. For a new solo exhibition in Omaha she uses childlike images to examine the experience of immigration and migration she knows first-hand..

The Monterrey, Mexico native came to the States at age 3 with her mother and siblings. Her father preceded the family to America. She grew up in Calif., where she earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California Davis and her master’s from California College of Arts. Working as an ambulance driver for UC Davis Medical Center, she transported seriously ill children and seniors,, who in turn inspired her ceramic figures that look old and tired, yet resilient.

A Bemis Center for Contemporary Art residency brought her to Omaha in 2005, where she met her life partner, artist Terry Rosenberg. The couple now reside in New York but they retain deep ties to Omaha, where they’ve been two of the brightest lights on the local art scene.

“We still have a place here in the Old Market and we come quite a bit and work here. There’s something about Omaha that brings us back,” says Alvarez, which is why she readily accepted an invitation to show her work at the new Gallery of Art and Design at Metropolitan Community College’s Elkhorn Valley Campus, 204th and West Dodge Road. Admission is free.

Her History of Immigration runs through April 9 and is part of a Metro residency she did. She’s previously exhibited at the Bemis and El Museo Latino in Omaha, the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln and the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney.

“When I came to the Bemis Center it just dramatically changed my life. For the first time I had an infrastructure that really supported my work,” says Alvarez. “It was a life changing experience. Before that I was teaching at a university and when I got accepted by the Bemis I quit my job. I thought I would be staying three-four months and then move on. But I met Terry and that was it. Everything kind of worked out.”

©from Claudia Alvarez’s History of Immigration 

 

 

Living in New York and having strong connections to Nebraska and California makes Alvarez bicoastal and intercoastal. As a Mexico native with a great curiosity for the world, she’s a global citizen. She exhibits widely. She did a recent residency in Puerto Vallarta. Other residencies have taken her to France, Switzerland and China. She has shows opening in Mexico City, San Diego, Brooklyn and Miami.

Residing in the cultural melting pot of New York and being so well-traveled gives her a broader view of immigration as a universal human experience. Her Omaha exhibition uses sculpted children’s shoes and waif-like immigrant figures along with paintings of her and her family’s arrival in America to express the longing and struggle of people trekking from one land to another. Bound up in the work are notions of travel, escape, exhaustion, destination, assimilation, exile, refugee. The shoes bear the worn qualities of a journey made and a life lived.

“I’m really talking about immigration on a human universal level, so that hopefully different types of people can relate to this issue. We all have our journey. There’s a history, there’s the fingerprint. When I make the shoes I make them in porcelain and with my fingers I put the indentations where the toes and the sole are. I really work intuitively and try to make them very childlike, so they evoke emotions of innocence and memory. Each shoe has had its own history or past.”

©from Claudia Alvarez’s History of Immigration 

 

 

Her immigrants could be anywhere, anytime.

“One is a little girl squatting in red underwear, with about 50 shoes scattered and somehow moving in the same direction. Then there’s two standing figures that appear to be walking forward in a big open space. In the corner is a cowboy boot on its side, with holes underneath it. They all reference immigration in some way. Some of them reflect really personal things, like my own childhood memories.

“The two figures walking forward are a very subtle insinuation. It’s how the simple act of stepping forward can mean so many things. It means a lot, for example, to Mexicans, who step forward for a better life, and really to any group of people that need to step forward and move forward in some way.”

Alvarez’s two paintings are drawn from her own life. The self-portrait “Green Card” is based on a photo of herself as an American newcomer. The other is taken from a photo of her newly arrived immigrant family.

 

 

©”Green Card” by Claudia Alvarez, from her History of Immigration

 

 

Being in New York with its many vibrant, self-enclosed cultural enclaves has shown her that immigration doesn’t have to mean giving up one’s identity. As an immigrant herself she says it’s inevitable she dealt with the subject and she expects to explore the nature of ethnicity in future work.

“I’m really interested in the power of words and how one simple word like immigration is so loaded with meaning. It can bring out so many different reactions from people.”

She avoids overt images, preferring viewers to find their own meanings in her work.

“The more I simplify my work the more powerful it can be. It’s OK that people interpret it in different ways. It should evoke questions, reactions and dialogue.”

View Alvarez’s show during normal gallery hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday Noon to 5 p.m. Visit her website at http://www.claudiaalvarez.org.

For artist Terry Rosenberg, the moving human body offers canvas like no other

March 23, 2012 4 comments

Once in a while I visit an artist’s studio for a story.  Abstract painter Terry Rosenberg, who now resides in New York City after making Omaha his second home for a few decades, still keeps his loft studio in Omaha’s Old Market.  His is the prototypical artist’s work-living space with lots of nautral light, a high ceiling, and a rough-hewn, industrial feel to the environment heighented by exposed brick and venting that’s softened somewhat by his work materials, his ktichen, and his bed.  It’s a place overbrimming with creative energy.  He originally came to Omaha from New York for a workshop at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and its world-renowned artist residency program.  Between Bemis founder Ree Schonlau and other artists growing the cultural scene here he felt at home enough to set some roots down here.  Years later he met his partner in life, artist Claudia Alvarez, when she came to do a Bemis residency.  The couple reside in New York now but they still keep their place here, and both return to do work and to exhibit and to catch up with friends here.  Rosenberg’s work capturing the human body in motion is the focus of this story for The Jewish Press.  I wrote it about five years ago.  I am also posting a new story on his mate, Alvarez, about a new exhibition of work in which she deals with the experience of immigration.  Terry and Claudia are two reasons why Omaha’s arts-cultural scene has become dynamic.

For artist Terry Rosenberg the moving human body offers a canvas like no other

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Jewish Press

 

When he draws or paints bodies in motion, from dancers performing turns to ballplayers swinging bats, he sees things the rest of us miss. His intense focus enables him to see “more acutely or deeply” the complex kinesthetic, aesthetic, spatial dynamics of people moving in “highly concentrated ways.”

Terry Rosenberg, who commutes between Omaha and New York City, strives to capture not so much a frozen moment in time as the apogee of myriad moments.  “What I’m doing is giving you kind of a still image at the end,” he said from his spacious, white, Old Market studio, “but the still image is of several moments. It’s of an event that’s happened and it’s a culmination of marks that kind of map an event.”

Rosenberg, a Hartford, Connecticut, native who grew up in Miami,  and studied art there and in western New York state, first came to Omaha in 1982 for a workshop conducted by Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts founder Ree Schonlau.

By then he was living in NYC and already finding he sometimes needed to get away. “If you live in New York you just have to go somewhere else regularly. You just have to,” he said.

He and Schonlau became friends and in 1984 he came back to do an extended Bemis residency. That experience convinced him to make Omaha his second home, which he has for two decades. “It’s all about the Bemis,” he said. “I had a lot fun. It was like summer camp all year long. I have friends here and because I have so much history here, Omaha was just the natural place to come to outside of New York.”

The basis for all his art is drawing, but he’s also worked in sculpture and other forms. Much of his work the last 15 years has been consumed with moving bodies.

As models perform gestures, assume positions, take steps, execute leaps, none predetermined or posed, Rosenberg is right there in the swirl of it all, close enough to feel the rush of air from a ballerina’s pirouette or a batter’s follow through. Moves happen rapidly, spontaneously in front of him, whether in the rehearsal hall, the studio, the batting cage or the gym. “It’s wildly dynamic,” he said. To follow the model, he remains “structureless.”

Often, he must attend to multiple bodies moving around him. So much happens at once, yet he’s intent on rendering on paper or canvas these swift, ephemeral, ever-changing actions as they unfold and as he experiences them. The resulting images have a visceral, primal, sensual immediacy.
“It’s instinctual for sure,” he said.

In these sensory-laden sessions, he enters a zone where he becomes one with the subject. The rhythm of his applying charcoal, graphite, pastel, not with sticks or brushes, but with saturated sock or glove-covered hands and arms, is matched in synch with the model’s movements.

“It’s very physical,” he said.

© Terry Rosenberg 2003
Subdermal, Mark Jarecke 2002, Oil on Linen

 

 

“The tools of painting are not designed for speed,” he said, “and I keep trying to find better ways to make a painting where I don’t have to stop and look at the palette and reload on occasion, but where I can kind of keep going.” As so much goes on with such speed in a compressed period of time he can’t reproduce dance or sport in any conventional sense. Rather, his energetic lines, daubs, marks and splays are the visual equivalent of automatic writing. By eye to hand he charts the energy flows, thermal traces and physical essences of artists/athletes executing graceful, explosive, yet always expressive moves. “If there’s any strategy I have used it’s to try to stay in the present, always. I don’t want to go to memory. I don’t want to stop and go, What happened six minutes ago? What happened six seconds ago? I try to show the constant change in front of me. I’m drawing the thing that’s usually not able to be drawn,” he said.

The body reveals so many things and a body in motion is a combination of all the psychological and emotional and physical systems working at once, and I’m trying to draw that combination …It gives you a different reading than what you’re used to seeing, one that’s more interesting and profound to me. And it’s different art historically as well.”

Technical issues arise from his method of repeatedly applying paint to the same areas. “Colors start to mix up quickly and turn to mud when you keep going over the same area,” he said.

Most often his subjects are modern dance or classical ballet. He’s done work based on observations of such renowned companies as the Mark Morris Dance Group, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the American Ballet Theatre and the Kirov Ballet. He’s done studies, too, of Ballet Omaha and Chomari, the resident dance troupe at El Museo Latino. Then there’s his work with athletes, notably of the New York Yankees taking batting practice. He’s now preparing a series on University of Nebraska-Omaha wrestlers.

He also makes images of individuals. He’s done a series on Indian dancer Aparna Ramaswamy, a leading master of Bharatanatyam, as well as on an Omaha yoga practitioner and a New York actress.

Most of his works are titled after the names of the models he used. After all, he said, his images “are much like portraits, but just different kinds of portraits.”

Rosenberg’s bodies-in-motion work is widely exhibited and collected. In an unusual coincidence his work can now be seen in three solo Nebraska shows.

Through Aug. 31 at El Museo Latino, 4710 So. 25 St., is Ballet Folklorico Mexicano, drawings of Chomari’s festive, high energy dance suites. Through Aug. 17 in the Fred Simon Gallery at the Nebraska Arts Council, 1004 Farnam St., is Asanas — drawings of yoga mistress Adrienne Posey assuming meditative postures of her discipline. Also through Aug. 17 at the Governor’s mansion in Lincoln, 1425 ‘H’ St., is a set of four paintings of actress Meredith Napolitano in the throes of dramatic Method acting exercises.

©More works by Terry Rosenberg

The diverse expressions displayed in these shows confirm Rosenberg’s interest in looking for new forms of movement that challenge and fascinate him. For him, it’s all about engaging subjects without agenda, distraction or art historical reference.

“I call what I do highly focused abandon. I definitely have to be in a ‘screw-it’ mentality…in the sense everything goes out the window that I know,” he said. If he’s after anything, it’s the fluid, instant-by instant catharsis of change.

“I think when the body moves we’re in this kind of transitional mode. We’re unraveling, if you will, and the unraveling speaks as much of life as it does of death. It speaks of that place of change which people are freaked out about or exhilarated about,” he said. “The nature of what I’m drawing is just that — it’s the body in constant change and it’s provocative in a certain way of that fleeting moment. Life is happening and it’s dying at the same moment, and in the next moment, more life and death..

“The unraveling makes the body more transparent in a way. You see more facets of it. I find it emotionally and formally stimulating.”
He’s so attuned to what transpires in a live drawing session, he said, “it’s almost like time stops. Sometimes the act of drawing takes me into this place we call the moment of creation. It’s almost like I’m in some sub-atomic place. The creative act, if you’re open to it, creates things you never really expected to happen and that I find interesting and curious.”

From eye to hand, he translates the beauty and mystery of what he sees and feels.

“I find the hand is such an extended part of your internal world, like touch and speech,” he said. “It gives you access to a certain kind of voice.”

Art as revolution: Brigitte McQueen’s Union for Contemporary Art reimagines what’s possible in North Omaha

October 25, 2011 12 comments

Change is coming to North Omaha and one of the change agents is Brigitte McQueen, one of those transplants to this place who brings a new energy and perspective that can help the community move in positive new directions. She’s just begun her work there with her fledgling Union for Contemporary Art but my bet is that she and her organization will wind up being long-term playera and change agents who make a difference.

 

Brigitte McQueen

Art as revolution: Brigitte McQueen’s Union for Contemporary Art reimagines what’s possible in North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Brigitte McQueen is hell-bent on revolution.

The entrepreneurial arts maven first made a splash with Pulp in Benson. Then she revived the Bemis Underground in the Old Market. Now she’s about to shake up North Omaha via The Union for Contemporary Art, which she could have located anywhere.

She chose North Omaha.

“It’s one of the only communities in Omaha that does not have a dedicated, consistent art presence, and it shows in the neighborhood. There’s very little public art, the kids are not getting it in their after school programs, it’s not in the schools,” she says. “Kids there can go for weeks without seeing a piece of art or anything beautiful.”

The Union is leasing two eyesore buildings on a mostly empty plot between Patrick Ave. and Burdette St., and 24th and 25th Sts. One structure housed the landmark Fair Deal Cafe, where Charles Hall served soul food and welcomed community activists. The other is the former St. Martin de Porres food pantry.

 

 

A future capital campaign will attempt to raise the $400,000 to $500,000 she estimates renovations and repairs will cost. The cafe will be gutted, save for the tin ceiling, overhead fans, booths and lunch counter, and converted into a gallery. The bunker-like pantry will be opened up with more windows and reconfigured for artist studios, a classroom, a commons area and offices. Both buildings will be refaced. The design work is being donated by Leo A Daly, Alley Poyner Macchietto and BVH.

The Union will be home to artist residency and youth education programs. Visiting artists in the Studio Fellowship will receive a stipend for supplies and access to professional development and critique. At the end of their four to six-months stay participants will get an exhibition. During their immersion experience McQueen says artists “will have to be doing community service the entire time, whether teaching a class or curating a show or working with kids. They’ll be a part of the community and leave something tangible behind. It’s all about engaging the community in a constant dialogue about the arts.” McQueen says she has several artists lined up to teach upcoming youth art classes.

Board president Watie White, an Omaha artist, says, “The Union is working off the model of not-for-profit street-level arts activist organizations” that do community-based projects aimed at addressing real issues and transforming lives and neighborhoods. In return for the opportunities given, he says, the expectation is for “the creative generation we foster to pay it forward to the community they come from.”

 

 

The Stockyard Institute in Chicago will be sending Windy City artists here and The Union will reciprocate with Omaha artists there.

“Ideally I would like to have relationships like that built with organizations all across the country so that we’re constantly sending people out but having people come in,” says McQueen.

Her “arts campus” is to include finished green space. Perhaps a sculpture garden. In three to five years she’d like to erect a new building housing artist live-work spaces and retail art bays.

As a North O resident McQueen is making a statement that contemporary art shouldn’t bypass a community based on perceptions and is creating a reason for greater Omaha to visit the area.

“Omaha is my adopted city and ever since I’ve been here I’ve been really aware of the segregation that exists. You can see the lines. It’s horrible we’ve divided ourselves up that strongly. I want Omaha to be a truly open city.

“Why can’t we build something that would provide all of this support to Omaha’s arts community and put it in a neighborhood that so desperately needs to have that influx of people? It adds a level of vibrancy to this community.”

 

 

 

 

It’s about “building bridges and changing the way we think about Omaha and the lines we have made,” she says. “Nothing’s going to change until we start doing that and bringing people into the community. If I can open a small door and people from outside come to see stellar contemporary exhibitions, then maybe that’s how that migration north starts to happen.”

She says she’s doing something “dynamically different than what has been done before” to prove more than just social services or Afro-centric art-culture can flourish there.

After initial resistance she’s “overwhelmed” by the support The Union’s received from such stakeholders as the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, the Empowerment Network and the City of Omaha.

The Union is slated as the front door to a revitalized North 24’s mixed use arts- commercial-residential district.

“I think it makes perfect sense to have this place where creativity is celebrated as the entrance way and gateway,” she says.

The Union’s received grants from the Weitz Family Foundation and the Omaha Venture Group and will apply for funds to help underwrite programs and building makeovers.

Collaboration will be key. Last summer the Union partnered with Catholic Charities of Omaha on a kids art program at the Christ Child Center. It joined the Bellows Studio in bringing artist Lavie Raven here. Through Dec. 11 Birdhouse Interior Design and Birdhouse Collective is staging a Home exhibition at the Bancroft Street Market as a Union fundraiser. Early next year Union is collaborating with Peerless Gallery and Worksite on an art-in.

Until its own buildings are completely renovated some Union programming will occur off-site.

McQueen’s convinced the arts can make a difference in spurring North O’s renaissance.

“I want to make an impact. I want to change lives. It’s all about creating this cyclical process where The Union is supporting the arts and artists, the artists are encouraged to support the community and then hopefully the community feels a stronger connection and therefore wants to be more supportive of the arts.”

Up to six artists will begin using the former St. Martin de Porres space in January. A January community clean-up to get the building ready will be announced soon. Applications for the Studio Fellowship slots will be taken starting Dec. 16. Artists working in any contemporary art form are eligible to apply.

For application details and to follow Union developments visit http://www.u-ca.org.

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