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Peter Buffett completes circle of life furthering Kent Bellows legacy

July 21, 2012 4 comments

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

 

 

 

 

Peter Buffett completes circle of life furthering Kent Bellows legacy 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Peter Buffett with children in Liberia

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young artist steps out of the shadows of towering presence in his life

September 3, 2011 3 comments

Legacy is a powerful thing, and when the shadow cast by a an older, highly accomplished figure looms large it can be a paralyzing specter of expectation to live up to for a young person following in those footsteps. In the case of the late celebrated realist figurative artist Kent Bellows, his larger-than-life presence in life and in death has not stymied the emergence of his talented nephew, Neil Griess, who is very much charting his own path as an artist to be watched. The following piece I did on Griess for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared three years ago, fast on the heels of Griess, then a high school senior, winning the same national award his uncle Kent Bellows had won 40 years earlier. Now, Griess is a college senior at the University of Nebraska, where he’s a studio art major, and is once again making waves with his work. Griess, who like his uncle did creates elaborate sets for his hyper-realistic paintings, had a work selected for a show at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha in early 2011 and another of his works has been selected for a new show, The Fascinators, the inaugural Charlotte Street Biennial of Regional BFA/MFA Candidates at La Esquina in Kansas City, Mo. You can read a short piece I did about Neil’s famous uncle, Kent Bellows, on this blog.

 

 


©Neil Griess, “Site Measure” (2010), oil on panel

 

 

Young artist steps out of the shadows of towering presence in his life

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

If 18-year-old award-winning visual artist Neil Griess of Omaha feels pressure to live up to the legacy of his maternal uncle Kent Bellows, he doesn’t betray it. Work by Bellows, the late American master of figurative realism, is in major private/public art collections. We’re talking the Metropolitan Museum of Art here.

In 2005 Bellows died at age 56 of natural causes in his Leavenworth Street studio/home, now preserved by the Bellows Foundation as an education center. The Omaha iconoclast was a player in New York art circles via his association with the Tatistcheff and Forum galleries. His paintings/drawings sold out wherever they exhibited. Interest in his work continues high.

A May Westside High School grad, Griess has far to go to reach such status, but perhaps not as far as you’d think. With his parents Jim and Robin Griess and his Westside art teacher Shawn Blevins on hand at New York City’s Carnegie Hall on June 15, Griess accepted the Portfolio Gold Honor in the national Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which included a $10,000 cash prize. Griess, one of 12 Portfolio Gold winners from around the nation, trod onto the hallowed stage to accept the award. The presenter draped a large gold medal over him as the full, black tie-attired house applauded.

Forty years earlier Bellows won in the same competition. Other name artists have won, too, including Richard Avedon and Andy Warhol. The recognition brought Bellows scholarship opportunities at prestigious art schools. Griess too has been deluged with offers. Bellows studied at then-Omaha University. Starting in the fall, Griess will study at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln under realist painter Keith Jacobshagen, a friend of Bellows.

What makes the prospect of Griess’s future development alluring is that he works in the same style as Bellows did — meticulous realism. Their dense work renders persons, objects, settings in such rigorous detail that it draws viewers into an infinite space invested with meaning. With almost any Bellows, Griess said, “it feels like you can get lost in it.” Even up close, he said, “you can’t really derive how he did it.” The technique and the process are as invisible and ineffable as Bellows was enigmatic.

Griess said he’s always been drawn to realism. “Yeah, I always thought realistic work is the direction I would want to go if I continued art,” he said. He can’t exactly pinpoint why. “I don’t know. It’s interesting,” he said, “because you’re not trying to reproduce this object or this person…but more capturing it, I suppose, in a specific moment, a specific point in time.” Or as Bellows once put it in an interview, the goal is to capture what’s beyond the photograph to “what is actually happening…to capture the subject’s soul…the subject’s inner life.”

“And that’s something I wanted to try to do with the eight paintings for my portfolio,” Griess said. “I think if something’s rendered so fully and to its ultimate height, it feels like you can enter the work and like feel that draped cloth in a piece,” he said, referring to a Bellows print on the wall of his home, the image’s tactile realism begging to be touched.

 

 

 

Naturally, Griess aspires to reach the mastery of Bellows, but by no means does he intend to be an imitator.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve tried to emulate him, although in certain instances I was when I was like really young, drawing based off some of the nudes he had done,” a smiling, nearly blushing Griess said, wiping his soft brown bangs from his face.

He’d especially like for his work to attain the openendedness that Bellows captured. In a Bellows work no single prescribed meaning is imposed on the viewer; rather the image invites viewers to glean their own meanings.

“That’s a quality I want to develop myself,” Griess said.

The process Griess uses to create his own work, much of it completed in a small, well-lit downstairs home work space he calls “thrown together” but that is neatly arrayed with brushes, pencils, acrylic paint tubes, is in the vein of photo-realism. He first photographs his subjects and with the resulting image as a guide he uses a pencil to map out the canvas before painting.

“I always paint based off pictures (photographs),” Griess said. “I grid everything out. I take that approach. Laying out a painting you still need to draw. It’s an important skill for getting things right when you finally start painting.”

The artist applies a clear plastic grid over a printed out photo of his subject and with a pencil divides the surface into squares running the length and width of the image. He transfers his grid to a board, which is what he paints on these days. He begins by drawing the major shapes or forms contained in each square onto the board before applying brush to paint and brush strokes to board.

“I pretty much just figure out where one square in the picture would be on the board and then from that one square I go to the next one” and so on, he said. “I add the smaller details later.”

Griess shares many predilections his late uncle indulged, including a love of film, a fascination with the fantastic, a passion for creating elaborate sets or backdrops for his work, although to date Griess has only employed sets to stop motion animation, and an interest in action figures and miniatures. Then there’s the fact Griess is left-handed, just as Bellows was.

“A lot of things line up like that,” Griess said. “Because I know he’s done all this great work it’s kind of like me now trying to discover what things I’m interested in beyond his work…to decide what I’ll ultimately be doing in my art. Of course this is an influence I’ll always keep while doing it.”

 

©Neil Griess, “Untitled” oil painting

 

 

The art strain runs deep, as Griess’s maternal grandfather was a commercial artist and watercolorist, his mother is a watercolorist, one brother is a ceramicist/sculptor and another brother writes computer video game programs. “So I come from a long lineage of artists or creative thinkers,” Griess said.

Growing up, Griess was exposed to dozens of Bellows prints that adorn the walls of the family home. One of the nephew’s favorites, Nuclear Winter, is displayed in his bedroom. He felt drawn to Bellows as any adolescent would to a cool adult doing his own thing. “I admired him so much. He was probably the most charismatic, funny, interesting person that I know or probably will know,” Griess said.

The parallels between the two were obvious two weekends ago in New York City. It was the kid’s first time in the Big Apple, where in a whirlwind few days his path intersected with the path Bellows took in setting the art world on fire.

Just as Bellows attracted notice beyond his years, once cultivating Warren Buffett and his late first wife Susan Buffett as patrons, Griess, too, found himself the center of attention from older admirers at a post-awards dinner. The scene was the ritzy Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. There were congratulations, even autograph requests. “I got some very great compliments,” Griess said. Among the well-wishers was New York thespian Jason Butler Harner, who hosted the awards.

“He seemed very enthusiastic and impressed by my work, so that was great,” Griess said of Harner. “One of the guys that asked for my autograph said everyone was kind of talking about my work specifically, and that was nice. One woman actually came up to me and said my work brought tears to her eyes because of how young I am and I’m able to produce work like that.”

The plaudits began the night before, at Reeves Contemporary gallery in Chelsea, where selections of work by Griess and other Portfolio gold winners were shown. It was then, Griess said, that Alliance for Young Artists & Writers Chairman Dwight E. Lee “told me how much he loved my work.” At dinner the next night, Griess said,  “he gave me his card and said if I should ever want to sell art work I should contact him.” Westside teachers and others have expressed interest in buying Neil’s work.

“I’m actually selling paintings this summer,” Griess said. “I’ve sold one already, so I’m starting to learn how it feels to part with something.”

As if that wasn’t enough, the June 14 issue of USA Today reproduced one of his paintings to illustrate a Life Section story on the awards. “The one picture they chose was mine — my painting Pool Boy,” Griess said. “That was a really nice surprise. My dad ran up and down the floors in the hotel acquiring more” copies.

Pool Boy is one of many self-portraits and portraits Griess has executed. Portraiture was a favorite form for Bellows as well. One difference is that while Bellows was known for a dark, brooding nature that made him look severe if not downright scary, Griess has a sweet face and demeanor. That’s not to say there wasn’t whimsy in Bellows or his work or that Griess and his art is all peaches and cream.

The award, the praise, the contacts, Griess said, “are obviously great exposure for me and a great thing I can put on the resume. I would say it’s probably the best recognition I could have received operating within a high school.”

Griess submitted eight works to the Scholastic competition but gave little thought to winning, as he photographed his entrees himself and the images he submitted were less than flattering to the works themselves.

“Because of the fact I did not have great pictures of these paintings I submitted, I kind of dismissed the idea that anything would happen with this,” he said. “But then I got the call (saying he’d won) and I couldn’t really believe it for a good amount of time. I was basically sitting at home on a Friday night when I got this call out of the blue. I was pretty unprepared…Surprisingly. I think I handled it well, although afterwards I was like shaking in disbelief for 15 minutes.”

The artist created his winning series for Westside’s Advanced Portfolio class, which he said allows student artists rare autonomy in finding their vision-voice.

“Not many high school classes give you that much freedom in developing your own line of thinking for a series of paintings…I think it kind of helped me develop my own thinking for how I want to approach my art,” he said. “In the typical class you kind of just think in terms of the assignment and what they’re expecting you to see as the outcome, not how you would best display your own ideas or get your own point across.”

Griess hit upon the theme of high contrast at night, playing with different light sources. Some of the inspiration for what’s depicted in the work, he said, comes from Russian fairy tales — “I’ve always been interested in fairy tales” — and some of it comes from what was going on in his life at the time. His girlfriend, Erica, a film studies major at Northwestern University, is the subject of more than one work. She’s a casual portrait study in a piece called “Home Again” and her absence informs another piece in which an anxious Griess cowers on his front porch, alone at night, a doll seen inside a window providing no solace.

“With some of my paintings I first kind of get like this mental image and then when I’m painting it, even weeks after, I start to think about why I needed to do that or what was the significance of it,” he said.

 

©Kent Bellows’s self-portraits

 

 

Just as Bellows sought out great art in his travels, Griess spent his weekend in New York soaking up treasures at the Met. He and his folks also made special visits there and to the Forum gallery to see Bellows’ work in each venue. The splendor of it all, Griess said, “made me want to go back home and start working again.”

Griess didn’t need all the hype to feel an artistic kinship to his uncle. He just wished Bellows could have been there. “I was probably more wishing he could have been involved in this with me and seen the work I did to win this award,” he said. He regrets too never discussing their shared sweet affliction. “I was a shy kid and probably still am. I wouldn’t have necessarily been ready to talk with him about art or these other interests we shared,” Griess said. “Now I would say I would definitely be ready to talk to him about things.”

It’s probably unfair to say Griess lived in the shadow of Bellows, but Bellows was a giant among artists and a looming presence in the life of the the sensitive young artist-nephew. A legacy he could not escape. Griess wasn’t necessarily a slacker before Bellows’ death, but then again he acknowledges he didn’t exactly apply himself to his art. When Bellows passed, Griess suddenly got busy, approaching his own art with a greater sense of urgency.

“After his death is when I really started to get serious about drawing and painting and that’s when I started to do better things and win awards,” Griess said. “I realized he would no longer be there to kind of give me advice or look at what I’m doing, so in some strange way that pushed me, It was kind of a way to deal with it. I mean, also I realized I need to be doing this for myself, too.”

Rebecca Herskovitz forges an art family at Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts

October 13, 2010 3 comments

I did this story a couple years ago for the Jewish Press about Rebecca Herskovitz and her work as education coordinator at the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts in Omaha.  She’s no longer with that organization but she’s still very much a part of the Omaha art scene, and the studio center where she did work is in the news because it recently had its grand opening and because work by its namesake, the late great American realist visual artist, Kent Bellows, is featured in an exhibition this fall at the Joslyn Art Museum.  Check out my other articles about Bellows, his legacy, and the studio center on this blog site.

 

 

 

 

 

Rebecca Herskovitz forges an art family at Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

If the art world has missionaries than Rebecca Herskovitz has found her calling as an art educator helping young people explore their creative potential.

She doesn’t look much older than the kids she works with at the new Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts, 3303 Leavenworth St., where she’s education coordinator. She came to Omaha from San Francisco a year ago to fill the post and after months of planning she launched the center’s first after school classes in early September with 21 students.

Two 16-week semesters are offered per year.

The education program matches students from metro area high schools with professional working artists in classic apprentice-style mentoring relationships.

The center, whose classes are being held at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in the Old Market until the center’s permanent home undergoes renovation, is named after the late Omaha realist Kent Bellows. The noted Bellows, the subject of a future Joslyn Art Museum retrospective, was well-known for supporting young artists. His studio space on Leavenworth serves as the administrative base for the Kent Bellows Foundation and mentorship program.

Omaha native Anne Meysenburg, a University of Nebraska at Omaha grad, is executive director of the Bellows foundation and the Studio/Center for Visual Arts.

The studio where the iconoclastic Bellows lived and worked will eventually host classes and gallery shows once the interior is renovated. Largely preserved the way the artist left it, the studio will also be an archive for scholars. For now, field trips bring the kids on site to the Bellows space,. Everything from his eclectic personal belongings to elaborate backdrops he made to sayings he scribbled on walls adorn the converted storefront studio. It’s sacred ground for communion/inspiration.

“You feel like this is a place where something very special has been happening,” Herskovitz said there recently, “and to emulate that place of creativity and to be inhabiting it is absolutely contagious. It will be exciting to teach classes upstairs where those installations are and where the shrine that Kent made is. You can just feel it’s a place where magic was taking place. For kids to walk in there every day will be an enchanting thing. I’m very excited about that.”

Meanwhile, Miss Becca, as she calls herself, leads her young charges in the bowels of the Bemis building at 724 So. 10th St. The basement’s formerly blank walls and exposed pipes-vents have been transformed into dynamic spaces for hanging art made by students and their mentors. She encourages students to make the environment their own  — a living, evolving expression of themselves.

“I want them to take ownership over those spaces and I believe in the art space becoming to a certain extent an art piece itself over time. You just want a space that feels alive.”

With just the right amount of evangelical zeal, Herskovitz is the Pied Piper for this new arts program whose mission is to live up to the standards of its legendary namesake and his fierce creative independence. An independent thinker herself, the Bellows position allows her to design programs from scratch that give students outside-the-box opportunities for artistic growth.

“I think I was ready to do something a little bit different — that allowed me to write my own curriculum,” said Herskovitz, who was teaching visual art at a special ed school in San Mateo, Calif. and making her own art before arriving in Omaha.

“When I’m making art and when I’m teaching it’s kind of the same feeling. It’s the feeling of when you have a calling — when everything else kind of fades away and you feel excited and don’t want to think about anything else, almost to the extent where you forget to think about other things and two hours pass and you realize you haven’t moved from the same position.”

Prior to San Francisco, the Newton, Mass. native taught art at a public high school (in Worcester) while earning her master’s in education. When she read about the Bellows opportunity she knew it was the right niche for her.

“I really gravitated towards the mission, which is so linked to creativity, and that really fit with my own teaching philosophy,” she said. “And then I just really loved the idea of a new arts organization just getting started. It’s a really special thing to be part of making a place that you would have wanted to be in when you were in high school. I wish there had been a program like this for students interested in the visual arts. And as a teacher I wish I had been in an area where there was a program like this for me to recommend my students to.”

She said breaking away from the prescribed confines of public school educational approaches is what the Bellows project is all about. It’s liberating for Herskovitz and her students to not be driven by the kind of test score mentality and conventional thinking that she said results in “very limiting” curriculum in the public schools. Instead of “putting up obstacles to people having innovative thought,” she said, the Bellows model Is “founded on the idea of finding and nurturing those individual creative sparks in young people.”

Unlike a public school setting, where she said kids are apt to “get lost” in large classes, the small Bellows program ensures “individual attention.” “The student-teacher ratio is extremely close and that’s vital. That’s what’s going to allow us to give something to different to kids than what they can normally receive.”

The task of selling this new program to high school art teachers, who’ve become her best recruiters, proved difficult at first. Herskovitz received few replies to an e-mail she sent teachers over the summer announcing the program. She finally got the captive audience she craved when invited to make a presentation to teachers during an OPS professional development day.

“It took a little while to explain what we’re doing and it took teachers a little while to realize this is something really new and really different,” she said.

Before long, she was invited to classrooms to make her pitch directly to students, who she said quickly recognized the program’s benefits. More than 50 applied. She was prepared to start the program with 12, but, she said, “we had so many fantastic applicants that we’re above and beyond that with 21 kids.” A whole new class was conceived to accommodate the larger than expected numbers.

As anticipated, a large number of students are from Omaha Central, whose downtown location is mere blocks from both the Bemis and the Bellows studio. Other schools represented include Bryan, Burke, Westside, Duchesne and Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln. She feels students will come from a wider geographic area once the program offers transportation.

A goal for a diverse student mix has been met.

“We wanted our program’s demographics to look like OPS’ demographics and we match up perfectly with that,” she said. “My vision of a really healthy classroom is one where there is a lot of heterogeneity of all things — in terms of learning styles, ethnicities, ages and the neighborhoods they come from.”

What does she look for in prospective students?

“We’re just looking for a creative energy and kind of a passion for trying new things and wanting to have a role in their own education. We’re not looking for past experience. We’re not looking for some particular skill-set.”

The selection process involves an essay and an interview. She makes a point of meeting applicants’ parents or guardians.

“I think parent support is a huge deal.”

She encourages parents to visit the site “to know where they’re kids are going to be hanging out.”

Herskovitz enjoys being on the ground floor of something different and she senses students and parents do, too.

“I think it’s a completely new take on arts education,” she said. “This is a place where you get to feel safe. This is your creative family, your artistic community. We’re continuing what Kent showed all of us — this very powerful form of teaching, which is the mentoring relationship. I hope our mentors push students to find their own footsteps.”

She believes the mentoring component is what distinguishes the Bellows program from other enrichment programs.

“It’s a program that takes place after school but it’s not a typical after school program,” she said. “Students are having the opportunity to work with professional artists in very close ratios one-on-one, where the emphasis in really on creative thinking and problem solving, and I think that focus is really different from a lot of other programs.

“I think the most powerful learning experiences happen when you’re able to have a mentor who stays with you and I think what allows teenagers to really open up is knowing that adult is going to be with them for as long as they want them to be. And our program is built so we can continue those relationships for as long as the student wants to be there participating in it.”

The art educator spent a fair share of her time in Omaha the past year steeping herself in the local art scene, casting her eye for potential mentors among the area’s deep pool of working artists. Her first crop of mentors represents a cross-section of Omaha’s best and brightest. There’s Mexico native Claudia Alvarez, a ceramicist, longtime art instructor and former Bemis resident artist. There’s Omaha native Bill Hoover, a painter, writer and musician who also works with kids at Liberty Elementary School. There’s Jeff King, a graffiti, street-inspired painter whose work incorporates text. King conducts art workshops with kids at Norris Junior High. And there’s painter Caolan O’Loughlin, an Irish emigre who’s done curatorial-consulting work for the Bellows and who has a teaching background.

Herskovitz completes the Bellows mentoring staff. Guest artists also make presentations-demonstrations. Bemis curator Hesse McGraw contributes to some classes. Herskovitz has students utilize the Bemis as a kind of living laboratory and resource center by studying-critiquing the art displayed in its galleries, poring over books in the well-stocked art library and visiting resident artists’ studios.

“The Bemis has been very generous,” she said in making its facilities available.

It may be a temporary home, but the Bemis couldn’t be a better fit. “It just matches up so well with our mission,” she said. “I can’t imagine a better set-up than to have art students immersed in a contemporary arts center where professional international artists are living and working.”

Even when the Bellows studio is in use she foresees the Bemis continuing to play a role in the program. It adds another layer of experience and can help the program accommodate more students in the future.

The historic Old Market and its rich social-cultural milieu becomes another venue for art stimuli. Mentors also bring students to their own studios and to the studios of other artists throughout the city and they make gallery visits together.

Herskovitz said she and her fellow mentors seek to deconstruct assumptions about education by finding teachable moments in all kinds of situations or settings.

“I think there’s a huge myth that you can’t teach art and I think it’s because of the way people think about teaching. They think of it as training or instilling this knowledge when really it’s more about facilitating thinking.”

What she’s in the process of trying to build is an environment where “young people become a learning community and bounce ideas off one another,” she said. “There’s a way to do that and with my curriculum that’s what we’re aiming to do. It’s structured within that to meet the individual needs of students.”

Sometimes, students work with mentors in workshop fashion on specific techniques or tasks, she said, and other times they break off to work on their own individual projects. Teachers move around the room, sharing observations and comments with students. Whenever possible, students interact with one another.

“Equal to what you see is what I hope you feel — that this is a place where these students feel really comfortable and can be themselves,” she said. “My goal is to create an art learning family. This is their chance, if they want to be someone different than they are in school, to be different when they’re here. If they need a different type of learning environment I hope this can provide that for them.”

She’s devised a sequence of programs/classes to engage students of varying abilities and interests.

“The artist-in-residence program is for older kids who are more advanced and are really ready to have more independent studio time and to meet one-on-one with a professional mentor. The studio thesis class is meant for 9th and 10th graders who feel themselves being pulled by the arts and are still kind of finding their voice. That’s more of a small group setting where kids can talk to each other and mentor each other along with the teacher.”

The gallery internship program provides students opportunities for organizing-curating-marketing student-mentor exhibitions. The program’s first exhibit, Versa Vice: Reflections of an Underground Society, opens Friday, Dec. 19 at the Bemis Underground. This showcase will reflect the work students have been making in class and the collaborative projects they’ve participated in with fellow students and mentors.

Ideally, Herskovitz said students will participate in several if not all of the program’s classes, progressing from beginner to advanced sessions, along the way getting exposed to different mentors and their varied philosophies, techniques, styles.

Although she didn’t have anything like the Bellows program in her upbringing, Herskovitz had her art-loving family.

“Both of my grandparents on my dad’s side were very involved in the arts community. Growing up I would be set free to make art projects,” she said.

It was in high school her own passion for art bloomed and that’s one reason why she enjoys working with that age group. “I got very involved and inspired. I just couldn’t stop doing it.” Her dual passion for teaching began about the same time when she taught in an after school program.

She said even though her therapist parents, younger brother and extended family “don’t always understand my art, they have been so supportive. I feel really lucky for that.”

Before accepting the Bellows job Herskovitz researched Omaha’s arts community and she came away impressed. Now that she’s here carrying the banner for an arts organization bearing the name of an Omaha art icon she has an even deeper appreciation for things.

“Now being part of it it’s really wonderful to know these different organizations and different figures. I think maybe because of Omaha’s size you really can know people in the arts community and you really can make relationships. In San Francisco that was much harder. There wasn’t that sense of a supportive community. It was still kind of strangers operating in their own spheres.”

Omaha’s small-town-in-the-big-city character is just what Herskovitz has been searching for in forming an art family away from home.

“I love being here.”

Applications and inquiries may be made by calling 707-3979 or emailing Rebecca@kentbellows.org. Check out the web site at www.kentbellows.org.

Kent Bellows Legacy Lives On

October 13, 2010 1 comment

The following article appeared a few years ago in The Reader (www.thereader.com) announcing plans for the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts named in honor of the late great American realist visual artist. That artist’s work is the focus of a current exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, where Bellows made his home, and the studio center where Bellows created many of his pieces is now open to the public.  As my article mentions, Bellows was known for his generosity towards young people with a passion for art, and the studio center pays forward the encouragement he provided young people by offering a mentoring program for high school students with a penchant for making art or pursuing art studies.  Students are paired off with professional working artists in mentoring relationships that give young people an intimate, real-life experience in the art world.  Students and their mentors collaborate on some projects and students work independently on others, and now that the studio center is complete, this creative community expresses itself in the very digs where Bellows himself worked and mentored.  See more of my stories related to Bellows and the studio center on this blog site.

 

 

Kent Bellows Legacy Lives On

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

When renowned Omaha visual artist Kent Bellows died suddenly in 2005, his family didn’t know what to do with his studio, where remnants of his career and life were everywhere.

The studio was stuffed with his life: eclectic stashes of books and CDs, mosaics of cut-out images, wall scribbling, monster figures, art supplies and his signature parka hanging on a hook. After Bellows living and working there 16 years, the two-story studio, at 33rd and Leavenworth streets, became a multi-planed art piece in itself. It’s survived as tableaux of his stilled creativity, not unlike one of the wall sets he built for his hyper-realistic work.

Bellows’ family knew the circa-1915 brick building contained artifacts that should be preserved, not packed away or thrown out. The site, which used to be the Mermaid Lounge, was imbued with the legacy of someone who encouraged others, especially young visual artists and musicians. Family and friends deliberated how best to honor his memory.

Griess, her sister Debra Wesselmann and other Bellows family members formed The Kent Bellows Foundation in 2007 and envisioned the nonprofit as an arts education haven with a strong mentoring component. It will serve area youths, ages 14 to 18, grades 9 through 12, with artist-in-residence, studio thesis and gallery internship programs/classes. Board members include artist Keith Jacobshagen, designer Cedric Hartman, art educator Dan Siedell and composer Peter Buffett. Now, after two years of planning, the Leavenworth studio is due to become the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts. The Kent Bellows Foundation announced plans for the new arts organization on-site at a recent open house attended by friends of the late artist. If enough support is found, site renovations could begin this summer and the center could open by early 2009.

“We couldn’t make any rash decisions about it, it was just too important,” said his sister Robin Griess. “So fortunately we hesitated.”

$725,000 in renovations are needed to fix a leaky roof, replace mold-infested walls, make the structure handicap accessible, add a museum-grade HVAC system and construct multi-use gallery, studio, classroom and office spaces. The foundation is looking for public and private donors to help.

Working visual artists will act as mentors, offering students real life lessons on being a professional artist (did someone say this?) and helping them learn to create a studio space, network and market, build a portfolio and deal with galleries.

A close student-mentor ratio will ensure highly individualized instruction (who said this?). Bellows Education Coordinator Rebecca Herskovitz wants to create a comfortable, nurturing environment, she said, where students can be themselves and take ownership over these spaces.

“My goal is to create an art learning family,” Herskovitz said.

The Foundation has broad goals. Partnerships with local arts organizations will provide students more educational opportunities. Lesson plans and resources will be made available to art educators. A scholarship and stipend fund will assist students electing to study art in college.

“It’s a completely new take on arts education,” said Bellows Executive Director Anne Meysenburg.

Early on, the family determined art education as the focus. The specific mentoring mission evolved with input by Bluestem Interactive strategic planners. (We need some attribution in this paragraph, too. Who said these things?)

“When the mentorship idea came to us it made such sense because that’s who Kent was and to mesh that with his legacy and with this inspiring space was just the perfect idea,” Griess said. “We always kept in mind, ‘What would Kent want?'”

She said Bellows was “this wonderful big brother” to not only her and her sister but to many others.

“Whatever your thing was he would just celebrate it,” she said.

When he did break from his meticulous work, Griess said, the studio was a vibrant spot where he showed pieces, discussed ideas and jammed with musicians. Creativity was always in play. She hopes students can soon tap into the spirit bound there.

“To emulate that place of creativity and to inhabit it is absolutely contagious,” Herskovitz said. “You can just feel it’s a place where magic was happening. For kids to walk in there every day will be an enchanting thing.”

Randy Brown Architects’ design will alter and open up the studio, though portions will be preserved as Bellows left them; notably the south rear space where his easel still stands and his hand-sharpened pencils lay ready. The upper floor is home to undisturbed set pieces and backdrops. These expressions of Bellows will be conserved, pending funds, by the Ford Conservation Center in Omaha. (Who said this?)

“The ultimate goal,” Meysenburg said, “is to inspire and to ignite the creative spark in the artistic youth of this community.”

The job of documenting Bellows’ prolific original works continues. Researchers are working to create a comprehensive catalogue raisonne of Bellows’ work as Joslyn Art Museum prepares a fall 2009 Bellows retrospective.

Griess called the search a treasure hunt: some previously undiscovered works have turned up, and other notable pieces are still missing in action.

It’s all part of ensuring the Bellows legacy.

“We feel a heavy responsibility about doing this right,” Wesselmann said.

Mentoring programs start this September in yet-to-be-named art facilities, and the foundation has some potential site leads. The foundation is currently recruiting students and staff for its first 16-week semester.

Kent Bellows: Soul in Motion

September 21, 2010 2 comments

The instruments of an artist

Image by sara.musico via Flickr

Opening this weekend at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha is a major exhibition of work by the late master American realist artist Kent Bellows, whose exacting drawings so deeply penetrate their subjects that they move beyond the documentation afforded by photography to capture another level of expressiveness. My rather short story for Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) isn’t so much about his art as it is about the pains that went into organizing the exhibition, the largest single showing of his work ever assembled.  The Bellows name may be new to you, but once you see his work you will recognize his genius and if you do any reading or research about the artist you will soon discover that he was widely respected in the art world.  His work almost literally sold right off his easel, which meant it ended up in the hands of dozens of collectors all over country, even all over the world, a prime reason why it took some doing to get together a representative selection of his work for the show.

To view his work and to learn more about this artist, visit http://www.kentbellows.com.  I will be posting other stories related to Bellows, including stories about the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts (www.kentbellows.org) that his family and friends launched in his honor.


 

 

 

 

Kent Bellows:  Soul in Motion

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

 

When American realist artist Kent Bellows died in 2005, friends and family wanted his legacy to achieve wider recognition through a major exhibition and catalogue.

Born in Blair, Neb., Bellows made Omaha his residence and artistic home. He remained here even though his work sold well through such New York galleries as Forum and his pieces were acquired by such prestigious bodies as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Only 56 at the time of his death, the prolific artist created a body of work that proved daunting to index. Start with the fact he left behind shoddy records. Galleries representing him keep equally sparse files. Most Bellows work is in closely-held, rarely seen private collections scattered about the U.S.

A five-year journey to locate, document and catalog the work is resulting in the largest Bellows exhibition to date. Opening September 25 at Joslyn Art Museum, Beyond Realism, The Works of Kent Bellows 1970-2005, will feature more than 70 of his precisely rendered, emotionally penetrating paintings, drawings and prints.  The pieces are drawn from some 25 collections. The exhibit continues through January 16, 2011.

A companion catalogue reproduces the exhibit works, plus many others. The show and book offer an unprecedented look at the Bellows oeuvre. “Nobody has ever seen that many pieces of Kent’s brought together at one time,” said Debra Wesselmann, a sister. Another sister, Robin Griess, described the scope of it all as mind-boggling. “You look at his body of work,” she said, “and it’s like many lives of art. Just so many blood-sweat-and-tears pieces, so meticulously done, so passionately done. And you think, How did this guy do it? Obviously he had to dedicate great periods of time to his work.”

Archiving it all led to many discoveries, including some remarkable things we didn’t even know existed — studies and things he did for people, said Griess. “It’s a little like hunting for treasure.” The two sisters have led this painstaking, time-intensive process. In many cases a piece’s title, date or medium varied from artist to gallery to collector. Crosschecking and verifying details is the only way to ensure accuracy.

“We feel a heavy responsibility for getting it right,” said Griess, who knows the data will guide future art historians. “We tried to do it as carefully as possible.” It meant adhering to strict procedures and collaborating with curators, gallery owners, collectors and friends of Bellows. In the end, she said, “we feel good about what we’ve done.”

Exhibit guest curator and catalogue editor, Molly Hutton of Buffalo, New York, said in an e-mail she believes the projects “will serve to establish Bellows as a key figure within the history of realist practice in this country,” adding, “He was on the verge of such recognition at the time of his death, so this in-depth presentation of his work should only fuel interest in the further study of his artmaking.”

“We’re absolutely thrilled to get it (the work) out there to the public,” said Griess. “It’s work that’s awe-inspiring. You want to take it in and see it again. They’re like pieces of literature, you can get so much from it. One of the most thrilling things for us is that this community will be seeing a lot of Kent’s work for the first time and they will be amazed that an artist of his ability lived right here in their own backyard.”

The goal of bringing Bellows more into the mainstream of public consciousness is being realized with a confluence of events this fall. Coinciding with the exhibit will be the grand opening of the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts. This combination mentoring project, studio space and gallery is housed in the nearly century old brick “Mahler” building, 3303 Leavenworth St., where the artist lived and worked the last several years of his life.

Upon the artist’s passing, family and friends formed the Kent Bellows Foundation, which soon launched the Bellows Studio-Center, an immersion space where young people passionate to make a life in art are mentored by professional artists. Its mantra, “igniting the creative spark,” is a homage to the influence Bellows had as a mentor to emerging artists.

Omaha native and Bellows Foundation board member Peter Buffett credits Bellows with encouraging his music. Photographer Patrick Drickey, a classmate of Bellows at Burke High, said, “Kent was my friend and counselor. He inspired me to achieve success in my field by teaching me the language of the visual arts — composition and light. Elements of what I learned from him remain as the cornerstone of my work today.” Drickey photographed most of Bellows’ work from 1970 on. Since 2008 renovations to the old Bellows studio have been underway.

Meanwhile, the mentoring project has operated out of the Bemis Underground, an apt place given that Bellows did a residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Students and mentors will move into “The Bellows” in time for its official opening. Parts of his old studio are intact, including his main work space on the ground floor and elaborate sets he built into the walls on the second floor.

Executive director Anne Meysenburg said visitors to the center can glimpse artifacts of Bellows’ inner world during the exhibit’s run: “We will be open every Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., during the month of October with the intention that people can attend Beyond Realism at Joslyn and then come over to see the work-and-live space of the artist.” The center plans a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony, a community open house and a celebration for friends and stakeholders.

“The goal is to get as many people in the building as possible to witness the entire legacy of creative process that has been facilitated on Leavenworth,” said Meysenburg. “Kent left an amazing legacy we get to live and breath every day. His talent and desire to help other artists develop brought us to where we are. We are truly excited to share his talent and desire to mentor with the community. ”

Griess feels the center and exhibit will complement each other: “How many times do you get the opportunity to see an artist’s work and then to go right over to see where he completed that work, where he lived his dreams out, and where he was inspired?” The Joslyn plans classes and workshops on Bellows, his artwork and techniques.

Anything that fleshes out the Bellows story is welcomed by Hutton, whose interest in the artist began in 2004. “It has been incredibly gratifying and illuminating to have the opportunity to meet so many of Bellows’ close friends and family members and collectors of his works,” she said. “I’ve gained new insight into his rigorous working methods and routines, his feelings about being an artist in a competitive contemporary art market, his utter devotion to his family…and place, which kept him in Omaha instead of migrating to New York, as his gallery would have liked.”

All of it informs her catalogue essay and any future writing she does about Bellows. “I’ve come to appreciate how beloved he was in his community and what an infectious personality he possessed, a situation that necessitated he become more reclusive as his career surged, so that he could have the time to work.”

Joslyn Deputy Director of Collections and Programs Anne El-Omami said, “The museum has been astounded by the response from collectors of Kent’s work. Not only did they collect Bellows, but they were great friends of his, and are all committed to ensuring the legacy of this extraordinary artist. Everybody is so passionate, it’s just incredible.”

Hutton says the exhibit and catalogue “should definitely help disseminate the works to a broader audience.” The Bellows bandwagon may just be starting. Plans call for a comprehensive catalogue raisonne featuring the entirety of his life work and a traveling exhibition.

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